Authors: Trevor Noah
“Hey! Why are you hanging out with the blacks?”
“Because I am black.”
“No, you’re not. You’re colored.”
“Ah, yes. I know it looks that way, friend, but let me explain. It’s a funny story, actually. My father is white and my mother is black and race is a social construct, so…”
That wasn’t going to work. Not here.
All of this was happening in my head in an instant, on the fly. I was doing crazy calculations, looking at people, scanning the room, assessing the variables.
If I go here, then this. If I go there, then that.
My whole life was flashing before me—the playground at school, the
shops in Soweto, the streets of Eden Park—every time and every place I ever had to be a chameleon, navigate between groups, explain who I was. It was like the high school cafeteria, only it was the high school cafeteria from hell because if I picked the wrong table I might get beaten or stabbed or raped. I’d never been more scared in my life. But I still had to pick. Because racism exists, and you have to pick a side. You can say that you don’t pick sides, but eventually life will force you to pick a side.
That day I picked white. They just didn’t look like they could hurt me. It was a handful of average, middle-aged white dudes. I walked over to them. We hung out for a while, chatted a bit. They were mostly in for white-collar crimes, money schemes, fraud and racketeering. They’d be useless if anyone came over looking to start trouble; they’d get their asses kicked as well. But they weren’t going to do anything to me. I was safe.
Luckily the time went by fairly quickly. I was in there for only an hour before I was called up to court, where a judge would either let me go or send me to prison to await trial. As I was leaving, one of the white guys reached over to me. “Make sure you don’t come back down here,” he said. “Cry in front of the judge; do whatever you have to do. If you go up and get sent back down here, your life will never be the same.”
Up in the courtroom, I found my lawyer waiting. My cousin Mlungisi was there, too, in the gallery, ready to post my bail if things went my way.
The bailiff read out my case number, and the judge looked up at me.
“How are you?” he said.
I broke down. I’d been putting on this tough-guy facade for nearly a week, and I just couldn’t do it anymore.
“I-I’m not fine, Your Honor. I’m not fine.”
He looked confused. “What?!”
I said, “I’m not fine, sir. I’m really suffering.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you asked how I was.”
“Who asked you?”
“You did. You just asked me.”
“I didn’t say, ‘
are you?’ I said, ‘
are you?’ Why would I waste time asking ‘How are you?’! This is jail. I know everyone is suffering down there. If I asked everyone ‘How are you?’ we’d be here all day. I said, ‘
are you?’ State your name for the record.”
“Okay. Now we can carry on.”
The whole courtroom started laughing, so then I started laughing, too. But now I was even more petrified because I didn’t want the judge to think I wasn’t taking him seriously because I was laughing.
It turned out that I needn’t have been worried. Everything that happened next took only a few minutes. My lawyer had talked to the prosecutor and everything had been arranged beforehand. He presented my case. I had no priors. I wasn’t dangerous. There were no objections from the opposing side. The judge assigned my trial date and set my bail, and I was free to go.
I walked out of court and the light of day hit my face and I said, “Sweet
I am never going back there again.” It had been only a week, in a cell that wasn’t terribly uncomfortable with food that wasn’t half bad, but a week in jail is a long, long time. A week without shoelaces is a long, long time. A week with no clocks, with no sun, can feel like an eternity. The thought of anything worse, the thought of doing real time in a real prison, I couldn’t even imagine.
I drove with Mlungisi to his place, took a shower, and slept there. The next day he dropped me back at my mom’s house. I strolled up the driveway acting real casual. My plan was to say I’d been crashing with Mlungisi for a few days. I walked into the house like nothing had happened. “Hey, Mom! What’s up?” Mom didn’t say anything, didn’t ask me any questions. I was like,
Okay. Cool. We’re good
I stayed for most of the day. Later in the afternoon we were sitting at the kitchen table, talking. I was telling all these stories, going on about everything Mlungisi and I had been up to that week, and I caught my mom giving me this look, slowly shaking her head. It was a different look than I had ever seen her give before. It wasn’t “One day, I’m going to catch you.” It wasn’t anger or disapproval. It was disappointment. She was hurt.
“What?” I said. “What is it?”
She said, “Boy, who do you think paid your bail? Hmm? Who do you think paid your lawyer? Do you think I’m an idiot? Did you think no one would tell me?”
The truth came spilling out. Of course she’d known: the car. It had been missing the whole time. I’d been so wrapped up in dealing with jail and covering my tracks I’d forgotten that the proof of my crime was right there in the yard, the red Mazda missing from the driveway. And of course when I called my friend and he’d asked his dad for the money for the lawyer, the dad had pressed him on what the money was for and, being a parent himself, had called my mother immediately. She’d given my friend the money to pay the lawyer. She’d given my cousin the money to pay my bail. I’d spent the whole week in jail thinking I was so slick. But she’d known everything the whole time.
“I know you see me as some crazy old bitch nagging at you,” she said, “but you forget the reason I ride you so hard and give you so much shit is because I love you. Everything I have ever done I’ve done from a place of love. If I don’t punish you, the world will punish you even worse. The world doesn’t love you. If the police get you, the police don’t love you. When I beat you, I’m trying to save you. When they beat you, they’re trying to kill you.”
y favorite thing to eat as a kid, and still my favorite dessert of all time, was custard and jelly, what Americans would call Jell-O. One Saturday my mom was planning for a big family celebration and she made a huge bowl of custard and jelly and put it in the fridge. It had every flavor: red, green, and yellow. I couldn’t resist it. That whole day, every time I walked past the fridge I’d pop my head in with a spoon and sneak a bite. This was a giant bowl, meant to last for a week for the whole family. I finished it in one day by myself.
That night I went to bed and I got absolutely butchered by mosquitoes. Mosquitoes love to feast on me, and when I was a kid it was bad. They would destroy me at night. I would wake up covered with bites and feel ill to my stomach and itchy all over. Which was exactly what happened this particular Sunday morning. Covered with mosquito bites, my stomach bloated with custard and jelly, I could barely get out of bed. I felt like I was going to vomit. Then my mom walked in.
“Get dressed,” she said. “We’re going to church.”
“I don’t feel well.”
“That’s why we’re going to church. That’s where Jesus is going to heal you.”
“Eh, I’m not sure that’s how it works.”
My mom and I had different ideas about how Jesus worked. She believed that you pray to Jesus and then Jesus pitches up and does the thing that you need. My views on Jesus were more reality-based.
“Why don’t I take medicine,” I said, “and then pray to Jesus to thank him for giving us the doctors who invented medicine, because medicine is what makes you feel better, not Jesus.”
“You don’t need medicine if you have Jesus. Jesus will heal you. Pray to Jesus.”
“But is medicine not a blessing from Jesus? And if Jesus gives us medicine and we do not take the medicine, are we not denying the grace that he has given us?”
Like all of our debates about Jesus, this conversation went nowhere.
“Trevor,” she said, “if you don’t go to church you’re going to get worse. You’re lucky you got sick on Sunday, because now we’re going to church and you can pray to Jesus and Jesus is going to heal you.”
“That sounds nice, but why don’t I just stay home?”
“No. Get dressed. We’re going to church.”
Once I had my hair cornrowed for the matric dance, I started getting attention from girls for the first time. I actually went on dates. At times I thought that it was because I looked better. At other times I thought it was because girls liked the fact that I was going through as much pain as they did to look good. Either way, once I found success, I wasn’t going to mess with the formula. I kept going back to the salon every week, spending hours at a time getting my hair straightened and cornrowed. My mom would just roll her eyes. “I could never date a man who spends more time on his hair than I do,” she’d say.
Monday through Saturday my mom worked in her office and puttered around her garden dressed like a homeless person. Then Sunday morning for church she’d do her hair and put on a nice dress and some high heels and she looked like a million bucks. Once she was all done up, she couldn’t resist teasing me, throwing little verbal jabs the way we’d always do with each other.
“Now who’s the best-looking person in the family, eh? I hope you enjoyed your week of being the pretty one, ’cause the queen is back, baby. You spent four hours at the salon to look like that. I just took a shower.”
She was just having fun with me; no son wants to talk about how hot his mom is. Because, truth be told, she was beautiful. Beautiful on the outside, beautiful on the inside. She had a self-confidence about her that I never possessed. Even when she was working in the garden, dressed in overalls and covered in mud, you could see how attractive she was.
I can only assume that my mother broke more than a few hearts in her day, but from the time I was born, there were only two men in her life, my father and my stepfather. Right around the corner from my father’s house in Yeoville, there was a garage called Mighty Mechanics. Our Volkswagen was always breaking down, and my mom would take it there to get it repaired. We met this really cool guy there, Abel, one of the auto mechanics. I’d see him when we went to fetch the car. The car broke down a lot, so we were there a lot. Eventually it felt like we were there even when there was nothing wrong with the vehicle. I was six, maybe seven. I didn’t understand everything that was happening. I just knew that suddenly this guy was around. He was tall, lanky and lean but strong. He had these long arms and big hands. He could lift car engines and gearboxes. He was handsome, but he wasn’t good-looking. My mom liked that about him; she used to say there’s a type of ugly that women find attractive. She called him Abie. He called her Mbuyi, short for Nombuyiselo.
I liked him, too. Abie was charming and hilarious and had an easy, gracious smile. He loved helping people, too, especially anyone in distress. If someone’s car broke down on the freeway, he pulled over to see what he could do. If someone yelled “Stop, thief!” he was the guy who gave chase. The old lady next door needed help moving boxes? He’s that guy. He liked to be liked by the world, which made his abuse even harder to deal with. Because if you think someone is a monster and the whole world says he’s a saint, you begin to think that you’re the bad person.
It must be my fault this is happening
is the only conclusion you can draw, because why are you the only one receiving his wrath?
Abel was always cool with me. He wasn’t trying to be my dad, and my dad was still in my life, so I wasn’t looking for anyone to replace him.
That’s mom’s cool friend
is how I thought of him. He started coming out to stay with us in Eden Park. Some nights he’d want us to crash with him at his converted garage flat in Orange Grove, which we did. Then I burned down the white people’s house, and that was the end of that. From then on we lived together in Eden Park.
One night my mom and I were at a prayer meeting and she took me aside.
“Hey,” she said. “I want to tell you something. Abel and I are going to get married.”
Instinctively, without even thinking, I said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
I wasn’t upset or anything. I just had a sense about the guy, an intuition. I’d felt it even before the mulberry tree. That night hadn’t changed my feelings toward Abel; it had only shown me, in flesh and blood, what he was capable of.
“I understand that it’s hard,” she said. “I understand that you don’t want a new dad.”
“No,” I said. “It’s not that. I like Abel. I like him a lot. But you shouldn’t marry him.” I didn’t know the word “sinister” then, but if I had I probably would have used it. “There’s just something not right about him. I don’t trust him. I don’t think he’s a good person.”
I’d always been fine with my mom dating this guy, but I’d never considered the possibility of him becoming a permanent addition to our family. I enjoyed being with Abel the same way I enjoyed playing with a tiger cub the first time I went to a tiger sanctuary: I liked it, I had fun with it, but I never thought about bringing it home.
If there was any doubt about Abel, the truth was right there in front of us all along, in his name. He was Abel, the good brother, the good son, a name straight out of the Bible. And he lived up to it as well. He was the firstborn, dutiful, took care of his mother, took care of his siblings. He was the pride of his family.
But Abel was his English name. His Tsonga name was Ngisaveni. It means “Be afraid.”
Mom and Abel got married. There was no ceremony, no exchange of rings. They went and signed the papers and that was it. A year or so later, my baby brother, Andrew, was born. I only vaguely remember my mom being gone for a few days, and when she got back there was now this thing in the house that cried and shat and got fed, but when you’re nine years older than your sibling, their arrival doesn’t change much for you. I wasn’t changing diapers; I was out playing arcade games at the shop, running around the neighborhood.
The main thing that marked Andrew’s birth for me was our first trip to meet Abel’s family during the Christmas holidays. They lived in Tzaneen, a town in Gazankulu, what had been the Tsonga homeland under apartheid. Tzaneen has a tropical climate, hot and humid. The white farms nearby grow some of the most amazing fruit—mangoes, lychees, the most beautiful bananas you’ve ever seen in your life. That’s where all the fruit we export to Europe comes from. But on the black land twenty minutes down the road, the soil has been decimated by years of overfarming and overgrazing. Abel’s mother and his sisters were all traditional, stay-at-home moms, and Abel and his younger brother, who was a policeman, supported the family. They were all very kind and generous and accepted us as part of the family right away.
Tsonga culture, I learned, is extremely patriarchal. We’re talking about a world where women must bow when they greet a man. Men and women have limited social interactions. The men kill the animals, and the women cook the food. Men are not even allowed in the kitchen. As a nine-year-old boy, I thought this was fantastic. I wasn’t allowed to do anything. At home my mom was forever making me do chores—wash the dishes, sweep the house—but when she tried to do that in Tzaneen, the women wouldn’t allow it.
“Trevor, make your bed,” my mom would say.
“No, no, no, no,” Abel’s mother would protest. “Trevor must go outside and play.”
I was made to run off and have fun while my girl step-cousins had to clean the house and help the women cook. I was in heaven.
My mother loathed every moment of being there. For Abel, a firstborn son who was bringing home his own firstborn son, this trip was a huge deal. In the homelands, the firstborn son almost becomes the father/husband by default because the dad is off working in the city. The firstborn son is the man of the house. He raises his siblings. His mom treats him with a certain level of respect as the dad’s surrogate. Since this was Abel’s big homecoming with Andrew, he expected my mother to play her traditional role, too. But she refused.
The women in Tzaneen had a multitude of jobs during the day. They prepared breakfast, prepared tea, prepared lunch, did the washing and the cleaning. The men had been working all year in the city to support the family, so this was their vacation, more or less. They were at leisure, waited on by the women. They might slaughter a goat or something, do whatever manly tasks needed to be done, but then they would go to an area that was only for men and hang out and drink while the women cooked and cleaned. But my mom had been working in the city all year, too, and Patricia Noah didn’t stay in anyone’s kitchen. She was a free-roaming spirit. She insisted on walking to the village, going where the men hung out, talking to the men as equals.
The whole tradition of women bowing to the men, my mom found that absurd. But she didn’t refuse to do it. She overdid it. She made a mockery of it. The other women would bow before men with this polite little curtsy. My mom would go down and cower, groveling in the dirt like she was worshipping a deity, and she’d stay down there for a long time, like a
long time, long enough to make everyone very uncomfortable. That was my mom. Don’t fight the system. Mock the system. To Abel, it looked like his wife didn’t respect him. Every other man had some docile girl from the village, and here he’d come with this modern woman, a Xhosa woman no less, a culture whose women were thought of as particularly loudmouthed and promiscuous. The two of them fought and bickered the whole time, and after that first trip my mother refused to go back.
Up to that point I’d lived my whole life in a world run by women, but after my mom and Abel were married, and especially after Andrew was born, I watched him try to assert himself and impose his ideas of what he thought his family should be. One thing that became clear early on was that those ideas did not include me. I was a reminder that my mom had lived a life before him. I didn’t even share his color. His family was him, my mom, and the new baby. My family was my mom and me. I actually appreciated that about him. Sometimes he was my buddy, sometimes not, but he never pretended our relationship was anything other than what it was. We’d joke around and laugh together. We’d watch TV together. He’d slip me pocket money now and again after my mother said I’d had enough. But he never gave me a birthday present or a Christmas present. He never gave me the affection of a father. I was never his son.
Abel’s presence in the house brought with it new rules. One of the first things he did was kick Fufi and Panther out of the house.
“No dogs in the house.”
“But we’ve always had the dogs in the house.”
“Not anymore. In an African home, dogs sleep outside. People sleep inside.”
Putting the dogs in the yard was Abel’s way of saying, “We’re going to do things around here the way they’re supposed to be done.” When they were just dating, my mother was still the free spirit, doing what she wanted, going where she wanted. Slowly, those things got reined in. I could feel that he was trying to rein in our independence. He even got upset about church. “You cannot be at church the whole day,” he’d say. “My wife is gone all day, and what will people say? ‘Why is his wife not around? Where is she? Who goes to church for the whole day?’ No, no, no. This brings disrespect to me.”
He tried to stop her from spending so much time at church, and one of the most effective tools he used was to stop fixing my mother’s car. It would break down, and he’d purposefully let it sit. My mom couldn’t afford another car, and she couldn’t get the car fixed somewhere else. You’re married to a mechanic and you’re going to get your car fixed by another mechanic? That’s worse than cheating. So Abel became our only transport, and he would refuse to take us places. Ever defiant, my mother would take minibuses to get to church.
Losing the car also meant losing access to my dad. We had to ask Abel for rides into town, and he didn’t like what they were for. It was an insult to his manhood.
“We need to go to Yeoville.”
“Why are you going to Yeoville?”
“To see Trevor’s dad.”
“What? No, no. How can I take my wife and her child and drop you off there? You’re insulting me. What do I tell my friends? What do I tell my family? My wife is at another man’s house? The man who made that child with her? No, no, no.”