Authors: Trevor Noah
We picked up right where we’d left off, which was him treating me exactly the way he’d treated me as a thirteen-year-old boy. Like the creature of habit he was, my father went straight back into it. “Right! So where were we? Here, I’ve got all your favorites. Potato
A bottle of Sprite. Custard with caramel.” Luckily my tastes hadn’t matured much since the age of thirteen, so I tucked right in.
While I was eating he got up and went and picked up this book, an oversized photo album, and brought it back to the table. “I’ve been following you,” he said, and he opened it up. It was a scrapbook of everything I had ever done, every time my name was mentioned in a newspaper, everything from magazine covers to the tiniest club listings, from the beginning of my career all the way through to that week. He was smiling so big as he took me through it, looking at the headlines. “Trevor Noah Appearing This Saturday at the Blues Room.” “Trevor Noah Hosting New TV Show.”
I felt a flood of emotions rushing through me. It was everything I could do not to start crying. It felt like this ten-year gap in my life closed right up in an instant, like only a day had passed since I’d last seen him. For years I’d had so many questions. Is he thinking about me? Does he know what I’m doing? Is he proud of me? But he’d been with me the whole time. He’d always been proud of me. Circumstance had pulled us apart, but he was never not my father.
I walked out of his house that day an inch taller. Seeing him had reaffirmed his choosing of me. He chose to have me in his life. He chose to answer my letter. I was wanted. Being chosen is the greatest gift you can give to another human being.
Once we reconnected, I was overcome by this drive to make up for all the years we’d missed. I decided the best way to do it was to interview him. I realized very quickly that that was a mistake. Interviews will give you facts and information, but facts and information weren’t really what I was after. What I wanted was a relationship, and an interview is not a relationship. Relationships are built in the silences. You spend time with people, you observe them and interact with them, and you come to know them—and that is what apartheid stole from us: time. You can’t make up for that with an interview, but I had to figure that out for myself.
I went down to spend a few days with my father, and I made it my mission: This weekend I will get to know my father. As soon as I arrived I started peppering him with questions. “Where are you from? Where did you go to school? Why did you do this? How did you do that?” He started getting visibly irritated.
“What is this?” he said. “Why are you interrogating me? What’s going on here?”
“I want to get to know you.”
“Is this how you normally get to know people, by interrogating them?”
“So how do you get to know people?”
“I dunno. By spending time with them, I guess.”
“Okay. So spend time with me. See what you find out.”
So we spent the weekend together. We had dinner and talked about politics. We watched F1 racing and talked about sports. We sat quietly in his backyard and listened to old Elvis Presley records. The whole time he said not one word about himself. Then, as I was packing up to leave, he walked over to me and sat down.
“So,” he said, “in the time we’ve spent together, what would you say you’ve learned about your dad?”
“Nothing. All I know is that you’re extremely secretive.”
“You see? You’re getting to know me already.”
hen Dutch colonists landed at the southern tip of Africa over three hundred years ago, they encountered an indigenous people known as the Khoisan. The Khoisan are the Native Americans of South Africa, a lost tribe of bushmen, nomadic hunter-gatherers distinct from the darker, Bantu-speaking peoples who later migrated south to become the Zulu, Xhosa, and Sotho tribes of modern South Africa. While settling in Cape Town and the surrounding frontier, the white colonists had their way with the Khoisan women, and the first mixed people of South Africa were born.
To work the colonists’ farms, slaves were soon imported from different corners of the Dutch empire, from West Africa, Madagascar, and the East Indies. The slaves and the Khoisan intermarried, and the white colonists continued to dip in and take their liberties, and over time the Khoisan all but disappeared from South Africa. While most were killed off through disease, famine, and war, the rest of their bloodline was bred out of existence, mixed in with the descendants of whites and slaves to form an entirely new race of people: coloreds. Colored people are a hybrid, a complete mix. Some are light and some are dark. Some have Asian features, some have white features, some have black features. It’s not uncommon for a colored man and a colored woman to have a child that looks nothing like either parent.
The curse that colored people carry is having no clearly defined heritage to go back to. If they trace their lineage back far enough, at a certain point it splits into white and native and a tangled web of “other.” Since their native mothers are gone, their strongest affinity has always been with their white fathers, the Afrikaners. Most colored people don’t speak African languages. They speak Afrikaans. Their religion, their institutions, all of the things that shaped their culture came from Afrikaners.
The history of colored people in South Africa is, in this respect, worse than the history of black people in South Africa. For all that black people have suffered, they know who they are. Colored people don’t.
At the end of our street in Eden Park, right in a bend at the top of the road, stood a giant mulberry tree growing out of someone’s front yard. Every year when it bore fruit the neighborhood kids would go and pick berries from it, eating as many as they could and filling up bags to take home. They would all play under the tree together. I had to play under the tree by myself. I didn’t have any friends in Eden Park.
I was the anomaly wherever we lived. In Hillbrow, we lived in a white area, and nobody looked like me. In Soweto, we lived in a black area, and nobody looked like me. Eden Park was a colored area. In Eden Park,
looked like me, but we couldn’t have been more different. It was the biggest mindfuck I’ve ever experienced.
The animosity I felt from the colored people I encountered growing up was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with. It taught me that it is easier to be an insider as an outsider than to be an outsider as an insider. If a white guy chooses to immerse himself in hip-hop culture and only hang out with black people, black people will say, “Cool, white guy. Do what you need to do.” If a black guy chooses to button up his blackness to live among white people and play lots of golf, white people will say, “Fine. I like Brian. He’s safe.” But try being a black person who immerses himself in white culture while still living in the black community. Try being a white person who adopts the trappings of black culture while still living in the white community. You will face more hate and ridicule and ostracism than you can even begin to fathom. People are willing to accept you if they see you as an outsider trying to assimilate into their world. But when they see you as a fellow tribe member attempting to disavow the tribe, that is something they will never forgive. That is what happened to me in Eden Park.
When apartheid came, colored people defied easy categorization, so the system used them—quite brilliantly—to sow confusion, hatred, and mistrust. For the purposes of the state, colored people became the almost-whites. They were second-class citizens, denied the rights of white people but given special privileges that black people didn’t have, just to keep them holding out for more. Afrikaners used to call them
“the almost-boss.” The almost-master. “You’re
to being white. Pity your grandfather couldn’t keep his hands off the chocolate, eh? But it’s not your fault you’re colored, so keep trying. Because if you work hard enough you can erase this taint from your bloodline. Keep on marrying lighter and whiter and don’t touch the chocolate and maybe,
someday, if you’re lucky, you can become white.”
Which seems ridiculous, but it would happen. Every year under apartheid, some colored people would get promoted to white. It wasn’t a myth; it was real. People could submit applications to the government. Your hair might become straight enough, your skin might become light enough, your accent might become polished enough—and you’d be reclassified as white. All you had to do was denounce your people, denounce your history, and leave your darker-skinned friends and family behind.
The legal definition of a white person under apartheid was “one who in appearance is obviously a white person who is generally not accepted as a coloured person; or is generally accepted as a white person and is not in appearance obviously a white person.” It was completely arbitrary, in other words. That’s where the government came up with things like the pencil test. If you were applying to be white, the pencil went into your hair. If it fell out, you were white. If it stayed in, you were colored. You were what the government said you were. Sometimes that came down to a lone clerk eyeballing your face and making a snap decision. Depending on how high your cheekbones were or how broad your nose was, he could tick whatever box made sense to him, thereby deciding where you could live, whom you could marry, what jobs and rights and privileges you were allowed.
And colored people didn’t just get promoted to white. Sometimes colored people became Indian. Sometimes Indian people became colored. Sometimes blacks were promoted to colored, and sometimes coloreds were demoted to black. And of course whites could be demoted to colored as well. That was key. Those mixed bloodlines were always lurking, waiting to peek out, and fear of losing their status kept white people in line. If two white parents had a child and the government decided that child was too dark, even if both parents produced documentation proving they were white, the child could be classified as colored, and the family had to make a decision. Do they give up their white status to go and live as colored people in a colored area? Or would they split up, the mother taking the colored child to live in the ghetto while the father stayed white to make a living to support them?
Many colored people lived in this limbo, a true purgatory, always yearning for the white fathers who disowned them, and they could be horribly racist to one another as a result. The most common colored slur was
. “Bushman.” “Bushie.” Because it called out their blackness, their primitiveness. The worst way to insult a colored person was to infer that they were in some way black. One of the most sinister things about apartheid was that it taught colored people that it was black people who were holding them back. Apartheid said that the only reason colored people couldn’t have first-class status was because black people might use coloredness to sneak past the gates to enjoy the benefits of whiteness.
That’s what apartheid did: It convinced every group that it was because of the other race that they didn’t get into the club. It’s basically the bouncer at the door telling you, “We can’t let you in because of your friend Darren and his ugly shoes.” So you look at Darren and say, “Screw you, Black Darren. You’re holding me back.” Then when Darren goes up, the bouncer says, “No, it’s actually your friend Sizwe and his weird hair.” So Darren says, “Screw you, Sizwe,” and now everyone hates everyone. But the truth is that none of you were ever getting into that club.
Colored people had it rough. Imagine: You’ve been brainwashed into believing that your blood is tainted. You’ve spent all your time assimilating and aspiring to whiteness. Then, just as you think you’re closing in on the finish line, some fucking guy named Nelson Mandela comes along and flips the country on its head. Now the finish line is back where the starting line was, and the benchmark is black. Black is in charge. Black is beautiful. Black is powerful. For centuries colored people were told: Blacks are monkeys. Don’t swing from the trees like them. Learn to walk upright like the white man. Then all of a sudden it’s
Planet of the Apes,
and the monkeys have taken over.
So you can imagine how weird it was for me. I was mixed but not colored—colored by complexion but not by culture. Because of that I was seen as a colored person who didn’t want to be colored.
In Eden Park, I encountered two types of colored people. Some colored people hated me because of my blackness. My hair was curly and I was proud of my Afro. I spoke African languages and loved speaking them. People would hear me speaking Xhosa or Zulu and they’d say,
“Wat is jy? ’n Boesman?”
“What are you, a Bushman?” Why are you trying to be black? Why do you speak that click-click language? Look at your light skin. You’re almost there and you’re throwing it away.
Other colored people hated me because of my whiteness. Even though I identified as being black, I had a white father. I went to an English private school. I’d learned to get along with white people at church. I could speak perfect English, and I barely spoke Afrikaans, the language colored people were supposed to speak. So colored people thought that I thought I was better than them. They would mock my accent, like I was putting on airs.
“Dink jy, jy is grênd?”
“You think you’re high class?”—uppity, people would say in America.
Even when I thought I was liked, I wasn’t. One year I got a brand-new bike during the summer holidays. My cousin Mlungisi and I were taking turns riding around the block. I was riding up our street when this cute colored girl came out to the road and stopped me. She smiled and waved to me sweetly.
“Hey,” she said, “can I ride your bike?”
I was completely shocked.
I made a friend
“Yeah, of course,” I said.
I got off and she got on and rode about twenty or thirty feet. Some random older kid came running up to the street, she stopped and got off, and he climbed on and rode away. I was so happy that a girl had spoken to me that it didn’t fully sink in that they’d stolen my bicycle. I ran back home, smiling and skipping along. My cousin asked where the bicycle was. I told him.
“Trevor, you’ve been robbed,” he said. “Why didn’t you chase them?”
“I thought they were being nice. I thought I’d made a friend.”
Mlungisi was older, my protector. He ran off and found the kids, and thirty minutes later he came back with my bike.
Things like that happened a lot. I was bullied all the time. The incident at the mulberry tree was probably the worst of them. Late one afternoon I was playing by myself like I always did, running around the neighborhood. This group of five or six colored boys was up the street picking berries off the mulberry tree and eating them. I went over and started picking some to take home for myself. The boys were a few years older than me, around twelve or thirteen. They didn’t talk to me, and I didn’t talk to them. They were speaking to one another in Afrikaans, and I could understand what they were saying. Then one of them, this kid who was the ringleader of the group, walked over.
“Mag ek jou moerbeie sien?”
“Can I see your mulberries?” My first thought, again, was,
Oh, cool. I made a friend.
I held up my hand and showed him my mulberries. Then he knocked them out of my hand and smushed them into the ground. The other kids started laughing. I stood there and looked at him a moment. By that point I’d developed thick skin. I was used to being bullied. I shrugged it off and went back to picking berries.
Clearly not getting the reaction he wanted, this kid started cursing me out.
“Fok weg, jou onnosele Boesman!”
“Get the fuck out of here! Go away, you stupid Bushie! Bushman!” I ignored him and went on about my business. Then I felt a
on the back of my head. He’d hit me with a mulberry. It wasn’t painful, just startling. I turned to look at him and,
he hit me again, right in my face.
Then, in a split second, before I could even react, all of these kids started pelting me with berries, pelting the shit out of me. Some of the berries weren’t ripe, and they stung like rocks. I tried to cover my face with my hands, but there was a barrage coming at me from all sides. They were laughing and pelting me and calling me names. “Bushie! Bushman!” I was terrified. Just the suddenness of it, I didn’t know what to do. I started crying, and I ran. I ran for my life, all the way back down the road to our house.
When I ran inside I looked like I’d been beaten to a pulp because I was bawling my eyes out and was covered in red-purple berry juice. My mother looked at me, horrified.
In between sobs I told her the story. “These kids…the mulberry tree…they threw berries at me…” When I finished, she burst out laughing. “It’s not funny!” I said.
“No, no, Trevor,” she said. “I’m not laughing because it’s funny. I’m laughing out of relief. I thought you’d been beaten up. I thought this was blood. I’m laughing because it’s only berry juice.”
My mom thought everything was funny. There was no subject too dark or too painful for her to tackle with humor. “Look on the bright side,” she said, laughing and pointing to the half of me covered in dark berry juice. “Now you really are half black and half white.”
“It’s not funny!”
“Trevor, you’re okay,” she said. “Go and wash up. You’re not hurt. You’re hurt emotionally. But you’re not hurt.”