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Why did I go snooping around the vogue digital archive in my school’s library? In my research on Tutuola, I kept coming across references to a Vogue mention of Tutuola’s novel, The Palmwine Drinkard, so I decided to check it out.

It sounded cool that in 1953, before Achebe published his novel that allegedly invented the African novel, Tutuola’s work was already getting such a global play. So I went in search of the Vogue piece on Tutuola’s debut novel to see  how significant it was and how Vogue attempted to sell Tutuola to their largely female audience. As it turned out, the Tutuola reference did not amount to much. It was not even a review. It was nothing—just one sentence in some random segment of the magazine. But I got curious. I dug deeper. I had access to a Vogue archive that went as far as 1892, why not search to see what has been written about Africa and writing in Vogue? That’s how I found this.

It’s supposed to be a funny sketch. A bookseller in South Africa sends a letter to a London publisher asking to buy etiquette books. The book order was placed on behalf of an African reader described as a “kaffir as black as the ace of spades.” Etiquette books a.k.a. “manual on politeness” were popular in the 19th century and were used to teach women the rules of social conduct. But the writer of the sketch  finds the idea of Africans interested in English social etiquette a ridiculous joke.

I can take a joke. I know it’s supposed to be funny. I’ve read everything from Herodotus to Conrad. I know the weird archive of weird stuff that’s been written about Africa and Africans in the western literary tradition. But it’s always still surprises and weirds me out to encounter these documents, to see the form in which Africa circulated as something other—either as a dark scary continent or an object of jest and laughter.



Vogue, Jul 16, 1896

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

5 Responses to “Racist Passage From An 1896 Issue of Vogue Magazine” Subscribe

  1. Samuel Okopi December 23, 2013 at 11:20 pm #

    Interesting journey into the thinking and aesthetics of those times (it was fun reading and looking at the adverts, too.)

    Sad that another race could be mocked thus.

  2. Khadijah Muhammad December 24, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

    This is the same thing that happened when Flora Coquerel became Miss France.

  3. Ufuoma Ebah December 27, 2013 at 2:43 am #

    …..i don’t see this as racist. It’s simply TRUE. When an antelope attempts to dance like a monkey, it exposes itself to ridicule. When a sparrow attempts to live like the colorful parrot, it reduces itself to a senseless chatterbox. More appalling will it be if it also desires the colors of the parrot.

  4. Isiewu Johnson December 27, 2013 at 7:36 am #

    Mr. Ebah. I agree with the things you speak of. It is really funny to think of a kaffir wanting to buy etiquette books.

  5. Praise the Living Juju December 27, 2013 at 7:39 am #

    I don’t know why but the clip from vogue was really tedious to read. The vogue article is a little bit obtuse. But Ainehi does a great job in summarizing and interpreting this ancient text.

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