“Master Harold”… and the boys is a play whose story is wedded to the complex racial relationships among its three characters, the two middle aged black workers, Sam and Willie, and Hally or “Master Harold,” their boss’s son, a white teenager on the verge of manhood. The racial tension among the characters is, in turn, informed by the play’s setting and context. In 1950, South Africa, including Port Elizabeth where “Master Harold” is set, was two years into a decades-long governmentally sanctioned system of racial segregation and oppression known by its Afrikaans name of apartheid (literally “apart-hood”). Under apartheid, South Africans were divided into four official racial groups (“black,” “white,” “coloured,” and “Indian”), with different neighborhoods, beaches, parks, and public services provided to each depending on their racial caste, which was, essentially a hierarchy with socially privileged white South Africans at the top and oppressed black South Africans at the bottom. Eventually, black South Africans were even deprived of their South African citizenship. Even before apartheid, however, racial segregation of a less codified and officially sanctioned form had been the norm in South Africa since Dutch colonial rule began there in the latter part of the 17th century.
Given South Africa’s history of civically and socially promoted racism, Hally’s comments that Sam has “never been a slave” and that “we”—meaning, presumably, “enlightened” white South Africans like Hally—“freed [Sam’s] ancestors… long before the Americans,” reveal a blind, even pitiful, ignorance. Hally is so unconscious an inheritor of his society’s prejudice that he finds it acceptable, as a member of the “elect” white race, even to argue with Sam about who is a more appropriate role model for black freedom and equality. As the play progresses it reveals other blatant examples of racism, such as Hally’s proposal that social dances like the foxtrot and waltz have replaced the “savage” tribal dances of the black man’s ancestors and the jokes about black people Hally reveals he laughs at with his father, but racism has a range of more subtle expressions, both in Hally’s character and in the chief action of the play itself, two black men working for and waiting on a white boy who presumes, often unconsciously, to be their moral, intellectual, and social superior because of a societal standing derived from the color of his skin.
Racism Quotes in "Master Harold" … and the Boys
They make you lie down on a bench. One policeman pulls down your trousers and holds your ankles, another one pulls your shirt over your head and holds your arms… and the one that gives you the strokes talks to you gently and for a long time between each one.
I’ve heard enough, Sam! Jesus! It’s a bloody awful world when you come to think of it. People can be real bastards.
“...Napoleon regarded all people as equal before the law and wanted them to have equal opportunities for advancement. All ves-ti-ges of the feu-dal system with its oppression of the poor were abolished.” Vestiges, feudal system and abolished. I’m all right on oppression.
I tried [referring to reading The Origin of the Species]. I looked at the chapters in the beginning and I saw one called “The Struggle for an Existence.” Ah ha, I thought. At last! But what did I get? Something called the mistiltoe which needs the apple tree and there’s too many seeds and all are going to die except one…! No, Hally.
Don’t get sentimental, Sam. You’ve never been a slave, you know. And anyway we freed your ancestors here in South Africa long before the Americans. But if you want to thank somebody on their behalf, do it to Mr. William Wilberforce. Come on. Try again. I want a real genius.
…I got another rowing for hanging around the “servants’ quarters.” I think I spent more time in there with you chaps than anywhere else in that dump. And do you blame me? Nothing but bloody misery everywhere you went.
The sheer audacity of it took my breath away. I mean, seriously, what the hell does a black man know about flying a kite?...If you think I was excited and happy, you got another guess coming… When we left the boarding house to go up onto the hill, I was praying quietly that there wouldn’t be any other kids around to laugh at us.
HALLY: You explained how to get it 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
Don’t try to be clever, Sam. It doesn’t suit you. Anybody who thinks there’s nothing wrong with this world need to have his head examined... If there is a God who created this world, he should scrap it and try again.
I’ve been far too lenient with the two of you. But what really makes me bitter is that I allow you chaps a little freedom in here when business is bad and, what do you do with it? The foxtrot! Specially you, Sam. There’s more to life than trotting around a dance floor and I thought at least you knew it.
It’s beautiful because that is what we want life to be like. But instead… we’re bumping into each other all the time. Look at the three of us this afternoon… Open a newspaper and what do you read? America has bumped into Russia, England is bumping into India, rich man bumps into poor man… People get hurt in all that bumping, and we’re sick and tired of it now.
HALLY: He’s a white man and that’s good enough for you.
SAM: I’ll try to forget you said that.
HALLY: To begin with, why don’t you start calling me Master Harold, like Willie.
SAM: Do you mean that?
HALLY: Why the hell do you think I said it?
SAM: If you make me say it once, I’ll never call you by anything else again
If you ever do write it as a short story, there was a twist in our ending. I couldn’t sit down there and stay with you. It was a “Whites Only” bench. You were too young, too excited to notice then. But not anymore. If you’re not careful… Master Harold… you’re going to be sitting up there by yourself for a long time to come, and there won’t be a kite in the sky.