Themes

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Last Updated on August 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 437

Truth Can Be Hidden From Those It Impacts the Most

Karlie has lived his entire life not questioning the segregation in the world around him. At a rally in Johannesburg, he is suddenly introduced to the thought that perhaps his society is unjust. A speaker notes that

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your children are denied the rights which are theirs by birth. They are segregated educationally, socially, economically.

These ideas seem dangerous to Karlie, and the scene in front of him of speakers interacting with each other as if no differences of color exist between them is confusing. How can this be? Yet as he slowly processes their ideas, he realizes the truth of their words. This means that the world he has always believed in, one where "God made the white man and the black man separately, and the one must always be 'baas' and the other 'jong' " cannot, therefore, be true. He has been deceived, and he grows in resolution to challenge his society based on this new truth.

The Far-Reaching Power of the Individual

At the conclusion of the story, the author includes a note about Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat in Montgomery, Alabama, propelled the Revered Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. to the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. At the rally that Karlie attends in this story, the words of the white lady, who seems to have nothing to gain by attempting to overturn the status quo, ring powerfully true with Karlie. She calls the audience to challenge the racism they find, and Karlie is compelled to do just this. The implication, therefore, is how Karlie's actions have impacted others who witnessed his civil disobedience. Who will be compelled to now also challenge the injustices in this society?

Courage Is Easy to Overlook

Karlie's challenge isn't forceful, and when he initially sits on the bench, he isn't even noticed by the crowd. Still, he is keenly aware of the significance of his actions: "If he sat on it, he was a man. If he was afraid he denied himself membership as a human being in a human society."

Karlie is deeply conflicted initially about his right to break with the social prejudices of his society, yet his mind is independent and free-thinking. He realizes that he must find the courage to challenge injustice. When confronted, he doesn't speak. He doesn't move. He doesn't engage. Yet he is deeply courageous nonetheless. Sometimes it is easy to mistake the loudest voices as the most powerful ones, yet in Karlie, readers see that change can come through the quiet resolve of dissatisfied people as well.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 521

This is the story of a young man’s coming to consciousness of his rights and responsibilities. Richard Rive is focusing on a defining moment in Karlie’s life, and the reader knows that the protagonist’s life will never again be what it was before this fateful day. Whether he is treated badly in jail or not, he can never go back to his little village as the naïve fellow he was that morning. He has become a man.

The disturbing words that Karlie hears on his first visit to the city are described by Rive as if the young man had wandered into a church and had overheard a foreign revelation that was completely unexpected and totally liberating from his passing understanding of himself and of his possibilities. The notion that he might have all the rights of a white man seems, at first, far too good to be true, as if the political message was the good news that the word “gospel” actually means. Rive describes the young man as a young convert who is filled with the enthusiasm that follows from entrance into any new belief system. His somewhat precipitous action that soon follows the speech seems perfectly natural if viewed in this religious context: Karlie wishes to put into practice the invigorating message that has changed his interior life.

It is as though Karlie has been given a new set of eyes, and he views the world around him in much different terms. Those who had once seemed bigger than life—his elders in the village and, especially, the whites in the far-off city—now seem his equals. In some important sense, they also seem to be his inferiors because Karlie now recognizes that those who had advised him to cower timidly in the face of the unfair laws are, in fact, less-than-noble examples. They are frightened, small men who have grown accustomed to a limited domain for their lives. Unlike them, Karlie has taken the next step and asked the all-important question that leads to change in any society: Why are things this way? Karlie may be technically defeated in his act of civil disobedience, but he now finds himself identifying with a different group of role models: He now sees himself as one of those who proudly hold their heads high and smile as they are dragged off to jail.

Rive, whose father was an African American and whose mother was a mixed-race South African, is alert to the influence that the racial struggle in the United States has had in African politics. He dedicates the story to Langston Hughes, the African American short-story writer and poet. In this story, Karlie, although not from a cosmopolitan part of the country, nevertheless is aware of the Black Power movement and of the challenge that it presented to white authority everywhere. In some ways, Rive’s story is an African version of the factual Rosa Parks story, in which a southern black woman in the United States refused to give up her seat in a bus to a white man as the discriminatory laws demanded.

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Characters