In his preface, Noah notes that the history of the Holocaust is a central part of a German high school education, like the British Empire in the current British school system. But South Africa, like the United States, does not critically teach about its past: there are “facts, but not many, and never the emotional or moral dimension.”
The kind of curriculum Trevor sees as predominant in places like South Africa and the United States contrasts strongly with the kind of education his mother gave him: for her, his ability to think independently was the only thing that mattered.
Three Chinese kids start at Trevor’s school while he is in the ninth grade: Bolo (a nickname), Bruce Lee (his actual name), and John (who “was just John”). Bolo is busy starting his own business, selling pirated PlayStation games and CDs with a white kid named Daniel. But Bolo and Daniel are afraid to confront the black kids, who promise to pay later but never do, so they enlist Trevor’s help. Daniel helps Trevor improve his computer and then, when he is ready to graduate, gives Trevor his expensive CD writer.
Trevor again benefits from his ability to bridge different cultures and ethnicities, which allows him to become a middleman between the school’s black majority and Daniel and Bolo. Whereas Tim’s deals are usually thinly veiled attempts to take advantage of Trevor, Daniel legitimately helps Trevor out, offering an opportunity that promises to benefit them mutually and clearly investing in him personally as well as financially (as evidenced by the gift of his CD writer).
Trevor now has everything he needs to control the bootleg business top-to-bottom, but he also has zero music knowledge, since he is only allowed to listen to church music. To remedy this, he starts listening to the CDs while he burns them; many are black American albums. Sizwe gives Trevor some ideas that prove quite successful, such as making a compilation album, or having the tracks fade together.
The fact that American music is so popular in Trevor’s world suggests that South Africans are beginning to develop a transnational concept of black identity after apartheid, looking to African-Americans (whose struggle against slavery and segregation is in some ways analogous to the struggle against apartheid) in order to make sense of themselves.
Trevor is making 500 rand a week, a “dream” salary, which is “the most liberating thing in the world” because now he can afford choice. He goes to McDonald’s—which is all the rage in South Africa—and soon gets addicted: “McDonald’s is America.” He refuses to eat much else. In the era before cellphones, he even buys a cordless phone, which lets him talk to his friends on his walk to and from McDonald’s.
After growing up beholden to his mother’s financial control, Trevor finally gets his own income and a taste of freedom. His McDonald’s obsession, like his budding interest in black American music, shows how American culture becomes increasingly dominant throughout the world in conjunction with economic globalization. In a sense, Trevor’s pride in his income is like his pride in tasting “America”—both symbolize rising from poverty to material success.
Trevor has Daniel to thank for his newfound comforts; Daniel’s generosity shows “how important it is to empower the dispossessed and the disenfranchised in the wake of oppression.” Daniel has access to all the resources that Trevor and his family have always lacked, and by getting those resources (the CD writer), Trevor has managed to succeed where “talent alone would have gotten [him] nowhere.”
Trevor offers a powerful argument against thinking about success and talent in purely individual terms: people also always have to consider the context of resources, knowledge, and social connections that make success possible and talent visible. Daniel’s relationship with Trevor shows the towering difference between ending apartheid and repairing its damage, making it formally legal for blacks to succeed and actually giving them the resources necessary to do it.
Sizwe soon recommends that Trevor start DJing. Sizwe lives in the dense, dangerous, and hard-partying shantytown of Alexandra; in Alex, unless “someone gets shot or a bottle gets broken on someone’s face […] it wasn’t a party.” Most DJs are stuck with vinyl, so can only play for a few hours, but with his computer, Trevor can play all night. He and Sizwe throw Alexandra’s biggest party on New Year’s Eve and immediately build a reputation. While the white kids take a gap year to travel, Trevor takes one to sell CDs by day and DJ parties by night.
Alexandra represents the absolute worst conditions in which urban black South Africans were forced to live during and after apartheid. By combining the technology and training Daniel gives him with Sizwe’s social connections and his own entrepreneurial spirit, Trevor becomes something of a local celebrity and the ultimate outsider-insider.
Trevor and Sizwe decide to form a dance crew to teach people new moves mentioned in their music, and the best dancer among their friends is a guy named Hitler. Hitler is incredible, like “a jellyfish if it could walk on land,” and is “incredibly handsome.” He “almost always” wins the neighborhood dance competitions and becomes the dance crew’s centerpiece; the whole neighborhood chants, “Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler!”
Trevor and Sizwe continue to expand their operation and, with Hitler’s dancing adding a visual spectacle to their crew, they become an important rallying point bringing the entire neighborhood together. Although it probably jumps out immediately at the reader, nobody in Alexandra appears to see anything strange about a teenager named Hitler.
The legendary dancer is named Hitler because, since the earliest days of colonial South Africa, black people were forced to take a European name “that white people could pronounce.” They often choose these at random, from the Bible or the news. This is “a case of the West reaping what it has sown”—black South Africans really have no idea who Hitler is at this point in time, and mostly think of him as someone so powerful that he almost made the Allies lose their war. He “must be the toughest guy of all time,” and South Africans want to seem tough, so they name their children “Hitler.”
South Africans see Hitler as the enemy of their enemy, without realizing that he was also responsible for the Holocaust and the inspiration for their enemy (since apartheid was partially modeled after Nazi Germany). Trevor sees the name “Hitler” as evidence of colonialism’s intellectual laziness: it neither wants to learn Africans’ real names nor wants to teach him the real history based on which they are expected to choose names.
At Trevor’s comparatively sophisticated school, they learned some facts about World War II, but nothing about Hitler’s racist policies (on which apartheid was largely modeled). People think in terms of their own history, and “Hitler is not the worst thing a black South African can imagine” compared to the Europeans who colonized their people. Westerners often “insist that the Holocaust was the worst atrocity in human history” but forget about colonialism, which is different only because it lacks detailed records, which the Nazis kept religiously. For Africans, Hitler is “just another strongman from the history books.”
Trevor forces the reader to see that their likely bias toward thinking in terms of Western history makes them just as provincial and ignorant as South Africans who never learn about it. It is useless to rank horrific events from history; saying that the Holocaust was definitively the worst atrocity across all time and place is actually papering over the numerous genocides, past and present, committed by Western countries who still retain their political power and whose victims continue to be silenced.
As the dance crew multiplies Trevor and Sizwe’s success, they begin playing more gigs in the suburbs, for wealthier black families but also white people. And they soon get booked to play a “cultural program” at a private Jewish school. They start their set, and ten minutes in, Trevor announces, “Give it up and make some noise for HIIIIIITTTTLLLLEERRRRRRRRRR!!!”
After Trevor, Sizwe, Hitler, and the crew gain a following, they become a token of township culture for wealthier South Africans who want to know what is happening in places like Alexandra but never actually go there. Ironically enough, Trevor actually still lives in a comfortable white suburb like the ones for which he is now representing Alexandra.
The room falls silent as Hitler and the crew start their routine; a teacher unplugs Trevor’s microphone and calls him a “horrible, disgusting, vile creature.” Trevor realizes the problem: Hitler’s signature, gyrating, erotic dance move. But this is “part of our [African] culture.” Trevor tells the woman to calm down, and she says that “you people are disgusting.” Clearly, she is racist, Trevor concludes, and they continue arguing. She promises that “my people” will defeat “people like you,” and Trevor assumes she is talking about white people, since “Jews in South Africa are just white people.” He announces that “now we have Nelson Mandela on our side!” The woman is horribly confused, and the crew dances their way out of the school, chanting, “Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler!”
Trevor and the Jewish teacher’s misunderstanding is comical because both believe they are standing up for the oppressed: the teacher thinks that Trevor is idolizing the Holocaust by yelling “Go Hitler!” (even though that is just his friend’s name) and Trevor thinks the teacher is proclaiming white supremacy and insulting their blackness, rather than their reference to Hitler. This symmetrical cultural misunderstanding, based on a symmetrical lack of education about the other group, illustrates the extent to which South African society remains sharply divided after apartheid, and how the education system fails to help bridge those divisions.