So I put off getting this book for a long time. “I’ll read something else first.” I said to myself. In fact, that’s how I ended up reading that Jon Stewart book about the Daily Show.
I strongly regret that decision now. This book was so entertaining, so fun and easy to read, that I finished it in 4 days while I was out on a ski vacation. I’d go skiing, then come back and read until dinner. IT WAS FAN-FREAKING-TASTIC.
And I learned so much about how different my life could have been. Trevor Noah is 33 years old. I’m 30. While I was playing with legos and watching Power Rangers here in Texas, thinking that racism is kind of dumb and that was totally normal, Trevor Noah was growing up in Apartheid and thinking “yes, of course the cities are segregated. It’s totally normal that my dad and mom have to pretend to *not be my dad and mom* because I’m mixed.”
Sometimes books open your eyes to different perspectives and enlarge the scope of your world view. This one did that, and did it while telling extremely entertaining stories.
Wait, what? That’s a thing? That sounds like something from the Hunger Games.
One of the takeaways that I’ll always remember from this book is the description of how Apartheid society worked. For instance, he described how there was one black settlement of about a million people with only one road in or out. That way, in case the people living there started getting a little too uppity and started protesting or something like that, the government could close the roads and bomb the settlement and people would have nowhere to run to. WHAAAT?! O.o
That sounds like something from some fictional dystopian future, not a description of the 1980s which I was alive for.
Another thing that I learned was that there weren’t just two groups, black and white, like I’ve tended to experience here in America. No, there was an entire other one – colored (or mixed). They had their own segregation and their own set of unique ways to be treated. If you were mixed, you belonged to *that* group and not necessarily just white or black, depending on which way the color of your skin skewed. It’s a trippy thing to think about, honestly.
I’ve experienced very little racism in my life, and I am super thankful for that. Seldom have I thought it held me back, except perhaps when it came to dating. I never even experienced the whole anti-asian bias that Universities are sometimes accused of having, since I got into both the University of Texas and the University of Wisconsin when I applied. So reading about the stark contrast between the way I grew up and the way Trevor grew up was jarring enough; reading about how he just kind of accepted it and rolled with it, like it was a 100% normal thing, was much more surreal.
How African racism is different from American racism
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?”
In America you had the forced removal of the natives onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of those things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.
It’s weird to think that racism has different forms. That the racism that a person could experience in one country could be different from one country to another. I always thought it was a binary kind of thing – either it existed or it didn’t. I never thought about shades of grey in racism itself.
What Trevor did a great job illustrating through his stories was just how much more severe the racism under apartheid was. Yes, you have discussion and discourse about how there is a cycle of poverty here in America (and about how black people tend to be stuck in it), and about how hard it is to escape it, but at least here I’ve never heard anyone outright say “Yeah, don’t even bother teaching those kids. They’re x race.” or “Yeah, you have to live in this neighborhood that we’ve set aside for you. You’re x race.
Yes, through social policies, black kids might be tracked to poorer public school and so would get less of an education. Yes, because it’s too expensive to live in certain areas, you may end up with de facto segregation like in Austin where everyone of a certain ethnicities tend to live in certain areas, but it’s never specifically defined in the law. There weren’t requirements for separate restrooms for whites, blacks, and colored folks.
Now, I hear the argument that perhaps the end result is the same or at the very least similar, but the fact remains that it was literally spelled out.
Growing up in the way I did, I learned how easy it is for white people to get comfortable with a system that awards them all the perks. I knew my cousins were getting beaten for things that I’d done, but I wasn’t interested in changing my grandmother’s perspective, because that would mean I’d get beaten too. Why would I do that? So that I’d feel better?
At that point, I didn’t think of the special treatment as having to do with color. It wasn’t, “Trevor doesn’t get beaten because Trevor is white.” It was, “Trevor doesn’t get beaten because Trevor is Trevor.”
-Trevor, on growing up as a mixed kid in a black family
The way he went on to describe the societal differences, even in black society was eye opening as well. The belief that black people were inherently inferior seemed ingrained into South Africa’s society. When he, as a mixed kid, was hanging out with his black family, even *they* treated him differently, but in a better way.
It’s not reverse-racism like you often hear about here in the US, where a white kid in a black community would be ostracized; it’s a literal continuation of “white is better” that the rest of his society was promoting. Weird.
And his commentary on how people who were treated better would react is spot on. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who society has decided to treat preferentially – why would you go out and change it? Indeed, you might not even understand why you were getting preferential treatment – you might think it’s just because *you specifically* are awesome.
I won’t lie. I feel like I’ve been in that spot before growing up. Sometimes it was getting to do something my sister couldn’t because I was a boy. Sometimes it was the luxury of knowing that I as a kid would get in less trouble than other kids because I was a better student. But at least in my mind, it was because I was awesome. Nothing more; nothing less.
Commentary on living in “the hood”
The hood made me realize that crime succeeds because crime does the one thing the government doesn’t do: crime cares. Crime is grassroots. Crime looks for the young kids who need support and a lifting hand. Crime offers internship programs and summer jobs and opportunities for advancement. Crime gets involved in the community. Crime doesn’t discriminate.
The hood has a gravitational pull. It never leaves you behind, but it also never lets you leaves.
-Trevor, on his experiences in the hood
One of the absolute best things this book did was give me a fresh perspective on things I had never experienced. I grew up in a pretty affluent neighborhood without wanting for anything monetarily, so experiences in Houston’s third ward are completely foreign to me. And here’s Trevor talking about his experience in South Africa’s version of it.
And he describes things so vividly it’s perfect. His thoughts on how the economy of the hood is perfectly evolved for its environment is intriguing – how it doesn’t discriminate; how when traditional employment fails, the hood provides ways for its members to provide for themselves economically, to survive.
But the way in which he described how it’s *extremely* difficult to leave is kind of terrifying. His recollection of one of his friends who got a legit job, but was peer pressured basically to quit it is sad. Crabs in a bucket, right?
Poignant Life Observations
They’re free, they’ve been taught how to fish, but no one will give them a fishing rod.
Trevor did a fantastic job of coming up with very eloquent ways to describe some of the life lessons he learned. The sentence above was him talking about how you can educate people, but if you don’t give them any opportunities to use that education, it doesn’t actually help.
He talked specifically about how he had the intelligence to do things, the drive to work hard, and the personality to sell things, but it was really only when his friend Andrew gave him his CD-writer that Trevor was able to utilize his skills to be productive, to do something with his life (even if it was just to create pirated CDs).
The more time I spent in jail, the more I realized that the law isn’t rational at all. It’s a lottery. What color is your skin? How much money do you have? Who’s your lawyer? Who’s the judge?
This is one thing I’ve only heard from other people’s stories, and that I believe is universally true, whether it’s here in America or South Africa. And the way that Trevor describes his time in jail is…a little horrifying.
He describes a huge hulk of a man who was in for stealing, but who couldn’t communicate with his guards or his defense lawyers, and so would probably not get to defend himself in court; one who was apparently not a violent criminal but was being treated as such because of the way he looked combined with the fact that nobody could understand what he was saying because he spoke a different language.
You hear stories from things like the Daily Show where poor people don’t know how to navigate the legal system and so get much harsher sentences; and you also hear through the grapevine of how people with money are able to successfully navigate their way through legal troubles and it’s…disheartening.
So yeah, I agree with you Trevor. The law is a lottery. And you get better tickets if you have money.
We live in a world where we don’t see the ramifications of what we do to others because we don’t live with them.
Trevor’s point when saying this was twofold. One, he said this is why ghettos were created, so that rich white people in South Africa would not have to see the poor black people that they were taking advantage of; But ALSO, two, it’s how he said everyone in the hood rationalized stealing. You weren’t stealing from a person, taking something and affecting their lives: you were just taking something that was there. It wasn’t until he got a camera with a family’s photos on it that he finally felt remorse for being complicit in stealing something.
I think this is a poignant life observation as well. It’s so much easier to get mad at someone else or trivialize their problems if you don’t have to see their face, to see them deal with the problems that you may have had a hand in. So if you really want to change a person’s mind on something that you think they’re doing, make them see the firsthand human results of what they’ve done. Don’t argue with them on the internet. It will be much more effective. Hopefully, this is a lesson I can take going forward in my life.
Fun, Fun Stories
“Yeah, she was super sad too, because she had such a crush on you. She was always waiting for you to ask her out. Okay, I gotta go to class! Bye!”
Reading back on what I’ve written, I make his book sound super preachy, and that does Trevor a disservice. Perhaps literally the best part about his book is that he wasn’t preachy about his overarching messages. This book was, first and foremost, “a collection of stories from growing up in Apartheid in South Africa.”
And boy were those stories so entertaining. Whether it was in the context of an overarching message he was trying to get across (like the ones I referenced above), or just about him regretting his inability to ask a girl out (quote above), they were genuinely funny and delightful.
I mean, yes, he’s a comedian, and maybe you should expect that, but his writing style was *on point*.
Fufi was my first heartbreak. No one has even betrayed me more than Fufi.
I believed that Fufi was my dog, but of course that wasn’t true. Fufi was a dog. I was a boy. We got along well. She happened to live in my house. That experience shaped what I’ve felt about relationships for the rest of my life: You do knot own the thing that you love.
His story regarding how his dog used to go and hang out with another family during the day was hilarious. And the life lesson that he was trying to convey with it is pretty good in the grand scheme of things.
Life lessons with funny stories? Yes please.
Slightly less funny stories
But the closing story of the book was honestly the most riveting. And it sucks that this isn’t some fictional story, because it would be way better if it is. He talked about how his mom’s abusive relationship with his stepdad, and about how said stepdad tried to kill his mom.
This was the story that he told mostly just as a story – no life lesson, no entertaining bit at the end. And it showed. He conveyed his tone so well, you could feel his anxiousness, feel his anger at the situation and how helpless he was about it.
For the life of me I could not understand why she wouldn’t do the same: leave. Just leave. Just fucking leave.
I won’t spoil the story in case you haven’t read it yet, but I know that feeling, where one of your friends/family is in a situation, partly of their own doing, and THEY WON’T STOP. You just want to yell at them to stop, but they won’t.
It’s infuriating, and you won’t understand. And that’s basically where Trevor was. That’s good writing to me.
I’m so glad I took the time to read this book. It was entertaining, had good life lessons with each story, and gave me insight into how other people grew up. Hell, other people *my age* grew up (Trevor is basically my age).
My only gripe would be that since it’s a collection of stories, Trevor’s age jumps around between the stories. He’ll be a high school graduate in one chapter, then you’ll jump to a new story and he’ll be 11. Sometimes that was jarring. But whatever, I’m sure that he put some thought into the ordering of the stories, and that was a small thing overall.
The little excerpts he put in between his chapters describing something in history I thought were perfect too. They set up the following chapters well, and were little bite size nuggets of wisdom.
This might be my favorite book that I’ve read so far this year. I loved it.