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Racist Attitudes and Their Influences in “Master Harold” … and the boys

We have all heard the saying that the rich keep getting richer while the poor keep getting poorer. This somewhat describes South Africa in the 1950s. During this time in Africa, the white people kept getting more powerful while the black population kept getting weaker. South Africa’s apartheid system gave powerful odds to the whites and created a racist society. In “Master Harold” … and the boys, a book set around the 1950s and during the apartheid system, the racist attitudes from the apartheid system and Hally’s parents affected how Hally treated Sam and Willie, who are black and work for Hally’s mother. These attitudes over-shadowed the good relationship Sam and Hally had built through most of Hally’s childhood.

“Apartheid was a system that deliberately set out to humiliate black people, even to the point of relegating them to separate benches, entails the danger of habitual indifference to the everyday detail that shape black and white relationship and finally, perverts them.” (Durbach 69). South Africa passed laws and acts making the black people’s lives degrading and ensured the white superiority. Four laws were passed in 1950 which included the Population Registration Act, Group Areas Act, the Amendment to the Immorality Act, and the suppression of the Communism Act. These laws did several things including classified people by color, governed areas for living according to race and controlled ownership of property, prohibited sexual across racial lines, and removed due process of laws for blacks. (Durbach 69).

Apartheid was used in South Africa because the whites, while a minority in the population, wanted to be in control of the government and society. The way anything that is smaller in size, and therefore weaker, is able to get power is through intimidation. The whites made themselves more powerful by making the blacks feel inferior. The blacks were told they were not good enough and therefore had to be separated from the whites. The whites belittled and separated themselves from the blacks so they wouldn’t feel guilty for what they were doing to them. If you make someone become something other than human and lower its level, you don’t think you are hurting another person. For instance owners of pets do not feel guilty when you tie up a dog, or let a pet sleep outside. Your pet is just an animal therefore they do not mind or expect much different.

Apartheid was more than racial prejudice legislated in South Africa. It became an everyday belief. Racism became part of everyday living it was part of schooling, home life, government, and even on public display such as park benches. It taught society that a seventeen-year old boy was master over two black men. In the book, Hally is quoted as saying to Sam, “Because that is exactly what Master Harold wants from now on. Think of it as a little lesson in respect, Sam, that’s long overdue.” (Fugard 55) As in the book, a white boy was respected and looked upon as being higher and better than the black men. In any other traditional society, a child is to show respect to any adult, no matter what their color or background. The apartheid system lowered the blacks to a level lower than children, which was very humiliating, especially for an adult man.

The most important influence on a child is its parents. The parents’ actions, behaviors, and beliefs are passed on to their children. So many white children from South Africa grew up with parents having racist beliefs and not knowing anything different. Hally’s parents both had racists beliefs which influenced his attitude towards Sam and Willie. Hally’s mother owned a café, which employed Sam and Willie, but she never saw them as anything other than servants. “My mother is right. She’s always warning me about allowing you to get too familiar.” (Fugard 53) She took for granted their loyalty and didn’t appreciate all they did for her business and her son. “All that concern you in here, Sam, is to try and do what you get paid for -- keep the place clean and serve the customers. In plain words, just get on with your job . . . You’re only a servant here, and don’t forget it.” (Fugard 53) Hally’s father was worse in his racist attitude. His father always wanted Hally and his mother to take more control over the “boys”. He wants Hally and his mother to restrict Sam and Willie’s freedom so they will understand who is in control and to learn to respect them more. Hally tells Sam, “I can tell you now that somebody who will be glad to hear I’ve finally given it to you will be my Dad. He is always going on about it as well. ‘You must teach the boys to show you more respect, my son.’”(Fugard 55) Hally’s father told him a racist joke that Hally retold to Sam which caused them to have a dispute. The joke was, “It’s not fair, is it, Hally? What, chum? A nigger’s arse.”(Fugard, 55) Hally told the joke because of its racist context hoping to hurt Sam because the color of his skin.

Because of Hally’s upbringing and parent’s influence, he can’t help but have a warped preconception about blacks that is similar to his parents. Hally has been taught that he is superior and until he learns differently, he will always think of Sam, and all blacks, as lower than himself. Hally tells Sam in reference to Hally’s father, “He’s a white man and that’s good enough for you.”(Fugard 53)

Sam knew Hally through most of Hally’s childhood. Sam soon became a better father figure to Hally than his own real father. Once, Sam built Hally a kite to raise his head and dignity. Sam explains to Hally, “If you really want to know, that’s why I made you that kite. I want you to look up, be proud of something. Of yourself . . . and you certainly was that when I left you with it up there on the hill. Oh, ja something else.”(Fugard 58) Sam also talked and listened to him and taught Hally many lessons. Sam had promised himself that he would teach Hally that blacks were as human and as good as whites. He wanted to provide him with a true vision about what society should be like. He wanted to influence Hally away from the way white South Africans believed about blacks.

At the end of “Master Harold” … and the boys, Sam says that he has failed to meet his goal to change how Hally would turn out. Sam states, “That was the promise I made to myself: to try and stop that from happening.”(Fugard 58) The color of the skin did make a difference to Hally, and it wasn’t for the better. Sam realized this when Hally told him the joke and ended up spitting on Sam’s face. Hally failed to take the higher road of manhood and both he and Sam did not beat the odds. Unfortunately, the apartheid system, Hally’s parents, and society as a whole had a greater influence on Hally than the one black man that was like a father to Hally. This ending of the story made for a very hopeless feeling. If a loyal and loving man can not win over a boy and change how he views the world, than how is society going to be able to change any absurd belief? How is change possible? Are we doomed to carry on the same mistakes?

While the book ended with a feeling of - what’s the use? - it was not conclusive that Hally’s future attitudes would remain the same. It is up to each reader to judge what lies ahead. I would like to believe that as Hally matures and because of his good relationship with Sam, he will realize that his attitudes are not fair and right and learn to be fairer to blacks. If Sam had not been part of his life, Hally would remain prejudiced.

Athol Fugard, the author of “Master Harold” … and the boys, is the basis for the main character, Hally. He relates his own life’s experiences and lessons through Hally. He shows how society can be cruel and ugly to the blacks. The book is used to show how mistakes occur and if we can learn and evolve from them, we should never convert back to make them again. If you make the same mistake again, the lesson was never learned in the first place. Athol Fugard overcame his odds, and if we can learn through his experiences, we will never have a hopeless ending.

Bibliography

Allison, Kimberly J., ed. The Harcourt brace Casebook Series in Literature: “Master Harold” . . . and the boys. Fort Worth: Harcourt, 1997.

Durbach, Ettol. “Master Harold’ . . . and the boys: Athol Fugard and the Psychopathology of Apartheid.” Allison 68-77.

Fugard, Athol. ”Master Harold” . . . and the boys. Allison 20-63

Word Count: 1457

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