‘The great change’: Herbert Dhlomo’s “An Experiment in Colour”
In 1945, the South African writer and journalist Herbert Dhlomo wrote an article in The Democrat where he stated: “Obliged to live as a begging worker in the city and a comparatively free kraal-head in his rural home, the tribal African has a Jekyll-and-Hyde existence”. Ten years before, in 1935, he had published a short story, “An Experiment in Colour”, in which the protagonist changes from black to white (and back) after discovering a miraculous serum, thus acquiring a double identity very much like Jekyll’s – and similarly socially destructive. The short story is challenging: as a cultural ‘product’ of two prominent South African missionary institutions (American Board Mission and Glasgow Missionary Society), Dhlomo had imbibed the project of a thorough reformation of the ‘Bantu’ man – that ‘great change’, both in the private and in the social sphere, that only Christianity could put in motion. And yet, from the very beginning of his literary production, Dhlomo has responded to the missionary project in an ambivalent way. ‘An Experiment in Colour’ is both a dystopic literary response to contradictory social pressures, and a disquieting narrative that denounces alarming social problems.
Keywords: South Africa. Early 20th century. Mission literature. H.I.E. Dhlomo. Short story.Submitted: March 13, 2019