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Heidi Barends

Heidi Barends attended the University of Stellenbosch from 2009 to 2011 where she completed a BA in Language and Culture. She then moved to the University of Cape Town where she completed her Honours, Masters and PhD degrees in English Studies, with her doctoral thesis (2018) focusing on the connections between the lives and works of white South African writer, Olive Schreiner, and African American writer, Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins. Heidi recently co-edited a written symposium on Dorothy Driver’s edition of Olive Schreiner’s From Man to Man or Perhaps Only — with Sanja Nivesjö in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. She was involved in research and teaching at both the University of Cape Town (2014-2018) and Cape Peninsula University of Technology (2015-2018) while pursuing her studies, and currently serves as Academic Director at EDU Africa, an international education partner in Cape Town. Some of her research interests include transnational studies, feminist studies, critical race theory, social justice, and intercultural studies.

‘“A Track to the Water’s Edge”: The Influence of Olive Schreiner on Howard Thurman and, through Thurman, on Martin Luther King Jr.’

In 1925, Howard Thurman, a prolific African American scholar, writer, and theologian, was introduced to the writings of Olive Schreiner. Her emphasis on the unity of life in her Stories, Dreams and Allegories had such a profound impact on Thurman’s own personal and intellectual thought that he sought to read all her published works, culminating in his curation of A Track to the Water’s Edge: The Olive Schreiner Reader (1973). This reader contains a detailed introduction to Schreiner written by Thurman, as well as a collection of some of Schreiner’s seminal works, including her novels, dreams and allegories, and non-fiction.

This proposed chapter will use Thurman’s Olive Schreiner Reader as an entry point to explore the complex transnational influences of Schreiner’s life and writing on Thurman. While several scholars have highlighted the post-humous relationship between Thurman and Schreiner, few have provided in-depth contextual considerations of Schreiner’s impact on his thought and sermons. Recent studies either omit Schreiner’s influence on Thurman entirely, or limit it to particular issues (such as woman’s suffrage), despite Thurman’s (1973) self-admission that a plethora of Schreiner’s ideas and writings “influenced [his own thought] on a deeply profound level” and “nourished [his] spirit in strange and defying ways”.

Additionally, this chapter will argue that connections may be drawn between Olive Schreiner and American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr, through Schreiner’s impact on Thurman. That Thurman had a profound influence on King (and other civil rights leaders), particularly with regard to notions of social transformation and non-violence, is well-documented. However, to my knowledge, no consideration of what we might call the personal and intellectual ‘thought orbits’ that existed between Schreiner, Thurman, and King has yet been undertaken.

A combination of Schreiner’s letters and published writings (in particular the latest edition of Schreiner’s Dreams (2021), which contains the allegory, “Three Dreams in a Desert” after which Thurman named his Olive Schreiner Reader) will be considered in this chapter, as well as references to her wider body of published work as is relevant to the discussions on Thurman and King. Archival and secondary material relating to Thurman and King will also be consulted.

Through this tapestry of analysis, a complex ideological trajectory will be drawn from the life, thought and writings of Schreiner (1855-1920) to the civil rights movement of Black Americans (1954-1968) in the United States.  

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