Characters

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Last Updated on August 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 421

Karlie

The main character, or protagonist, of this story is a black man named Karlie who lives during the era of apartheid in South Africa. He is from a rural part of the country and is enjoying a visit to Johannesburg, a big city in which the clash of ideologies regarding race is much more pronounced than it is at home.

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Karlie's response to the idea of equality among black people and white people is somewhat ambivalent at first. On the one hand, to hear people discussing the fact that he is "as good as any other man, even a white man" is empowering, and the details considering the limited opportunities for himself and for his peers as a result of segregation ring true. On the other hand, he witnesses black people and white people "behaving as if there were no difference of color among them," and he marvels because such behavior would never occur in his hometown.

He considers the words of a man from back home, Ou Klass, who argues that God created white and black people separately, in different colors, and so they should live separately, according to their color. Karlie feels he should "be careful" before accepting new ideas. This inner conflict seems to show how deeply ingrained ideas about race can be, even within members of the oppressed population.

The conflict plays out further when Karlie sits on the bench marked "Europeans Only." He feels at first as though he has no right to sit on this bench, but then these feelings change to pride when he considers that he has done something neither his father or grandfather dared; he feels like a man. Though he endures verbal and physical attacks as a result of his rebellion against injustice, in the end, he feels that "it was his turn to smile. He had challenged and won. Who cared the rest?"

The Racist White Man

There is also the racist white man who tries to kick Karlie off the bench. This man calls him "black swine" and "scum," and he threatens Karlie with the police. This leads Karlie to realize the man's weakness: he will not do anything to Karlie himself, and so Karlie "had won the first round of the bench dispute."

The Police Officer

When the police officer does arrive, he arrests Karlie, who now feels secure in the knowledge that he should sit where he wants. He has kept his silence, and this has upset the white man and police officer even more than his initial disobedience.

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