Advantage, the American Way : After Fleeing Apartheid, Author Mark Mathabane Has His Own Special Spin on U.S. Race Relations

Times Staff Writer

At times he seems a combination of Martin Luther King Jr., whom he paraphrases often, and Gandhi, whose countenance he resembles, as he speaks in soft, earnest tones while sporting little, round spectacles like the ones the Mahatma wore.

Mark Mathabane, one muses, is a man in the process of self-creation.

The 29-year-old author of "Kaffir Boy in America" (Charles Scribner's Sons), the recently published sequel to his best-selling autobiography, "Kaffir Boy"--his story of the horrors of growing up black under South African apartheid--is explaining why he is not as angry as he says many African Americans would like him to be.

Knows Anger's Consequences

"Given my experiences with apartheid" (the white minority government's policy of racial separation in South Africa), Mathabane finds it difficult to carry the burden of so much hostility around with him daily, he says. "I know the consequences of that much anger." It is self-defeating.

"That is the most important lesson my mother taught me. I had to transcend the hatred and anger, despite the pain--and that's likely a daily battle because of the racist incidents I will encounter. But if I did not succumb to those negative emotions, I had a better chance of preserving my humanity."

Sweat streaks Mathabane's smooth face as he reaches for a cup of orange juice. He's sitting in the hot sun at the Tennis Place in Los Angeles after lobbing a few balls over the net for a photograph.

Tennis Helped Him Flee

Tennis is what allowed Mathabane to flee the circumscribed life ordained for him by whites in South Africa. Wimbledon tennis champion Stan Smith met the teen-age Mathabane while in South Africa. Smith saw the accomplished but largely self-taught player at a tournament and arranged a tennis scholarship for him at tiny Limestone College in Gaffney, S.C.

When Mathabane, who was more interested in grades than athletics (and never had the talent to play world-class tennis anyway, he writes) lost his scholarship, Smith continued to pay for his college education.

Smith and other whites have been very important to Mathabane's success in America; though, after 10 years here, the author and lecturer says he is fully aware of the racism that exists here.

Whatever bitterness he held toward whites because of the brutality he suffered at their hands in South Africa had to be weighed against the "important friendships I have formed with white people. I have accepted them for what the content of their characters revealed."

Black Americans he has met while attending schools in the United States, and those he has encountered while promoting the new book, often have difficulty accepting this view, he says.

But "I know the danger of lumping all whites in the same foul band as the racists and consigning them to perdition simply because of collective guilt. I know the danger of doing that because the corollary . . . is this: What do you do with those black people who inflict so much pain on their own people?"

Mathabane is leaning forward, his voice growing softer as his emotions intensify.

"In South Africa, we had the (black) police and the heads of the homelands," areas to which the white government has forcibly relocated blacks, "who were just as corrupt and brutal as the whites."

In the United States, "we have (black) drug dealers feeding poison to young minds. So, do you say, because of my blackness I am in solidarity with those people?" Unfortunately, he continues, "there are some who do, as is shown by the startling example of a drug kingpin in D.C., who was arrested. When he appeared in court, there was this vocal congregation of blacks there in support of him, because the police who made the arrest were white. That is dangerous. The reality is that there are good black people and bad black people, just as there are good white people and bad. If we are ever to have the moral consistency, which is the strongest weapon of our cause, we ought to have the courage and willingness to be able to transcend judgment of people based on their skin color."

When Mathabane speaks his voice is mellifluous, caressing and musical like so many black South African accents. But each word is issued with the precision of a needle entering a vein. So impressive is his manner of speech that one might forget that his comments--like his new book--cover previously explored social terrain, albeit it with uncommon poetic vigor and through the eyes of a South African immigrant.

In 1979, while at Quincy College in Illinois--it was his third school in one year, at each of the others he'd been viewed as a loner by blacks and whites, or too uppity, or too studious--he discovered black literature. Richard Wright's searing autobiography, "Black Boy," was the first. This classic, a depiction of Wright's youth in the South, mirrored Mathabane's harrowing childhood under apartheid.

The next day, he went back to the school library and asked for more books by black authors. The Franciscan priest who was the head librarian "guided me to the treasure.

"I checked out Richard Wright's 'Native Son,' Eldridge Cleaver's 'Soul on Ice,' W.E.B. Du Bois's 'Souls of Black Folks,' 'The Autobiography of Malcolm X,' Franz Fanon's 'The Wretched of the Earth,' Claude Brown's 'Manchild in the Promised Land,' James Baldwin's 'The Fire Next Time' and 'Notes of a Native Son,' Maya Angelou's 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,' James Weldon Johnson's 'The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,' and the autobiography and incendiary speeches of Frederick Douglass."

Consumed Western Classics

These men and women, Mathabane continues in his book, "had written about what I felt and thought, what I had been through as a black man, what I desired, what I dreamed about. . . ."

The idealistic author is clearly the repository of much intelligence, having consumed the classics of Western literature and devoured the revolutionary documents of the United States--he traveled on the long, often bewildering flight from South Africa to America with dog-eared copies of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence.

When he arrived, he was to learn that the America he had read about, heard about on Voice of America broadcasts, seen on the cover of black magazines, was grossly different from the reality. He saw subtle, socially sanctioned--if not legal--apartheid in the United States. He saw black ghettoes in America as squalid and filled with the panoply of pathologies bred of oppression--alcoholism, domestic abuse, gangs--that existed in his black township of Alexandra where he grew up.

But he writes that in America, through education, he found "a second chance in life--a life I have dedicated to the struggle for justice."

Even when his intelligence is the echo of what others have already felt, thought and dreamed, it does not negate whatever truth may exist there. And one hears, as Mathabane speaks so carefully--always seeming to weigh perception against reality, fury against logic--an intellect constantly refining itself; a man tuning himself into a more astute receptor and generator of ideas.

On the difference between a black living in the American North and South, Mathabane says: "In the North, the tendency was to pretend that 'We like you" and then you turn around and you have this dagger going into your back. In the South, you knew where you stood. If somebody didn't like you, they would tell you to your face."

But, Mathabane adds, "in the South I have found more genuine progress than all the liberal sentiments that I had heard in New York."

New York is one of the most "polarized cities in America. It is a two-tier society with a vengeance and the people at the bottom of the totem pole are black. You have your so-called liberals saying, 'Oh, don't worry. These things will be taken care of.' But they perpetuate something that is just as deadly, this attitude that black people are incapable of defining their agenda . . . of pushing it as effectively as any other group." Rather, "they say 'Tell us what is the problem and we'll do it for you.' "

Lives With Family

Mathabane now lives in Kernersville, N.C.--between Winston-Salem and Greensboro--with his wife, Gail, a white American writer he met while at Columbia University, their daughter, Bianca, and several of his siblings who were brought to America by Oprah Winfrey.

In the South, Mathabane found "black communities that were some of the most powerful and successful I'd seen anywhere. And there was not this destructive anger. These people were content and proud and knew what it is that they were fighting against."

The successful Southern black communities Mathabane saw underscore the importance of identity and self-perception to black progress in America, he believes. African Americans must think beyond their numerical status in America, which makes them a minority, he says. They must see themselves as part of the larger black world--which includes Africa and the Caribbean--but most importantly as part of the "human" family, he asserts.

"We do ourselves a disservice by making it seem that our whole identity is predicated upon race. As a black from Africa, as part of the majority, my identity and pride were never that much in question--even under apartheid."

Though immigrants by their nature--driven, tenacious, bold--are more motivated than others, Mathabane believes that coming from a majority culture, having a strong sense of identity and family values, accounts for the success of so many West Indian and African blacks in the United States.

"It's amazing," he says, "what happens when you finally free your mind of those mental shackles. When you realize that the most important thing I have to fight as a black person in an oppressive, racist society is what I think about myself. It is so easy to fall into the state of saying, 'I am a victim.' It is formidable, but (African Americans) have to succeed in America despite racism. You have to, this is your fate. This is your lot. You belong here."

If Mathabane sounds like a soapbox orator, it's because he believes words are weapons. And he laments, in person and in print, that he may have come to the United States a generation too late.

"The progressive movement in America has lost its soul," he writes. He longs for the '60s when "courage and idealism" fueled "the civil rights movement, the Great Society and the New Frontier." A time when "whites and blacks . . . stood side by side."

He abhors the "rabid" conservatism of the Ronald Reagan years.

"I think Ronald Reagan has achieved a true revolution. He has turned blacks into these creatures called buppies (black upwardly mobile professionals)," bemoans Mathabane. These black counterparts to yuppies, he says, make the "egregious mistake of forgetting that many of them came from a ghetto and that they are needed in that ghetto, as examples, much more than anything."

Instead, "they arrange themselves in these enclaves and imbibe all the goals of materialistic happiness, forgetting one of the important things about blacks is their spirit of community. They forget that it does not take much to touch the life of a boy or girl in a positive manner."

Mathabane, true to his beliefs, works with young people through his local library, explaining to them the importance of education and how it transformed his life. The first part of that life will be put on film by Winfrey, whose production company, Harpo Productions, purchased the movie rights to "Kaffir Boy."

In July, 1986, when Mathabane appeared on Winfrey's program, the talk show host and philanthropist flew his grandmother, mother, three sisters and brother to Chicago for the show. His mother saw America and told her son: "Child this is Canaan. This is the land of milk and honey."

His family had lived in a place where there was one facecloth among them, where police regularly raided homes, forcing family members to stand naked before the dawn. Once here, they gave Mathabane a litany of why they loved America, he recounts in his book:

"We aren't required to carry passes."

"We can go anywhere we want."

"We can ride in the same buses and use the same toilet as anyone."

"In America all people are equal."

Toward the end of his book, Mathabane writes: "I knew that there was more to America than what my family saw, heard, or was exposed to, but I did not want to lessen their sense of joy and liberation. After all, their visit to America was only supposed to last a month. If they had to go back to South Africa, I wanted them to know that somewhere they could breathe free. . . ."

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