Today was my last day of classes for this semester. I have one semester left before I graduate next Spring. Wow! This academic journey has exceeded what I thought academia could provide. What it could do to and for a person. Especially this person. I am awed, humbled, scared, proud, giddy and amazed. I am intimidated by the woman it has made me. My expectations of myself have quadrupled. My expectations for myself have quadrupled. Wow!
Okay, more about that later…
This semester I had a class, Surveying the Black Experience in Literature, the best class of my academic career. What made it earn that title? Well, it was provocative, stimulating, educational, enlightening, questioning, answering, on and on. The novels we read had titles like: Things Fall Apart, King Leopold’s Ghost, Kaffir Boy, Nervous Condition, God’s Bits of Wood, The Farming of Bones and Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. Do you see a theme? We spoke at length about Fanon.
For the class, we were also required to do a group presentation. Because we had the coolest professor I have ever had, her definition of “group” allowed for us to individually prepare our presentation. “Group” meant we stood together to present (I mean… who the hell has time to meet with their peers to work on a collaborative anything?!?). When it came time for our group to present, of the two choices of novel we had, I chose to present on Kaffir Boy. This novel, like no other I have read, provoked all my emotions. I felt outraged, heartbroken, disgusted, embarrassed, disillusioned, duped… I was deeply affected.
If you have not read the book, do. Black or white, you should know this reality in your soul.
Immediately below, I have copied and pasted Wikipedia’s brief synopsis of the author and the novel. Immediately following that, I have posted the poem I wrote as my contribution for our presentation. Warning: it is graphic and uses strong language. Let me know what you think (I can take it).
P.S. Kaffir means, nigger.
Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa is Mark Mathabane’s 1986 autobiography about life under the South African apartheid regime. It focuses on the brutality of the apartheid system and how he escaped from it, and from the township Alexandra, to become a well-known tennis player. He also depicted how the young black children dealt with racism and stereotypes. By embracing education, he is able to rise out of despair and destitution.
At his mother’s insistence, Mathabane starts school and learns to love it, rising to the top of his class in spite of frequent punishments due to his family’s late payments for school fees and inability to afford school supplies. He graduates from primary school with a scholarship that will pay for his secondary education.
Mathabane’s grandmother becomes a gardener for a kind family, the Smiths, who introduce Mathabane to books and tennis by sending books and even a tennis racket home with his grandmother for him. He learns English from these books, and begins to play tennis frequently, eventually befriending a coloured tennis player who trains him.
Mathabane joins the high school tennis team and begins to play in tournaments, unofficially sponsored by Wilfred Horn, owner of the Tennis Ranch. It is technically illegal for Mark to play there, but the law is ignored and he becomes comfortable with whites. Eventually renowned tennis player Stan Smith takes Mathabane under his wing when the two meet at a tournament. Stan pays for Mathabane to compete in tournaments and talks to his coach at the University of Southern California about Mathabane attending college in the states. The coach writes to colleges on his behalf and Mathabane earns a tennis scholarship to Limestone College and leaves for the U.S. in 1978.
**Mark Mathabane was born, Johannes Mathabane. Make what you like of his name change… I did**
Leaving His Mark
I sat down to write a tale or two
I thought it important to explain to you
My thoughts, my memories, my truths, my fears
Hoping for your sympathy. Counting on your tears.
You see, some may feel shame, some may not care
Some may disbelieve, some may even dare
To challenge my words, thinking it a ploy
That I could remember when I was a Kaffir boy.
I know not many remember when they were three
But I dare you to tell me these things did not happen to me:
The raids, the poverty, the filth, the starvation
The hopelessness for black people in my home and my nation.
A father who drank and gambled too
A mother left wondering what the fuck to do!
Because you see, their passbooks were useless, they were incomplete
So no jobs, no clothes and nothing to eat.
Digging through trash, finding a dead black baby
Eating what we found there, thinking that maybe
The white man’s trash will truly be our treasures
You see desperate times do call for desperate measures.
Mothers with their babies strapped to their back
Scrounging for plates, knives, spoons, food, to satisfy a lack.
Rummaging like animals, swatting away flies
Children with fevers, chills and sores… praying no one else dies.
Tribal ways losing to the white man’s laws
Caving under the pressure, desperation exposing its flaws.
You see, you can’t take heritage or customs to the market
Money is the only currency you can actually pay with.
Christianity winning some people over, even converting a few
Just so Mummy start to listen, right out of the blue!
I guess when your belly is always big, but your stomach always empty
White religion may be the only way to feed your pickaninny.
Education comes next, must learn to read
Venda, Shangaan and English. Yes, indeed!
Top of my class, father so proud
Singing my praises; even singing them out loud!
No books, no fees, I take another beating
While mother telling me this will be fleeting.
“Hang on”, she says, “this too shall pass
Show up, stay present, please son, go to class.”
Granny brings me books, comics and sometimes a toy
She gets them from the white woman’s little boy.
She takes me there, I say: Yes, madam, Yes, baas, Yes, Master
But a black man in a white world could only spell disaster.
I step on the wrong bus, “Oh fuck, what did I do?!”
Granny cleaned up the filth caused by my shoe.
You see, that bus was for whites, for the people filled with joy
Not for the woes and worries of an ignorant Kaffir boy!
But the white lady likes me and takes pity on me
Gives me a racket… hey, tennis must be the key
To get out of poverty, hunger and shame
So, you bet your sweet ass I learned the white man’s game!
I studied, I read, I mastered the sport
You must think I’m a sell-out, but I’m nothing of the sort.
I guess I played the game… a little too well it seems
But all I wanted was a shot at my dreams.
My ancestors call me Johannes. I call myself Mark
I married a white woman, but it didn’t make me less dark.
I’m a father now, my children are coloured
Your opinion of that? I truly can’t be bothered.
You see, now I can eat, I have books, clothes and money
Does it really matter to you where I get my honey?
African woman, white woman, short woman, tall, slim or bigger
Because at the end of the day, am I anything but a nigger?