July’s People

by

Nadine Gordimer

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July’s People: Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The women are working in the field. Martha carries a baby strapped to her back. She observes that “the white woman” doesn’t grasp that they’re going to the field to cut grass, not gather food. July’s mother watches as her daughter-in-law tries to explain the different types of plants to the clueless white woman. She takes the opportunity to observe the white woman’s behavior. Normally, the woman tries too hard to communicate with the gestures of respect that she believes are customary among Black people. July has repeatedly defended the woman, arguing that she “was different at home.” Unlike July, July’s mother has never worked for white people.
“The white woman” to whom Martha and July’s mother refer is, of course, Maureen. Their choice to refer to her as “the white woman” rather than her name reflects their practically nonexistent relationship. Unlike July, Martha and July’s mother are steadfast in their skepticism about the white newcomers, and they don’t understand July’s motivations for bringing them here. They believe that the only capacity for white and Black people to have a relationship in their existing society is through Black servitude, and they cannot grasp that July might help these people out of a moral obligation to treat others well, apart from the coercive system of apartheid. Finally, July’s mother’s wry observation about Maureen’s desperate but misguided attempts to communicate through gestures of respect shows how Maureen’s efforts to appear culturally sensitive end up getting in the way of her actually being culturally sensitive.
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Gratitude and Resentment  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Cultural Displacement  Theme Icon
It’s the perfect weather to collect grasses for thatching, and July’s mother is excited to check out a spot near the river that she’s been eyeing for weeks. She points at the white woman. Maureen smiles back, pretending to laugh at a joke that she does not understand. Martha interferes. Speaking in their language, she tells July’s mother that the woman doesn’t understand that the grass is for thatching. July’s mother is still annoyed that the white family is living in her hut. She complains that they have money and should go to their own relatives if they need help.
July’s mother’s criticism isn’t unwarranted. While she is unaware of the extent to which civil uprising has made exiting the country a virtual possibility, the Smales family does have a wealth of money and privilege to their name. July’s mother’s criticism of her son’s decision to help the white family poses the question of who “July’s people” are—that is, with whom his allegiances lie. His mother and Martha seem to believe that making the Smales family his people—sympathizing with white people—diminishes his ability to remain loyal to his people and his Black identity. In helping white people, then, July is complicit in his own oppression, as they see it. The question thus becomes: can people who exist in an oppressive regime relate to one another outside of the social, racial, and economic limitations that system imposes onto them? Can people relate to other people without power dynamics muddling the waters?
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Gratitude and Resentment  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Later, Martha and July are in their hut. July is eating a meal Martha has prepared for him. It’s been several days since the visit to the chief, and July tells Martha about the successful visit. Martha considers how strange it is to have her husband spend so much time around home. She suggests that the chief can give the family a hut in his village now that he’s met and approved them. Her remark makes July uncomfortable. They argue back and forth. July won’t entertain Martha’s efforts to make the Smales leave the village.   
Martha is increasingly vocal about her disapproval of the Smales. She seems not to understand July’s reasons for bringing them there. Martha’s knowledge of the Smales is limited to the superficial information July has revealed in his letters to her, such as the size of the Smales’ house. She doesn’t have any knowledge of the dynamics of July’s relationship with his employers and how this might motivate him to help them.
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Gratitude and Resentment  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Martha tells July that he has “forgotten some things.” When July doesn’t understand what she’s talking about, Martha gets angry. Up until now, July has come home every two years, impregnated her, and then gone back to the city before the birth. The white family’s arrival has postponed July’s return to the city, but not Martha’s pregnancy—she hasn’t bled in weeks. Still not understanding why his wife is upset, July eagerly offers to bring Martha and the children back to the city with him once the war is over. Martha tells July that she would never fit in there.  
Providing additional insight into July’s marital troubles with Martha shows what working for the Smales family has cost July. Only being able to visit his home once every two years makes Martha a relative stranger to July, and he to her. He’s been uninvolved in his children’s lives outside of the money he sends Martha to raise them.
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Cultural Displacement  Theme Icon
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Martha suggests an alternative: July can stay here after the fighting is over. They can get more land and grow more crops, since they’ll no longer have to pay taxes to white people. Or now that July knows how to drive, he can make money driving a lorry. July is silent. After a pause, he tells Martha about not being able to retrieve his money from the bank after fighting broke out in town. He reflects inwardly on the things his white people have taught him. Many years ago, they taught him about investing, “how money could be earned without working for it, the system whites had invented for themselves.” These people “saved him, when first he came to them, from his country ignorance.”
Martha wants July to come back to his roots and his people. She declines his offer to take her to the city because not only does she refuse to serve white people, but she refuses to participate in their culture as well. This passage also provides additional insight into July’s relationship to the Smales and his willingness to negotiate with white people in a broader sense. He recognizes the small ways in which they “saved him” by teaching him about financial literacy in a capitalist system, which is itself a sort of protection.
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Gratitude and Resentment  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Martha interrupts July’s ruminations to ask him how much money he lost. “More than a hundred pounds,” he tells her. Since leaving town, July has driven around in the bakkie without his pass-book. He believes it is “finished” but wants somebody to tell him to “burn it, let it swell in the river, their signatures washing away.” 
July’s stance on the war and Black liberation is complicated. On the one hand, he recognizes the protection the Smales have offered him and feels a kinship to them, regardless of the ways they have condescended to him and failed to understand him over the years. On the other hand, they are actively complicit in the apartheid system that has deprived July of his rights and compromised his quality of life and worth as a human in countless ways. When he dwells on these latter issues, he becomes more revolutionary, possessing an urge to completely dismantle the old system, part ways with the Smales family, and fully dedicate himself to his people. The image of July riding in the bakkie—a white man’s car—without his pass-book (official documents required of non-white citizens to be in places designated only for white people under apartheid) reflects this obligation to personal freedom and his people.
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Gratitude and Resentment  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Cultural Displacement  Theme Icon