Mark Mathabane on the power of the mind

Madison Li

Mathabane’s autobiography, “Kaffir Boy,” which we studied for months under an intense academic lens, materialized into raw emotions that poured out from the author himself during Book Day, a rare experience that I and other members of the Comparative Race and Ethnicity class were able to share. We sat on a panel with Mathabane and asked deeply analytical questions that arose from reading the book and hearing him speak in the opening assembly.

In the panel, Mathabane discussed one particular scene from the book where he visited the Smith’s, a white family that his grandmother worked for. Mrs. Smith encouraged her son, Clyde, to play with Mathabane, and Clyde replied that in school they were taught that blacks have smaller brains. When they were in Clyde’s room, Clyde opened a book to a page with Shakespeare’s writing and challenged Mathabane to read the writing to test the theory.

Mathabane described how he was frustrated that he wasn’t able to read the text, despite learning basic English in school. In that moment, Mathabane decided that he was going to read as much as he could possibly get his hands on and master English so that he could come back, read that same page, and prove Clyde wrong.

Having Mathabane describe this particular scene in person was a completely different experience from simply reading the text. Mathabane speaks from his heart with so much passion, and any person sitting in Gross Theatre could feel every emotion described- anger, frustration, and determination.

His experienced motivated Mathabane to challenge the oppression of the South African apartheid system. I felt fortunate and inspired simply sitting in the presence of Mathabane, a bestselling author able to escape the wrath of apartheid. The hardships he endured in his youth are virtually unimaginable to a person who has never lived through a similar experience, and the combination of his presence, voice, and emotions helped me to understand his past in a more profound way.

Mathabane also discussed the power of how speaking to someone face-to-face allows one to feel the person’s essence. The opportunity to hear him speak in person about his experiences, especially regarding Clyde, proved to me the significance of speaking with someone face-to-face and using literature and one’s own mind to reverse the cycle of oppression.