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Common Reading 2020: Zakes Mda

The Zulus of New York

    ‘I think we should just continue with our Friendly Zulus,’ says Em-Pee, as they reach their Mulberry Bend tenement. 
    ‘You say the damnedest things, Em-Pee, you know that?’ says Slaw. ‘Who the hell wants to see friendly Zulus in America?’
Zakes Mda



Answer to the Picture Riddle Challenge: Banana!

Author: Zakes Mda

Zakes Mda (@ZakesMda) | Twitter 

Zakes Mda is a South African novelist, poet, and playwright. His work has won major South African and British literary awards, and he is currently a Patron of the Etisalat Prize for Literature. Most recently, he was a Professor of English at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Mda visited Susquehanna University to meet students and give a reading on March 5, 2020. 

Introduction: Glen Retief

Glen Retief, Ph.D. – Susquehanna University 

Dr. Glen Retief is an Associate Professor and Co- Department Head of English and Creative Writing at Susquehanna University. He teaches non-fiction classes at Susquehanna and occasionally publishes columns and op-ed pieces in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Harrisburg Patriot-News, and The Tampa Bay Times. His memoir, The Jack Bank, won a Lambda Literary Award and was selected as a book of 2011 by the Africa Book Club. 

Classroom Activities

1. Research another aspect of what life was like in 1885. Compare that to the life of the people in The Zulus of New York.

2. If you could speak to the characters in this piece, what would you say? Tell it to a partner and compare.


Curiosity can be healthy or prurient.  When we forget to balance inquisitiveness with respect, the result can be the kind of dehumanizing spectacle dramatized in Zakes Mda’s Zulus of New York, where both rich and poor New Yorkers line up to view a “wild Zulu” in a cage.   

Zakes Mda has enjoyed four decades of success as one of South Africa’s most respected authors.  In this excerpt, he riffs off a long, painful history of indigenous Black South Africans being displayed like zoo animals in Europe and North America—Google, for example, the tragic story of “Sara Baartman.”  

As in the aforementioned examples, everything about Mda’s “wild Zulu” seems conspicuously inauthentic. There are no tigers in Africa to provide skins for clothing; for cultural accuracy, this dancer might as well be wearing a Scottish kilt. Neither raw meat nor live chickens are eaten in Kwazulu-Natal.  And the lewd sexual mimes come from American burlesque, not umghebulo or ilihkomba. 

Ironically, while it’s inquisitiveness that brings out the crowd to see the Zulu, it is striking how little deeper human curiosity the audience shows about this actor.  What kind of family does the dancer have?  What are his dreams, fears, and goals?   

As you read this excerpt, try to ask yourself: what kind of an audience will I provide, when I am confronted with cultural difference, at SU?  Will I just marvel at the contrasts?  Or will my curiosity lead me to read and learn; to ask deeper questions; to discover our shared humanity? 

—Glen Retief

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. What was your reaction to this piece? How does your personal background impact that reaction?

2. Do you think this is an accurate portrayal of how life was?

3. What lessons does reading this piece reinforce for you about going to college and meeting new people?

Additional Resources

History of The Race Construct

"Those of us who live in the United States have inherited the legacy of how race and racism have been constructed in this country historically, systematically, and pervasively. Knowing our history is a good way to understand this legacy."


Political Context

What was happening in the country in 1885? 

What was life like for others who lived at this time?