Kaffir Boy in America Summary
by Mark Mathabane

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Extended Summary

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1,599 words.)