"A South African Storm" Lesson
The writer confronts issues of racial prejudice that she encounters in South Africa, years after the abolition there of the official policy of apartheid.
Allison Howard carefully crafted her letter "A South African Storm," including some powerful ideas. Her letter deserves scrutiny both for the way it was written and for the messages it contains. Following are questions designed to facilitate classroom discussion about Allison's technique and her messages.
- At first glance, Allison's letter might seem to be about rain and how we respond to it when we are outside. But there's much deeper meaning concerning race and equality. When Allison wrote her letter, she could have simply related how the white man stopped and invited her into the car. But she carefully established earlier how important it was to her that she be identified as one of the common folk in her community. How did she do this? [The interlude with the Venda women establishes Allison's feelings about being one with her neighbors.]
- What efforts does Allison make to be like her neighbors, and not to be privileged? [She speaks Sotho; she tries to greet everyone she passes; she walks among her neighbors, rather than riding.] What indications are there that she retains some of her American habits? [Her inclination is to run when it rains; she wears a T-shirt; she accepts the ride from the driver.]
- Why do you think Allison chose to include a discussion of how difficult it is for her to distinguish ethnicities by sight, while her black African neighbors and friends can make such distinctions easily? [Students might point out that she is setting up the background for distinguishing types of people by sight—which leads to her being singled out for her whiteness in a way that she ultimately resents.]
- What reasons does Allison give for our habit in the United States of running when it is raining? Find specific reasons in the text. Do you personally run when it is raining outside? Why or why not? If you do usually run to avoid raindrops, are there circumstances in which you might not run? [Answers might include: when dressed in a swimsuit; when dressed in athletic clothes; when already so wet that it doesn't make any difference anymore; when not carrying things that can spoil if they get wet.]
- Why did Allison get into the man's car, against her better judgment? Why did she regret doing so after the fact? Be specific in your answers, finding evidence in her letter to support your answers.
- Allison's letter is a general discourse on her neighbors and the weather until it suddenly turns into a more serious, issue-driven essay. Exactly where does she introduce the troubling aspects of race, and how does she cue the reader? [The simple word "But" is the cue, and Allison uses it strongly by starting the paragraph and changing the whole tone of her letter in one word.]
- Allison writes that she cannot change things, except perhaps in an infinitesimal way. Do you agree that she cannot change things? Do you think she really believes, deep down, that she cannot change things? Provide evidence for your opinions. [Students might observe that if Allison really thought she could not effect change, she would not try. But she appears determined to stick to principle and try to make statements through her actions, hoping that people will notice. Students can cite her examples of walking to get from place to place and her inclination not to accept a ride offered to her because of her race.]
- Allison writes: "I know that if I'm going to make it here for two more years, I need to walk in the rain. It's a small, wasted gesture, but it's an uncorrupted instinct that makes me feel human." Do you think her gesture is "wasted"? Why or why not? Find evidence in the letter, and draw on your own opinions to answer.
- Why do you think Allison titled her letter "A South African Storm"? In discussion, help the students realize that the "storm" represents both rain and racial prejudice. Teachers of writing can use this aspect of Allison's letter to teach foreshadowing and symbolism in literature.
- Ask students to write a carefully constructed letter, in which they begin by addressing one topic, but segue into another, central theme, using some of the techniques they have observed in Allison's letter.
Frameworks & Standards
- Racial prejudice has deep roots and may linger after official policies that condoned it have changed.
- Adapting to another culture requires one not only to speak the language but also to follow some of the simplest local routines.
- What are effective ways of fighting prejudice that is based on race or ethnicity?
- How do we effectively fit in when living among cultures different from our own?
- Students can read Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, about South Africa in the years immediately preceding the instigation of apartheid in the 1940s, and then report to the class on what they have learned about social and racial issues in the country. Ask them to relate what they have learned to what they observed in Allison Howard's letter.
- Students may research the life of Nelson Mandela—his role in the African National Congress, his long imprisonment, and his presidency in South Africa.
- The :Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools program publication Building Bridges: A Peace Corps Classroom Guide to Cross-Cultural Understanding contains short and easily adapted exercises to enhance students' understanding of cross-cultural issues. It is available by emailing a request to [email protected].