Authors: Trevor Noah
Then recess came. We went out on the playground, and black kids were
. It was an ocean of black, like someone had opened a tap and all the black had come pouring out. I was like,
Where were they all hiding?
The white kids I’d met that morning, they went in one direction, the black kids went in another direction, and I was left standing in the middle, totally confused. Were we going to meet up later on? I did not understand what was happening.
I was eleven years old, and it was like I was seeing my country for the first time. In the townships you don’t see segregation, because everyone is black. In the white world, any time my mother took me to a white church, we were the only black people there, and my mom didn’t separate herself from anyone. She didn’t care. She’d go right up and sit with the white people. And at Maryvale, the kids were mixed up and hanging out together. Before that day, I had never seen people being together and yet not together, occupying the same space yet choosing not to associate with each other in any way. In an instant I could see, I could feel, how the boundaries were drawn. Groups moved in color patterns across the yard, up the stairs, down the hall. It was insane. I looked over at the white kids I’d met that morning. Ten minutes earlier I’d thought I was at a school where they were a majority. Now I realized how few of them there actually were compared to everyone else.
I stood there awkwardly by myself in this no-man’s-land in the middle of the playground. Luckily, I was rescued by the Indian kid from my class, a guy named Theesan Pillay. Theesan was one of the few Indian kids in school, so he’d noticed me, another obvious outsider, right away. He ran over to introduce himself. “Hello, fellow anomaly! You’re in my class. Who are you? What’s your story?” We started talking and hit it off. He took me under his wing, the Artful Dodger to my bewildered Oliver.
Through our conversation it came up that I spoke several African languages, and Theesan thought a colored kid speaking black languages was the most amazing trick. He brought me over to a group of black kids. “Say something,” he told them, “and he’ll show you he understands you.” One kid said something in Zulu, and I replied to him in Zulu. Everyone cheered. Another kid said something in Xhosa, and I replied to him in Xhosa. Everyone cheered. For the rest of recess Theesan took me around to different black kids on the playground. “Show them your trick. Do your language thing.”
The black kids were fascinated. In South Africa back then, it wasn’t common to find a white person or a colored person who spoke African languages; during apartheid white people were always taught that those languages were beneath them. So the fact that I did speak African languages immediately endeared me to the black kids.
“How come you speak our languages?” they asked.
“Because I’m black,” I said, “like you.”
“You’re not black.”
“Yes, I am.”
“No, you’re not. Have you not seen yourself?”
They were confused at first. Because of my color, they thought I was a colored person, but speaking the same languages meant that I belonged to their tribe. It just took them a moment to figure it out. It took me a moment, too.
At some point I turned to one of them and said, “Hey, how come I don’t see you guys in any of my classes?” It turned out they were in the B classes, which also happened to be the black classes. That same afternoon, I went back to the A classes, and by the end of the day I realized that they weren’t for me. Suddenly, I knew who my people were, and I wanted to be with them. I went to see the school counselor.
“I’d like to switch over,” I told her. “I’d like to go to the B classes.”
She was confused. “Oh, no,” she said. “I don’t think you want to do that.”
“Because those kids are…you know.”
“No, I don’t know. What do you mean?”
“Look,” she said, “you’re a smart kid. You don’t want to be in that class.”
“But aren’t the classes the same? English is English. Math is math.”
“Yeah, but that class is…those kids are gonna hold you back. You want to be in the smart class.”
“But surely there must be some smart kids in the B class.”
“No, there aren’t.”
“But all my friends are there.”
“You don’t want to be friends with those kids.”
“Yes, I do.”
We went back and forth. Finally she gave me a stern warning.
“You do realize the effect this will have on your future? You do understand what you’re giving up? This will impact the opportunities you’ll have open to you for the rest of your life.”
“I’ll take that chance.”
I moved to the B classes with the black kids. I decided I’d rather be held back with people I liked than move ahead with people I didn’t know.
Being at H. A. Jack made me realize I was black. Before that recess I’d never had to choose, but when I was forced to choose, I chose black. The world saw me as colored, but I didn’t spend my life looking at myself. I spent my life looking at other people. I saw myself as the people around me, and the people around me were black. My cousins are black, my mom is black, my gran is black. I grew up black. Because I had a white father, because I’d been in white Sunday school, I got along with the white kids, but I didn’t
long with the white kids. I wasn’t a part of their tribe. But the black kids embraced me. “Come along,” they said. “You’re rolling with us.” With the black kids, I wasn’t constantly trying to be. With the black kids, I just was.
efore apartheid, any black South African who received a formal education was likely taught by European missionaries, foreign enthusiasts eager to Christianize and Westernize the natives. In the mission schools, black people learned English, European literature, medicine, the law. It’s no coincidence that nearly every major black leader of the anti-apartheid movement, from Nelson Mandela to Steve Biko, was educated by the missionaries—a knowledgeable man is a free man, or at least a man who longs for freedom.
The only way to make apartheid work, therefore, was to cripple the black mind. Under apartheid, the government built what became known as Bantu schools. Bantu schools taught no science, no history, no civics. They taught metrics and agriculture: how to count potatoes, how to pave roads, chop wood, till the soil. “It does not serve the Bantu to learn history and science because he is primitive,” the government said. “This will only mislead him, showing him pastures in which he is not allowed to graze.” To their credit, they were simply being honest. Why educate a slave? Why teach someone Latin when his only purpose is to dig holes in the ground?
Mission schools were told to conform to the new curriculum or shut down. Most of them shut down, and black children were forced into crowded classrooms in dilapidated schools, often with teachers who were barely literate themselves. Our parents and grandparents were taught with little singsong lessons, the way you’d teach a preschooler shapes and colors. My grandfather used to sing the songs and laugh about how silly they were.
Two times two is four. Three times two is six. La la la la la.
We’re talking about fully grown teenagers being taught this way, for generations.
What happened with education in South Africa, with the mission schools and the Bantu schools, offers a neat comparison of the two groups of whites who oppressed us, the British and the Afrikaners. The difference between British racism and Afrikaner racism was that at least the British gave the natives something to aspire to. If they could learn to speak correct English and dress in proper clothes, if they could Anglicize and civilize themselves, one day they
be welcome in society. The Afrikaners never gave us that option. British racism said, “If the monkey can walk like a man and talk like a man, then perhaps he is a man.” Afrikaner racism said, “Why give a book to a monkey?”
My mother used to tell me, “I chose to have you because I wanted something to love and something that would love me unconditionally in return.” I was a product of her search for belonging. She never felt like she belonged anywhere. She didn’t belong to her mother, didn’t belong to her father, didn’t belong with her siblings. She grew up with nothing and wanted something to call her own.
My grandparents’ marriage was an unhappy one. They met and married in Sophiatown, but one year later the army came in and drove them out. The government seized their home and bulldozed the whole area to build a fancy, new white suburb,
. Triumph. Along with tens of thousands of other black people, my grandparents were forcibly relocated to Soweto, to a neighborhood called the Meadowlands. They divorced not long after that, and my grandmother moved to Orlando with my mom, my aunt, and my uncle.
My mom was the problem child, a tomboy, stubborn, defiant. My gran had no idea how to raise her. Whatever love they had was lost in the constant fighting that went on between them. But my mom adored her father, the charming, charismatic Temperance. She went gallivanting with him on his manic misadventures. She’d tag along when he’d go drinking in the shebeens. All she wanted in life was to please him and be with him. She was always being swatted away by his girlfriends, who didn’t like having a reminder of his first marriage hanging around, but that only made her want to be with him all the more.
When my mother was nine years old, she told my gran that she didn’t want to live with her anymore. She wanted to live with her father. “If that’s what you want,” Gran said, “then go.” Temperance came to pick my mom up, and she happily bounded up into his car, ready to go and be with the man she loved. But instead of taking her to live with him in the Meadowlands, without even telling her why, he packed her off and sent her to live with his sister in the Xhosa homeland, Transkei—he didn’t want her, either. My mom was the middle child. Her sister was the eldest and firstborn. Her brother was the only son, bearer of the family name. They both stayed in Soweto, were both raised and cared for by their parents. But my mom was unwanted. She was the second girl. The only place she would have less value would be China.
My mother didn’t see her family again for twelve years. She lived in a hut with fourteen cousins—fourteen children from fourteen different mothers and fathers. All the husbands and uncles had gone off to the cities to find work, and the children who weren’t wanted, or whom no one could afford to feed, had been sent back to the homeland to live on this aunt’s farm.
The homelands were, ostensibly, the original homes of South Africa’s tribes, sovereign and semi-sovereign “nations” where black people would be “free.” Of course, this was a lie. For starters, despite the fact that black people made up over 80 percent of South Africa’s population, the territory allocated for the homelands was about 13 percent of the country’s land. There was no running water, no electricity. People lived in huts.
Where South Africa’s white countryside was lush and irrigated and green, the black lands were overpopulated and overgrazed, the soil depleted and eroding. Other than the menial wages sent home from the cities, families scraped by with little beyond subsistence-level farming. My mother’s aunt hadn’t taken her in out of charity. She was there to work. “I was one of the cows,” my mother would later say, “one of the oxen.” She and her cousins were up at half past four, plowing fields and herding animals before the sun baked the soil as hard as cement and made it too hot to be anywhere but in the shade.
For dinner there might be one chicken to feed fourteen children. My mom would have to fight with the bigger kids to get a handful of meat or a sip of the gravy or even a bone from which to suck out some marrow. And that’s when there was food for dinner at all. When there wasn’t, she’d steal food from the pigs. She’d steal food from the dogs. The farmers would put out scraps for the animals, and she’d jump for it. She was hungry; let the animals fend for themselves. There were times when she literally ate dirt. She would go down to the river, take the clay from the riverbank, and mix it with the water to make a grayish kind of milk. She’d drink that to feel full.
But my mother was blessed that her village was one of the places where a mission school had contrived to stay open in spite of the government’s Bantu education policies. There she had a white pastor who taught her English. She didn’t have food or shoes or even a pair of underwear, but she had English. She could read and write. When she was old enough she stopped working on the farm and got a job at a factory in a nearby town. She worked on a sewing machine making school uniforms. Her pay at the end of each day was a plate of food. She used to say it was the best food she’d ever eaten, because it was something she had earned on her own. She wasn’t a burden to anyone and didn’t owe anything to anyone.
When my mom turned twenty-one, her aunt fell ill and that family could no longer keep her in Transkei. My mom wrote to my gran, asking her to send the price of a train ticket, about thirty rand, to bring her home. Back in Soweto, my mom enrolled in the secretarial course that allowed her to grab hold of the bottom rung of the white-collar world. She worked and worked and worked but, living under my grandmother’s roof, she wasn’t allowed to keep her own wages. As a secretary, my mom was bringing home more money than anyone else, and my grandmother insisted it all go to the family. The family needed a radio, an oven, a refrigerator, and it was now my mom’s job to provide it.
So many black families spend all of their time trying to fix the problems of the past. That is the curse of being black and poor, and it is a curse that follows you from generation to generation. My mother calls it “the black tax.” Because the generations who came before you have been pillaged, rather than being free to use your skills and education to move forward, you lose everything just trying to bring everyone behind you back up to zero. Working for the family in Soweto, my mom had no more freedom than she’d had in Transkei, so she ran away. She ran all the way down to the train station and jumped on a train and disappeared into the city, determined to sleep in public restrooms and rely on the kindness of prostitutes until she could make her own way in the world.
My mother never sat me down and told me the whole story of her life in Transkei. She’d give me little bursts, random details, stories of having to keep her wits about her to avoid getting raped by strange men in the village. She’d tell me these things and I’d be like,
clearly you do not know what kind of stories to be telling a ten-year-old
My mom told me these things so that I’d never take for granted how we got to where we were, but none of it ever came from a place of self-pity. “Learn from your past and be better because of your past,” she would say, “but don’t cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold on to it. Don’t be bitter.” And she never was. The deprivations of her youth, the betrayals of her parents, she never complained about any of it.
Just as she let the past go, she was determined not to repeat it: my childhood would bear no resemblance to hers. She started with my name. The names Xhosa families give their children always have a meaning, and that meaning has a way of becoming self-fulfilling. You have my cousin, Mlungisi. “The Fixer.” That’s who he is. Whenever I got into trouble he was the one trying to help me fix it. He was always the good kid, doing chores, helping around the house. You have my uncle, the unplanned pregnancy, Velile. “He Who Popped Out of Nowhere.” And that’s all he’s done his whole life, disappear and reappear. He’ll go off on a drinking binge and then pop back up out of nowhere a week later.
Then you have my mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. “She Who Gives Back.” That’s what she does. She gives and gives and gives. She did it even as a girl in Soweto. Playing in the streets she would find toddlers, three- and four-year-olds, running around unsupervised all day long. Their fathers were gone and their mothers were drunks. My mom, who was only six or seven herself, used to round up the abandoned kids and form a troop and take them around to the shebeens. They’d collect empties from the men who were passed out and take the bottles to where you could turn them in for a deposit. Then my mom would take that money, buy food in the
shops, and feed the kids. She was a child taking care of children.
When it was time to pick my name, she chose Trevor, a name with no meaning whatsoever in South Africa, no precedent in my family. It’s not even a Biblical name. It’s just a name. My mother wanted her child beholden to no fate. She wanted me to be free to go anywhere, do anything, be anyone.
She gave me the tools to do it as well. She taught me English as my first language. She read to me constantly. The first book I learned to read was
book. The Bible. Church was where we got most of our other books, too. My mom would bring home boxes that white people had donated—picture books, chapter books, any book she could get her hands on. Then she signed up for a subscription program where we got books in the mail. It was a series of how-to books.
How to Be a Good Friend. How to Be Honest
. She bought a set of encyclopedias, too; it was fifteen years old and way out of date, but I would sit and pore through those.
My books were my prized possessions. I had a bookshelf where I put them, and I was so proud of it. I loved my books and kept them in pristine condition. I read them over and over, but I did not bend the pages or the spines. I treasured every single one. As I grew older I started buying my own books. I loved fantasy, loved to get lost in worlds that didn’t exist. I remember there was some book about white boys who solved mysteries or some shit. I had no time for that. Give me Roald Dahl.
James and the Giant Peach
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar
. That was my fix.
I had to fight to convince my mom to get the Narnia books for me. She didn’t like them.
“This lion,” she said, “he is a false God—a false idol! You remember what happened when Moses came down from the mountain after he got the tablets…”
“Yes, Mom,” I explained, “but the lion is a Christ
Technically, he is Jesus. It’s a story to explain Jesus.”
She wasn’t comfortable with that. “No, no. No false idols, my friend.”
Eventually I wore her down. That was a big win.
If my mother had one goal, it was to free my mind. My mother spoke to me like an adult, which was unusual. In South Africa, kids play with kids and adults talk to adults. The adults supervise you, but they don’t get down on your level and talk to you. My mom did. All the time. I was like her best friend. She was always telling me stories, giving me lessons, Bible lessons especially. She was big into Psalms. I had to read Psalms every day. She would quiz me on it. “What does the passage mean? What does it mean to
? How do you apply it to your life?” That was every day of my life. My mom did what school didn’t. She taught me how to think.
The end of apartheid was a gradual thing. It wasn’t like the Berlin Wall where one day it just came down. Apartheid’s walls cracked and crumbled over many years. Concessions were made here and there, some laws were repealed, others simply weren’t enforced. There came a point, in the months before Mandela’s release, when we could live less furtively. It was then that my mother decided we needed to move. She felt we had grown as much as we could hiding in our tiny flat in town.
The country was open now. Where would we go? Soweto came with its burdens. My mother still wanted to get out from the shadow of her family. My mother also couldn’t walk with me through Soweto without people saying, “There goes that prostitute with a white man’s child.” In a black area she would always be seen as that. So, since my mom didn’t want to move to a black area and couldn’t afford to move to a white area, she decided to move to a colored area.