Study Guide

Master Harold... and the boys Race

By Athol Fugard

Race

WILLIE. I know, I know! (To the jukebox) I do it better with music. You got sixpence for Sarah Vaughn?
[…]
SAM. (Shaking his head) It's your turn to put money in the jukebox.
WILLIE. I only got bus fare to go home. (94-100)

Sam and Willie are busy practicing for the upcoming dance contest only two weeks away, but the music's only in their heads. They don't even have enough money for the jukebox, and how much could that be? We're not experts in the South African exchange rate in 1950, but we'd guess less than a nickel. So right off the bat we see that Sam and Willie are very poor, that their opportunities are really limited. As we get to know them, these limits feel even more unfair.

HALLY. [. . .] (Shaking his head with disbelief) The sheer audacity of it took my breath away. I mean, seriously, what the hell does a black man know about flying a kite? (826-829)

Check out the language Hally uses in this simple quote to show how crazy it is that Sam would know how to make and fly a kite: "disbelief," "audacity," "seriously." The kite, the utmost in leisurely objects (because, really, since Ben Franklin it's had no useful purpose) is outside of the realm of the black man because he's smack dab in the world of work—no time for fun for him. Hally doesn't seem to see how offensive this comment might be. It's just a fact, in his mind.

HALLY. [. . .] You explained how to get [the kite] down, we tied it to the bench so that I could sit and watch it, and you went away. I wanted you to stay, you know. I was a little scared of having to look after it by myself.
SAM. (Quietly) I had work to do, Hally. (890)

Sam can't stay and play with Hally because he's got work to do. We can read between the lines and interpret a little bit, too: he has work to do because he's black. He has to leave the kite behind and get down to it. Of course, we find out later the real reason Sam couldn't stay.

HALLY. Little white boy in short trousers and a black man old enough to be his father flying a kite. It's not every day you see that.
SAM. But why strange? Because the one is white and the other black?
HALLY. I don't know. Would have been just as strange, I suppose, if it had been me and my Dad…cripple man and a little boy! (908-915)

Hally points out how unusual it is to see a white child with a black man doing something that's entirely meant to be fun. What do you think about Hally's comment that it would have been just as strange with his "crippled" father? Is Fugard implying that blackness in apartheid South Africa is a crippling handicap?

HALLY. [. . .] My mother is right. She's always warning me about allowing you to get too familiar. [. . .] You're only a servant in here, and don't forget it.
(Still no response. HALLY is trying hard to get one)
And as far as my father is concerned, all you need to remember is that he is your boss. [. . . ] He's a white man and that's good enough for you. (1643-1656)

As we saw in the kite scenes, up until now Hally and Sam have had an unusually close relationship, like a father and son. The rest of the world, like Hally's mom, disapproves of their closeness and Hally, stressed out about his family problems, is starting to adopt society's view. Hally uses his father's racial "superiority" as a reason that his father is also Sam's boss. There's no other explanation needed for white superiority than the simple fact that you're white.

HALLY. [. . .] I can tell you now that somebody who will be glad to hear I've finally given it to you will be my Dad. Yes! He agrees with my Mom. He's always going on about it as well. "You must teach the boys to show you more respect, my son." (1700-1707)

Hally wants Sam to call him "Master Harold" to show him some respect, and he thinks he's earned that respect merely by being white. His dad calls Willie and Sam "the boys," as though they were children. Usually, when a boy identifies with his father, it's a good sign he's growing up into an adult. In an apartheid society, though, it's not good news.

HALLY. [. . .] Want to know what our favorite joke is? He gives out a big groan, you see, and says: "It's not fair, is it, Hally?" Then I have to ask: "What, chum?" And then he says: "A n*****'s arse"…and we both have a good laugh.

(The men stare at him with disbelief)

[. . .] It's what's called a pun. You see, fair means both light in color and to be just and decent. (1718-1727)

Hally is transforming into a raging racist right before Sam and Willie's eyes—you can see it in their "disbelief" that he's never used such hateful language with them before. His explanation of the unfunny joke is ironic—by using the words "just and decent" he's just calling attention to how unjust and indecent he's being.

SAM. [. . .] Anyway, how do you know it's not fair? You've never seen it. Do you want to? (He drops his trousers and underpants and presents his backside for HALLY'S inspection) Have a good look. A real Basuto arse…which is about as n***** as they can come. Satisfied? (Trousers up) (1744-1749)

By physically dropping his pants and mooning Hally, he is calling him out on his terrible joke, making the ugly words real. He says he has a real Basuto behind, which is a reference to his tribe, reappropriating Hally's hateful, generalizing reference and showing pride in and knowledge of his heritage. Sam's counting on his relationship with Hally to let him take the risk of doing this. He knows he could be thrown in jail for disrespecting a white man.

(SAM stops and looks expectantly at the boy. HALLY spits in his face. A long and heartfelt groan from WILLIE. For a few seconds SAM doesn't move)
SAM. [. . .] The face you should be spitting in is your father's…but you used mine, because you think you're safe inside your fair skin…and this time I don't mean just or decent. (1759-1773)

Sam's right—Hally's truly angry with his father, but because he can't find it in himself to do anything about it he uses the black men around him as substitute punching bags. He hides inside of his whiteness, which protects him from societal disapproval but not from the pain of being an unjust and indecent human being.

WILLIE. [. . .] He's a little boy, Boet Sam. Little white boy. Long trousers now, but he's still a little boy. (1786-1787)

Willie uses the South African word "boet," which means brother or friend, to refer to Sam. Here, that usage draws a clear line between the black men and Hally; they are brothers who must defend themselves against their oppressor. When he dismisses Hally as a little boy, he adds in the further adjective, in italics, of "white," as though it were further evidence of Hally's ignorance. This is one of the few scenes where Willie takes the lead in his relationship with Sam.

SAM. [. . .] It was a "Whites Only" bench. You were too young, too excited to notice then. But not anymore. (1845-1847)

So that bench that Sam couldn't sit on because he had "work to do" isn't just a matter of who has time to work and who has time to play. It was legally, publicly marked for use by white people only. Here's an example. Even though Sam, a black man, is the one taking care of Hally, his skin color trumps his relationship and forces him to leave. Hally was probably too young to notice back then, but Sam point out that he's old enough now to do something about it.

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