The Bench begins with Karlie, the protagonist, listening to a series of speeches on the unequivocal rights of blacks in his native South Africa. He has come from a small town and has never heard these ideas expressed before. Visiting Johannesburg, he suddenly hears ideas such as the following:
[A] society that condemns a man to an inferior position because he has the misfortune to be born black, a society that can only retain its precarious social and economic position at the expense of an enormous oppressed mass.
It is up to us to challenge the right of any group who willfully and deliberately condemn a fellow group to a servile position. We must challenge the right of any people who see fit to segregate human beings solely on grounds of pigmentation.
Karlie processes these ideas. They are hard for him to believe, as he has never heard such things, but somehow they ring true.
He is still contemplating these "dangerous" ideas when he reaches the train station. He remembers that one speaker said that each person "must challenge these things . . . in one's own way." And then he spies the bench for "Europeans only." Suddenly, this bench represents his challenge to the rights of humanity, and Karlie sees his chance to challenge the prejudice all around him. He sits.
Initially, he faces an internal battle. One side of him feels compelled to move, carrying much burden as he feels the
servile position he had occupied on the far, of his father, and his father's father who were born black, lived like blacks, and died like mules.
Yet the other part of him wins this internal struggle, and he becomes determined to "die like a man" in an effort to dare to overturn the societal prejudices around him.
At first, no one even seems to notice him, but eventually a voice rings out: "Get off this seat!" Although Karlie is belittled with terms like "swine," he not only refuses to move, but also refuses to engage in a verbal battle, smoking his cigarette and remaining quiet. The speaker threatens to call the police, and still Karlie does not move from "a white man's bench." People gather to observe the scene, and he realizes that "irresolution had now turned to determination." The police arrive, and Karlie refuses to speak to them as well. One of the speakers from the rally appears and insists that Karlie be spoken to with respect. The crowd turns violent, pressing in on Karlie, and he is cuffed by the officers.
As he leaves, Karlie smiles, having challenged the system "and won." As the police lead him away, commanding him to come with him, Karlie speaks his first word: "Certainly!" He leaves with the pride "of one who dared sit on a 'European bench.' "
After Karlie has lived all of his life in a remote rural part of South Africa, this is his first visit to Johannesburg, a bustling metropolis in which all sorts of people rub shoulders. More obviously than in his more segregated home town, Johannesburg shows the tensions that result from the rigid system of separation of races known as apartheid. Karlie sees people of all colors—some black, some white, and others mixed.
As the story opens, Karlie is standing in a large crowd that is listening to a black speaker who is proclaiming the rights of black majority, the working class to whom he refers as the proletariat. Karlie is impressed by what the speaker is saying because it seems to be the first time that he has even considered the possibility that blacks do, in fact, have any rights at all. He notices that two white detectives are taking notes on everything that is being said at the meeting.
As Karlie listens, he recalls the advice he received from elders in his own community. Ou Klaas, for example, taught him that God created blacks and whites separately, and therefore they...
(The entire section is 1,004 words.)