Mark Mathabane’s 1986 autobiography, Kaffir Boy, describes his upbringing under South African apartheid and the process by which he escapes to the United States. A bright student, young Mark devours the books his mother’s white employer lends him, and through their relationship, he also begins playing tennis – which was pretty high on the list of white and upper-crusty sports in those days. Under the guidance of a black player, Mark becomes so skilled that he is invited to play at an all-white tennis club.
Surprisingly, nobody at the club cares that this is a huge rule violation, and Mark’s presence not only dispels some white stereotypes about blacks, but also makes him recognize his own fundamental equality with a world that would have him think otherwise. Eventually, Mark’s mentor encourages him to play for the South African Breweries’ Open, which the apartheid government has made multi-racial in a feeble attempt to improve their international image. Insulted by their country’s transparent and self-serving gesture, every black player decides to boycott the event – except Mark.
Although his participation outcasts him from the black community, it also has huge symbolic implications. Mark crosses into the white sectors of Johannesburg – which was against the law at the time – to play a very elite sport, thus literally beating the colonizers at their own game. On a more practical level, showcasing his ability earns him a scholarship to Limestone College in South Carolina, which not only allows him to escape South Africa, but also brings him to a place where his story can be heard and make a difference. Kaffir Boy just goes to show that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em – and THEN beat ’em.
In a similar tradition of African literature is Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, who is best known for a series of novels about British colonization that includes Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease. Although Achebe is the most widely-translated African author in the world, he has received strong criticism for not writing in his native Igbo. Unlike Mathabane, Achebe still called Africa home when he decided to write in English.
Just as Mathabane finds himself defending his participation in the tennis open, Achebe must argue for his use of English over Igbo. First, English is the only language spoken across all of Nigeria (not to mention most of the rest of the world), which allows his message to reach millions instead of just thousands or even hundreds. Secondly, Achebe never allows the language to confine him; he manipulates English to conform to Igbo style, mimic its cadence, and express its proverbs. By “extending the frontiers of English so as to accommodate African thought-patterns,” Achebe forces the language to serve him, thus subverting voice of the colonizer to convey that of the oppressed.