Formation of Identity

Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane


“The last thing I ever dreamed of when I was daily battling for survival and for an identity other than that of inferiority and fourth class citizen, which apartheid foisted on me, was that someday I would attend an American college, edit its newspaper, graduate with honors, practise journalism and write a book” (Mathabane ix).

    • Perspective and identity of Johannes change throughout the novel
    • Both positive and negative influences develop his identity
    • Negative- leave him with a sense of wanting to overcome obstacles
    • Positive- inspire him to have hope and dreams that he may escape the horrible situation of his childhood

    In your literary journal, answer the following questions:

    1. How would you describe yourself and your identity?
    2. Has your identity developed and changed since you started high school? How?
    3. Describe a few events or people in your life that have influenced who you are.

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    Negative Influences

    “We both knew we were on a collision course. I was set in my ways, he in his. He disparaged education, I extolled it; he burned my books at every opportunity, I bought more; he abused my mother, I tried to help her; he believed all that the white man said about him, I did not; he lived for the moment, I for the future, uncertain as it was.” (Mathabane 207).

    • Johannes and his father disagree on almost every front
    • Having had tribal traditions forced on him throughout his childhood by his father, Johannes vows to never be like his father

    “But how could we blacks allow whites to do this to us--to degrade us, to trample on our dignity – without fighting back? The fact that for the rest of my life I was doomed to carry the odious thing – a reminder of my inferior station in South African life – filled me with outrage and revived my determination to get to America.” (Mathabane 335).

    • South African government requires all blacks to carry a pass book and to acquire permits for virtually everything
    • Very distinct segregation and discrimination dooms most blacks to life of utter poverty

    “The remark that black people had smaller brains and were thus incapable of reading, speaking or writing English like white people had so wounded my ego that I vowed that, whatever the cost, I would master English, that I would not rest till I could read, write and speak it just like any white man, if not better. Finally I had something to aspire to” (Mathabane 192).

    • Johannes is offended by Clyde's remarks about black people
    • He is inspired to break away from the mold and society's perceptions and leave Alexandra to move to America

    “On the way home, voiced kept ringing in my head. Why do you fight when you don’t want to?....Leave the gang, leave it now, while you still have both eyes, and your life; leave it now and be called a wimp for the rest of your life, if need be; but do not needlessly, recklessly, and foolishly jeopardize your future” (Mathabane 196).

    • Being a member of a gang made Johannes a gruff, misbehaving child
    • After witnessing horrible violence, Johannes realizes his chances of leaving South Africa are put in danger if he does not leave the gang

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    Positive Influences

    “What was so remarkable about my first-year performance was that I had come out number one despite chronically lacking books, having had to resort more attention during class lectures, borrowing other children’s books to do homework and relying on picture-book memory during exams” (Mathabane 143).

    • When Johannes first becomes number one in his class, he realizes that his poverty can't hold him back from everything
    • He learns he can overcome his poverty by working hard

    “These books and toys revealed to me a new reality. They moulded my thoughts and feelings and made me dream. My interest in learning increased” (Mathabane 171).

    • The toys and books inspire Johannes to dream and explore all the possibilities his life could take even those that my go against Apartheid
    • He also begins to focus on education as a way of attaining these dreams

    “After a dozen or so trips to the white world, I began to feel somewhat comfortable amid the sea of white faces....the Smiths’ kind treatment of me each time I visited them, though in most ways paternalistic, did much to alleviate that fear, and I began to naively assume that maybe white people weren’t all that bad after all” (Mathabane 198).

    • Mr. and Mrs. Smith's treatment and caring ways enable Johannes to realize for the first time that not all white people are the same
    • It is through this discovery that Johannes later becomes the odd one out when he begins to hang out with white people

    “We had achieved the ultimate triumph in a white man’s sport...I became more determined than ever to get to America...I immediately set out to find out more about how a black boy from the ghetto could win a scholarship to an American university. I remained mindless of the dangers of associating with whites” (Mathabane 288).

    • Arthur Ashe's win at Wimbledon proves to him that the white man can be beaten and that essentially anything is possible

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    Discussion Questions

    1. Which of these influence do you think affected Johannes’ formation of identity the most or least? Why?
    2. In life, do you think positive or negative influences help shape our identities more?
    3. What other events or people had an influence (positive or negative) on Johannes that helped to form his identity?
    4. Do you think Mark’s identity underwent further reformation when he reached America? If so, what could have changed it?
    5. Is it a person’s actions or behaviors that shape their identity?
    6. In what ways did Johannes identify with the blacks in Alexandra? In what ways did he identify with the white people he encountered?
    7. How does a person’s perceptions of himself shape who they are? How do other’s perceptions do the same?