Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1164

Colorism & Internalized Racism

Colorism and internalized racism are central themes in Fugard's play. Within the Apartheid cultural framework, the relationship between Morris and Zachariah is complicated by the need for belonging and the desire for dominance within the male socio-sexual hierarchy. Although brothers, their relationship is marred by envy, suspicion, and resentment.

In the play, the lighter-skinned Morris takes on the position of the white man. He speaks with poetic resonance in a measured cadence. Meanwhile, the darker-skinned Zachariah is illiterate and revels in the pleasures of women, alcohol, and dancing. Both brothers are Cape Coloured, members of a multi-ethnic community living in the Korsten settlement on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth. Members of this ethnic community have combinations of European, African, and Asian ancestry.

Due to internalized racism, Zachariah's darker skin tone automatically relegates him to a position of subservience in his relationship with Morris. While Zachariah engages in manual labor to support the household, Morris exerts tight control over their shared purse strings. When Zachariah dares to entertain a dalliance with Ethel, Morris chides him for being “a dark sort of boy” playing with “whiteness.” Like their white Apartheid masters, Morris imposes his racial notions of social order and cohesion on Zachariah.

Without recourse in a racially unequal system, Zachariah internalizes racist attitudes and negative stereotypes about himself. Coached by Morris, Zachariah accepts that he is “truly...too black” for the “snow white” Ethel.

Meanwhile, Morris tries to pass for white, rejecting his black heritage for a time. Instead of the fulfillment he expected, Morris developed a guilt complex that resulted in feelings of shame, self-loathing, and anxiety. Fugard points out that both brothers experience deep psychological distress as a result of their respective internalized racism.

During their last playacting session, the pent-up emotions percolating under the surface explode, appearing in their full intensity. In a symbolic “confrontation” between the white supervisor (played by Morris) and the black park attendant (played by Zachariah), Fugard highlights the effects of colorism and internalized racism. In their respective roles, the brothers lay bare the collective dysfunction of their culture.

The hubris of the white man is shown to be nothing but a façade. It falls away, revealing his terror of annihilation at the hands of those he has oppressed. Meanwhile, the black man's obedience and compliance are likewise shown to be a mirage. It, too, falls away and reveals his deep-seated hatred of his white oppressors in all its naked ferocity. Both suffer because the status quo rewards “prejudice, injustice, and inhumanity”—the three words Morris uses to help Zachariah communicate the extent of his suffering.

Sibling Rivalry & Dysfunctional Family Roles

The themes of sibling rivalry and dysfunctional family roles are closely related to the themes of colorism & internalized racism. Zachariah resents his brother's self-assigned superiority but is powerless against it. Meanwhile, Morris feels an obligation to protect his brother's well-being. Their lives are intertwined, reflecting the dichotomy of race relations within the Apartheid system. While white minority rulers weaponize the law to maintain social order, the oppressed majority plots and engages in acts of overt and covert rebellion.

In The Blood Knot , Fugard shows how this status quo fosters dysfunction in the lives of the brothers. When she was alive, Morris and Zachariah's mother unwittingly fueled this dysfunction by treating her sons differently, likely caused by internal racism and colorism. She showed a clear preference for the lighter-skinned Morris and gave him the best toys. She also sang different lullabies to each brother. For Morris, she sang of getting to the “top.” But, for Zachariah, she sang of...

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being a "Capie," a slang term for Black South Africans.

As a result, Morris takes on the role of surrogate “policeman” in his relationship with Zachariah. He insists that Zachariah bend to his vision of a rosy future, where they are masters of their destiny on a “two-man farm.”

To fight back, Zachariah resorts to “sly civility” to undermine his brother's dominance. “Sly civility” refers to the concept of covert rebellion popularized by Homi K. Bhabha, a British scholar and postcolonial critical theorist. Those who practice “sly civility” flatter even as they subtly undermine the supposed object of their reverence.

After learning that they will not be meeting Ethel, Zachariah tells Morris to put on the suit one last time because he looks so “damn nice” in it. Zachariah slyly sweet-talks Morris into passing for white and deceiving the white man. Tempted beyond measure, Morris puts on the suit. In doing so, he is confronted with the reality of his own ugliness and susceptibility to self-delusion. The experience completely undermines Morris's unspoken claim to dominance within the relationship.

Morris's reading of Christendom's most famous fratricide is significant: like Cain of old, Morris is guilty of murder. He has killed Zachariah's dreams of personal agency and sexual fulfillment—and he must atone for it for the rest of their lives together.

Poverty & the Economic Gap

From the very beginning, Fugard emphasizes the stark poverty both brothers endure. They live in Korsten, a designated section for people of their “type” in South Africa. During the Apartheid era, the Natives (Urban Areas) Act of 1923 gave local officials the power to establish Black settlements on the outskirts of white industrial areas.

Often, these designated sections were the most impoverished, featured poor socioeconomic conditions, and had the greatest environmental risks caused by poor sanitation and disease. They often surrounded factories or lands that factories used as dumping grounds for industrial waste. In the play, Morris complains about the foul air across the lake. He tells Zachariah that the water “has gone bad,” which indicates a lack of access to a reliable water supply and safe drinking water.

In the play, Zachariah laments his cruel treatment at the hands of his white supervisor and wishes hopelessly for changes he believes will never come. Unlike his white peers, Zachariah lacks access to job opportunities with better working conditions. The Industrial Conciliation Act of 1924 excluded Black South Africans from membership in trade unions and prohibited the registration of Black unions. Meanwhile, the Minimum Wages Act of 1925 exclusively promoted white employment.

Finally, the Group Areas Act of 1950 allowed the removal of Black South Africans from white urban areas. These people were then placed in underdeveloped regions on the outskirts of the cities.

In Port Elizabeth, there were separate settlements for Whites, Coloreds, Bantus, and Asians. The latter three were denied property ownership rights and access to better-paying jobs. The brothers live in Korsten, where they can only afford a sparsely furnished shack. They have few belongings, and Zachariah works in a dead-end job with no upward mobility. Fugard unequivocally demonstrates that the Apartheid system fostered poverty and an economic gap that disenfranchised South Africa's non-white citizens.

Having spent their entire life's savings on clothing to present Morris as a well-born gentleman, the brothers must resign themselves to “getting by without futures,” as other men in their position so often do.


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