Kaffir Boy in America

by Mark Mathabane
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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1599

Mark Mathabane’s Kaffir Boy in America is the sequel to his best-selling memoir Kaffir Boy. Whereas Kaffir Boy describes Mark’s life in South Africa under apartheid, Kaffir Boy in America begins as he flees his homeland seeking freedom and education in the United States. Although his quest is largely successful, Mark battles culture shock and is often disappointed with the racism he encounters in his new home.

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Kaffir Boy in America was written just before a major turning point in South Africa’s history. The book was published in 1989, when the country’s racially divisive apartheid laws were still largely in place. The South African government began dismantling apartheid in earnest just a year later, in 1990. The country held its first free elections in 1994.

As Kaffir Boy in America begins, eighteen-year-old Mark says good-bye to his family in Alexandra, the South African slum where he grew up. Through hard work, intelligence, and the help of his friends Stan and Marjorie Smith, Mark has fulfilled a lifelong dream to go to America. Stan Smith, a professional tennis player, has helped Mark win a tennis scholarship to Limestone College in South Carolina.

On the way to the airport, Mark sees police rounding up a group of his neighbors. He is terrified that he might be stopped and arrested alongside them. As a black South African, he is forced to carry a pass, an identification document that states where he can legally live and work. Although his pass has all the necessary stamps, he knows the police may fabricate a reason to arrest him.

Mark is allowed to go on, but he regards the police raid as a bad omen. How can he go away from home and leave his parents and siblings to a life of poverty and fear? He feels especially guilty knowing that he, as the first member of his family to graduate from high school, has the power to earn comparatively good money and make life easier for his family. However, he is hungry for freedom and determined to survive. He boards his plane and leaves for the United States.

When he arrives in the United States, Mark is amazed by the freedom and equality he encounters. The facilities at Limestone College are beautiful. He is giddy with the knowledge that he is free to go anywhere and associate with anyone. Black and white Americans alike welcome him.

From the beginning, Mark also notices that the United States is not the paradise he imagined. Early on, he is surprised to hear an African American speak bitterly about racism. At his school, he notices that roommates pair up by race. When he asks why, he feels uneasy with a white student’s answer that “blacks prefer being with other blacks and whites with whites.” When the subject of Africa or South Africa comes up in conversation, Mark is continually surprised at Americans’ ignorance about the rest of the world.

Life at Limestone College does not go smoothly for Mark. Culture shock affects him constantly. He soon becomes alienated from his tennis teammates, who know he is friends with Stan Smith and expect him to be a far better player than he is. Furthermore, his hardworking attitude toward schoolwork and his discomfort with some social aspects of American life lead students to assume he is arrogant. After a semester at Limestone College, he confesses to Stan Smith that he is unhappy, and Stan agrees to assume the cost of a transfer. Mark moves to St. Louis University, where he once again encounters problems. Shortly afterward, he decides to transfer again, this time to Quincy College in Illinois.

At Quincy, Mark is determined to conform. He quickly wins a partial tennis scholarship and becomes captain of the tennis team. He makes several friends, including a South African Afrikaaner, from whom he learns much about the lives and beliefs of white South Africans. In the fall of 1979, however, Mark receives a letter from home that says his mother has gone insane. He begins to spend much of his time brooding about his family’s problems and feeling guilty for being away from them. His friends take his withdrawal for arrogance, and once again he finds himself socially isolated. During this period, Mark discovers black authors and spends much of his time reading their books. He develops a desire to write such a book himself, although he feels he is not yet educated enough to do so.

In the end, Mark decides he cannot be happy at Quincy College. With Stan Smith’s help, he transfers a final time, to Dowling College in New York. At Dowling, Mark flourishes. Early on, he receives word that his mother is cured of her insanity. He makes the Dean’s List several semesters in a row and still finds time to coach tennis, edit the student paper, and act as a student ambassador to the campus administration. He becomes a vocal opponent of apartheid as well as an activist for civil rights and student issues. Because of this, he sometimes receives threats from people who call him “nigger” and “fag,” but he continues speaking out.

In his final year at Dowling, Mark begins writing Kaffir Boy. His professors encourage him to study journalism, but he is more interested in writing his book. He convinces Stan Smith to support him while he does so. For almost a year after he graduates from college, he works in solitude, thinking he has no chance of ever publishing his story. However, he meets an editor and an agent by chance, and both are impressed with his work. Not long later, he has a book contract for $35,000—an amount that allows him to support his family and continue writing for some time.

A year after graduation, Mark needs to go back to school to maintain his immigration status in the United States. He follows friends’ advice and begins studying journalism in New York City. Journalism school provides a satisfying social life that includes an outspoken community of international students who challenge him with their ideas. However, Mark is dissatisfied with journalism because he wants to be free to break away from objectivity and write his opinions. He ends up dropping out of school to finish Kaffir Boy.

After leaving school, Mark obtains a lawyer and applies for an H-1 work permit, hoping to stay in the United States as “a person with a distinguished merit and ability.” He obtains the permit, but the South African consulate refuses to issue him a proper passport. He is given a travel document that states he is a citizen of Venda—his father’s tribe—rather than a citizen of his home country. The American consulate eventually accepts this document and allows him to remain in the United States.

During his period of worry about his immigration status, Mark experiences several successes. He meets Gail, a white woman whom he eventually marries. American magazines and newspapers publish several stories he writes about South Africa. He begins giving lectures at prep schools, and he is gratified at the sympathy he receives even from conservative Americans.

However, Mark’s outspokenness against apartheid makes him fear for his family in South Africa. When two of his brothers-in-law are simultaneously murdered, Mark is sure that apartheid leaders are punishing him. This cannot be proven, however, and his mother urges him to continue to speak out.

Mark faces racism in his daily life in New York. He is allowed to remain living at the journalism school for several months after he withdraws, but eventually he is forced to look for an apartment. During this search, landlords repeatedly turn him away because he is black. He ends up living in a basement room in a poor neighborhood. Partly because of this, Mark begins to grow disgusted with city life. After some reflection, he moves to North Carolina, where he finds people friendlier.

The initial sales of Kaffir Boy are disappointing, but Mark works hard to publicize his book. He pushes the book on several TV and radio shows. Interest in the book picks up when People magazine publishes a story about him. Some time later, Oprah Winfrey calls and invites him to appear on her show.

Oprah takes a great interest in Mark. She offers to fly his entire family in from South Africa to visit him and appear on her show. Mark, who has not seen his family in nine years, is overjoyed. Several members of the family come for a month, and Mark and Gail get married during the visit. They all appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show together, and Kaffir Boy becomes a best-seller.

While Mark’s family visits the United States, several doctors in his neighborhood offer them free medical check-ups. They diagnose his mother with diabetes and his sister Florah with cancer. Doctors donate free care to both of them, and they return to South Africa much healthier.

Three of Mark’s siblings do not return to South Africa at all. George, twenty-two, is desperate for the opportunity to achieve an education. He agrees to restart school at the tenth-grade level in spite of his age because he cannot yet cope with higher level work. He immediately begins studying hard and succeeding. Linah, who is fourteen, and Dianah, who is eleven, do not adjust so quickly, but Mark pushes them to work hard.

Kaffir Boy in America ends with a tribute to hard-working South Africans who gain an education. In the final sentences, Mark pledges to continue dedicating his life to freedom and justice.

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