The life and times of Charlotte Maxeke

Claire Cooke reviews a recent book about trailblazing South African scholar, political activist, and social worker Charlotte Maxeke.

Zubeida Jaffer, Beauty of the Heart: The Life and Times of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke (Bloemfontein: Sun Press, 2016), ISBN 9781920382827.

Beauty-of-the-Heart-Book-coverBeauty of the Heart: The Life and Times of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke is the first book devoted exclusively to charting the life of South African activist and social worker Charlotte Maxeke. This rich and easily accessible narrative features never-seen-before photographs and throws the life of Maxeke into sharp relief. Beginning with Maxeke’s birth and following her extraordinary life until her untimely death, Beauty of the Heart makes an important contribution not only to existing studies about Maxeke, but the history of South African women.

Author Zubeida Jaffer is a renowned South African journalist. Currently, she is a Writer-in-Residence in the Department of Communication Sciences at the University of the Free State and publishes The Journalist, a website designed to tell the stories of forgotten pioneers of journalism in Africa. Jaffer is the author of numerous books and recipient of many awards including the Muslim Views Achiever Award as well as the Honor Medal for Distinguished Service to Journalism from the University of Missouri. She lives in Wynberg, Cape Town where her family has resided for close to 60 years.

Born on April 7, 1871 near Fort Beaufort, Charlotte spent her younger years in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Her life would take many remarkable twists and turns. Touring as part of an African choir during the 1890s, Maxeke travelled to England where she performed for Queen Victoria. After returning to South Africa, she embarked on another choir tour – this time to the United States – in approximately 1893. While touring, the choir was ‘abandoned’ in Cleveland, Ohio after the organisers ran out of funds. With the help of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Maxeke and some of her fellow choir members fortuitously enrolled at an African American tertiary institution, Wilberforce University. As a result, Maxeke would become the first Black African woman to graduate with a university degree. Maxeke returned to South Africa in 1903 and dedicated her life to social reform, including founding missionary schools and becoming the first African woman appointed as a probation officer.

Zeta Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Wilberforce University, Ohio (1922). Image via New York Public Library.
Zeta Chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Wilberforce University, Ohio (1922). Image via New York Public Library.

Beauty of the Heart presents a chronological narrative of Maxeke’s life. Jaffer opens Beauty of the Heart by using a comprehensive family tree to settle Maxeke’s much-contested birthdate. Beginning with the childhood days, Jaffer paints a portrait of a close-knit family that valued religion and singing. It is clear that Maxeke’s family were active members of the community and this is a theme that continues to resonate throughout her life.

The early sections of the book rely heavily on a semi-autobiographical memoir, The Calling of Katie Makanya (1995), about Maxeke’s younger sister. But such a reliance on Makanya’s memoir is the norm for anyone keen to research the life of Maxeke. No other primary sources offer such in-depth details concerning Maxeke’s childhood, her early days as a teacher, and her motives for studying overseas. As Beauty of the Heart progresses, Jaffer increasingly references oral history interviews she conducted with family members and former colleagues of Maxeke. These interviews offer deeper insights into her life and activities. It is a treat to read about interviews conducted with people who knew Maxeke personally. For example, Hilda Seete was in her early twenties when she met Maxeke for the first time (87-88). At the time of writing, these interview transcripts are unavailable to the public.

Cover of Christmas card sent to Vernon by Manye. Bishop William Tecumseh Vernon Collection, Kansas Collection, RH ms 529, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries.
Cover of Christmas card sent to Vernon by Manye. Bishop William Tecumseh Vernon Collection, Kansas Collection, RH ms 529, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries.

Jaffer also devotes much-needed attention to the political activities of Maxeke and her husband, Marshall Maxeke. In doing so, Jaffer provides a chronological narrative of the couple’s activities throughout South Africa that furthers our understanding of not only Maxeke, but also her husband. In works such as James T. Campbell’s Songs of Zion: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States and South Africa (1995), Marshall Maxeke is often depicted as ill, especially during his later years. Jaffer complicates this understanding by adeptly delving into his political activities. Significantly, such attention highlights how the couple did not always see eye to eye on contemporary political movements, illustrated through his founding of the Izibuko (or the ‘middle-way’) in 1920.

Amidst these many factors, Maxeke herself also suffered from poor health in her later years, no doubt exacerbated by her tireless community work, care for her ailing husband, and constantly impoverished living conditions. Some of the key strengths of Beauty of the Heart are Jaffer’s attention to these contextual factors, along with close readings of primary source materials. The inclusion of hymns penned by Maxeke and rare photographs of her both from London and on her graduation day at Wilberforce University are invaluable.

It is perhaps odd, however, that Jaffer cites email conversations with politicians and historians such as Zweledinga Pallo Jordan, Andre Odendaal and Julia Wells. It is somewhat unusual for a historical biography that Jaffer chose to cite email conversations rather than historical monographs. Pallo Jordan, for example, is cited (62-63) as providing an outline of how African American intellectuals Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois differed in their opinions on education (a debate that raged while Maxeke was studying in the United States). While Jordan’s background information is undoubtedly useful, it could have been accessed from secondary sources rather than via email conversations. Perhaps the decision to refer to emails stems from Jaffer’s extensive experience as a journalist. Such references nonetheless add a more intimate tone to the book – it feels as if the reader has been invited into private conservations rather than referred to tomes of texts for further reading.

Nevertheless, Beauty of the Heart ought to appeal to a wide audience. The prose is easily accessible, clear and compelling, bringing the pioneering and poignant story of Charlotte Maxeke into sharp relief. It is a must read for anyone interested in women’s history or South African politics during the early twentieth century.


Claire Profile PictureClaire Cooke is based at the University of Western Australia, where she received her Ph.D. in 2016. Her research focuses upon African American missionary women working within South Africa during the early twentieth century. In 2015, she was awarded the Florence A. Bell Award by Drew University and a Short-term Fellowship by Emory University to examine how ideas of masculinity shaped missionary work within South Africa. Her research has appeared in the Australasian Review of African Studies and Mission Studies. Claire is also a member of the Australian Women’s History Network’s Lilith Editorial Collective.

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