“Heaven injustice that exists. Her story, “Heaven is Not

“Heaven is Not Closed” is Bessie Head’s response to the
situations she dealt with as she grew up. A written biography of her, “A Brief
Sketch of the Life of Bessie Head” outlines her struggles, “she suffered from
poverty, racial segregation, and gender discrimination…worried about her own ‘delicate
nervous balance'” (“A Brief Sketch of the Life of Bessie Head”).  Head weaves her past experiences, her
biography, into her stories and exposes the cultural injustice that exists. Her
story, “Heaven is Not Closed,” is an accurate representation of her position as
the tragic victim of colonialism—and throughout her story we see that as a
victim she struggles to gain a sense of identity as she poses a serious problem
where one must choose between one’s culture or the white man’s religion. Head
makes the effort to “demonstrate how cultural and ideological domination are
both articulated and resisted” by constructing a story where there is a
question of a purpose of living a dichotomous way, in separateness when there
does not need to be a separation or gap between the two—culture and ideologies.

In a way, writing “Heaven is Not Closed” becomes a sort of a release for Head—a
way for her to release anger, to rebel against the injustice that not only had
been done to the people but also to herself.

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“Heaven is Not Closed” is a story of a woman named
Galethebege who is a devoted believer of God, a Christian woman. Her husband,
Ralokae, however, is an ‘unbeliever,’ and he chooses to remain so as he plans
on practicing Setswana customs. Their union is unlikely and forecasts issues
that occur throughout the story. Before she marries Ralokae, Galethebege
expresses that she desires to marry in the Church, in the Christian way to
which Ralokae refuses. He makes his protest and in this protest, it seems as if
Bessie Head possesses her character, channeling her feelings through him and
voicing her thoughts against Christianity—”there was something wrong with the
people who had brought the word of the Gospel to the land. Their love was
enslaving black people, and he could not stand it. That was why he was without
belief. It was the people he did not trust. They were full of tricks” (Head,
9). The introducing of Christianity was an unpleasant experience as it made its
way through to dominate the people—and the people who brought it misrepresented
it and misinterpreted it. By bringing it, they do not intend on solely
spreading Christian faith but plan evil intentions as they use it to gain power
from the people of the native land. And with that power, they make it seem like
they are superior to those of the native land as they are educating those with no
knowledge. To Ralokae, Christianity is not supposed to discriminate others—under
the word of God, it is a religion that congregates people and encourages an
exchange of love and compassion to occur. But here, we see that Ralokae, a firm
believer of his Setswana customs, decides to resist the religion even though “the
God might be all right” (Head, 9).

Bessie Head criticizes the church’s attempt to colonize
the people and calls for a decolonization to happen. We see the church not only
as a holy entity but when we realize that the mission of the church is to
control Black people as undermining their customs by explaining that their
passage to heaven will be restricted if they continue to practice their native
customs. By undermining their customs, they look down on their identity, and
then there is a creation of hierarchy where Black people are reduced to the
bottom of the pyramid. The lack of respect, the lack of understanding, the lack
of attention and effort to embrace the customs is evident. The sole purpose of
using religion is to use it as a way to gain control over the natives. Religion
just becomes a cover-up, deceit, and the real motive is to colonize the land
for the colonists’ gain. The real motive behind the implementation of the
religion is under evil intentions, not good, which seems ironic because the
whole idea of missionaries is to spread the good word of God, preachings of
God. The church, then, becomes an active figure under the government’s control
that aims to transform the natives of the land they conquer and colonize into
slaves for themselves. Throughout “Heaven is Not Closed,” the priest acts as a
representative of the Church—acting as one who makes the decisions, acting as
the leader for the area he is assigned. He not only becomes a symbol of Church
but also of God. However, just as Ralokae presumes, there is something evil in their
intentions. The priest, in turn, creates an inaccurate representation of God as
he listens to Galethebege’s plea and request for help concerning her marriage
ceremony, he becomes completely indifferent and ignorant. And instead of
helping her with her concerns, with her worries, he says that “heaven is closed
to the unbeliever” (Head, 11) and proceeds to excommunicate her from the
Church. The role the priest plays is significant here in that he preaches the
word of God, he uses the word of God, to control people instead of being of
guidance, instead of symbolizing what a real Christian would do under the Ten
Commandments that God set to be what is defined a ‘good’ Christian. In
hindsight, the priest breaks many of God’s laws which includes. He takes
advantage of God’s name and his judgment, making it seem as if he alone is the
one who decides who will go to heaven and who does not—and by taking advantage
of this power, he acts as if he is the righteous authority to hold that power.

Galethebege, a devoted Christian woman, when consulting
with the priest does not expect to be confronted with harshness or even exile
from the Church. She expects to be comforted, to find a solution to the problem
she has, her conflict regarding marrying a man who is an unbeliever and does
not desire to marry in the Christian way. She feels a sense of ‘abandonment’ from
something that she had devoted her heart to. However, her excommunication does
not falter the communication she has with God. She loves Ralokae, but his
beliefs and her contrasting beliefs seem to elicit that she has to choose only
one—her devotion to Christianity or Ralokae. But Galethebege seems to be able
to handle this situation in a different way from what we see from the outside.

Head not only translates the misuse of power that is
present in the spread of Christianity in the native land. However, she also
elicits that the misuse of power is also present between the sexes where males
dominate females. However, Head provides a different picture in this
stereotypical view of males dominating females. Although Galethebege is
excommunicated by the Church and left with the decision to marry Ralokae under
Setswana custom, Galethebege does not completely submit herself to her husband and
Ralokae, in response, does not intend on diminishing his wife’s beliefs nor in
controlling her either. He does not intend on intruding in her beliefs.

Instead, he ‘smiles’ when Galethebege practices Christianity. Both Galethebege
and Ralokae create a compromising relationship, in which both are free to
exercise their own beliefs and thrive in that respect and at the same time
share their love for each other. Although it seems like Galethebege submits
herself to her husband’s request to get married under the Setswana custom, we
see that although the Church has abandoned her, she does not abandon her faith.

She continuously prays to God, like Christians, in the corner of her house.

Galethebege realized that the priest’s words that “heaven is closed to the
unbeliever” (Head, 11) are insignificant, rather, she figures out that she can
communicate in God differently, that her excommunication did not mean that God
had also banished her. She seems to realize that the priest is only there for
guidance, which the priest had not provided for her. Even so, she was not
convinced that doing this would mean that she was a ‘Christian.’ She still
feared that the fact that she got excommunicated would be the one thing that
blacklists her from going to heaven when she passes as we see that she passes
in the position of her praying to God. She suffers the fear of the eternal
damnation that the Christian church preaches to those who ‘reject’ God. Her
active role in praying daily is an undeniable portrayal of her atonement—”Perhaps
her simple and good heart had been terrified that the doors of heaven were
indeed closed on Ralokae and she had been trying to open them” (Head, 12).

However, her brave, undying act of exercising her right to express her beliefs
shows that she becomes a figure in embracing both her customs and her beliefs,
in proving that there is space in heaven for people who practice Setswana
custom. That the Setswana custom is not a “heathens” (Head, 11) custom at all.

Head’s representation of Ralokae and Galethebege becomes
a symbol of the natives taking action for themselves, to fight against the
colonist’s control. Ralokae and Galethebege’s union and Galethebege’s
excommunication from the Church triggers a response to the villagers in that it
leads them to decide that to resist the authoritative control that the
colonists held by not attending the Church. She effectively the relationship
between Galethebege and Ralokae to illustrate a proper distribution of power
unlike the misuse of power displayed in the colonization of the native land
that happens in the story and the unjustness displayed in the Christian church.

She makes it so that the union between Galethebege and Ralokae does not result
in one adapting to a different custom or the other reluctantly practicing the
Christian religion. She makes it so that there is freedom in choosing what one
has a calling for. She makes it so that one is equal to the other—she refutes
the need to make both imbalanced or opposing or one submissive or dominant to
the other—there is a division of power. And it also becomes significant to note
that they both religion and culture can coexist if the individual chooses they want
that or not. However, Head’s literature seems to be saying that culture stays
forever and that it is essential that it does not leave one as it is what
embodies one’s identity. Culture is inborn, and one is bound to practice it or
rely on it whereas religion, also a form of identity, does not exist until one
practice it actively. They may coexist, but they do not share each other, they
do not ‘fuse’ in that, for instance, Setswana customs are not a part of
Christianity and, reciprocally, Christian values are not a part of Setswana
custom. They are both entirely different figures that work towards creating one’s
identity.

Bessie Head’s “Heaven is Not Closed” is a form of art
that she brings out through her expression of anger in the world she lives in.

She not only writes her piece to let other people know or for the purpose of
decolonizing the place but she does it for herself. She does it to reclarify
herself, and her position as a writer. She writes these stories to come to full
terms with herself, to find resolutions to the conflicts she had when she felt
subjugated by white people, the colonizers. She creates resolutions in the
fictional world where she can create an ideal world in the end after the chaos
that mentally disturbs her and her characters. Through her characters, she can
speak through them and act in ways perhaps she might have wished to when she
was also dealing with the problem. The ending of “Heaven is Not Closed”
provides a satisfactory ending where culture and religion do not need to
conflict with each other. And in this way, as a writer, she holds the authority
to control what happens after every scene of her story and she is also able to
create space to project her hopes that the future will not repeat her past any
longer. 

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