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Zonk! Magazine; Black Modernity and the Marketplace in South Africa

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Focusing primarily on the wonderfully named Zonk! magazine, this paper will explore the production of black modernity in South Africa throughout 1950s. First published in 1949 and employing large black writing staff, Zonk! produced distinctive visions of black South African modernity that were often mediated by specific references to black American culture. African American figures such as Joe Louis, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong and Marian Anderson all appeared in articles and advertisements within the publication and were regularly held up as inspirational figures in South Africa, models of black achievement in a white supremacist world. Whilst at times offering highly problematic representations of black American life, Zonk! nevertheless played an important role in terms of forging an international consciousness amongst black South Africans. Through a detailed discussion of how black life in the US was constructed in Zonk!, I will examine how black American culture ‘travelled’ and was invested with a broader political significance in South Africa throughout this period. Finally, this paper will seek to question the extent to which African American culture was used to sell an unattainable vision of black life in South Africa, one that closely reflected the National Party’s belief in separate economic and racial development. White companies used the popularity of African American culture to sell their products in South Africa, and with this, worked to obscure the structural inequalities and white supremacist forces that shaped the history of both countries.

This talk is part of the Centre of African Studies Michaelmas Seminars series.

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