In the preface to the chapter, Noah notes that missionaries provide the only education available to black South Africans before the beginning of the apartheid government, and “nearly every major black leader of the anti-apartheid movement” gets this kind of education. During apartheid, the government shuts down mission schools and makes sure that blacks are confined to “Bantu schools,” in which they only learn “metrics and agriculture.” “Fully grown teenagers” are taught through songs: “three times two is six. La la la la la.” This is the difference between British and Afrikaner racism: the British promised natives a way to “civilize themselves” and potentially join polite society, while the Afrikaners thought, “why give a book to a monkey?”
Education—and, crucially, religious education—creates a paradoxical solution to oppression: black people can learn to defeat colonialism by studying in colonial institutions. Of course, language abilities are another key element of this education, because leading movements against apartheid requires being able to communicate with people from diverse ethnic groups (which Bantu schools assured natives could not do). Afrikaners’ racism is a self-fulfilling prophecy: because they do not see blacks as human, they refuse to give them an education, then point to this lack of education as proof of blacks’ “primitive” and inferior culture.
Noah explains that he is “a product of [his mother’s] search for belonging.” Her parents are forced to move to Soweto and divorce soon after having her; Patricia is “the problem child” and fights constantly with her mother (Frances) but loves accompanying her father (Temperance) “on his manic misadventures.” She tries to move in with Temperance at the age of nine, but he sends her to live in Transkei, the Xhosa “homeland,” with his sister.
In fact, the family’s “search for belonging” is intergenerational: the last chapter recounted Trevor’s earliest “search for belonging” through language, and Patricia’s clearly relates to her parents’ displacement to Soweto and family turmoil. By uprooting South Africa’s native peoples and forcing them into homelands and townships, apartheid created an enduring legacy of identity confusion.
As the middle child and “second girl,” Patricia is unwanted, and she ends up living in a hut with 14 other unwanted children in the overcrowded, infertile “homeland.” She works the fields in the early morning and fights the other children—or sometimes the pigs or dogs—to make sure she has something to eat for dinner. At times “she literally ate dirt” to feel full. But she is lucky to go to one of the only remaining mission schools and learn English, which gets her a job at a nearby factory, which pays her with dinner.
Unlike Trevor, Patricia could never truly rely on her family; when she goes to the homelands, she is effectively stranded, forced to fend for herself in a place with virtually nothing, which is typical of the experiences of the first generation born under apartheid. However, her brutal suffering teaches her resilience, and the mission school offers her a chance to advance socioeconomically when she returns.
When Patricia is 21, her aunt gets sick, so she has to return to Soweto. This is when she takes the typing course and works as a secretary—but all her money goes to the family, which “is the curse of being black and poor,” having to work endlessly to help everyone else catch up. She soon tires of paying this “black tax” and runs away to live in downtown Johannesburg.
While the family never did much for Patricia, now she has to do everything for them—the “black tax” is another crucial barrier to socioeconomic progress, simply because the community’s enduring need absorbs any individual progress. Although Noah does not necessarily defend his mother’s decision to put her own needs first and leave the family, it clearly makes sense given the family’s earlier abandonment of her and also was instrumental to her ability to raise him independently and successfully.
Patricia tells this story in occasional vignettes—never all at once—and only so Trevor wouldn’t “take for granted how we got to where we were.” She thinks it wrong to dwell on past suffering, so she never does, even though she also wants to ensure her son never suffers like she did.
In fact, Patricia’s entire story of suffering seems at odds with her close relationship to her family during Trevor’s childhood; she understands how pain can be both motivating and discouraging, but does everything she can to make sure Trevor sees it in the first light.
Most Xhosa names become self-fulfilling prophecies; Patricia’s, “Nombuyiselo,” means “She Who Gives Back,” and is fitting: even as a child, she would care for younger, abandoned children. So, to exempt her son from fate, she names him “Trevor, a name with no meaning whatsoever in South Africa, no precedent in my family. It’s not even a Biblical name.” He is free to become whomever he wants.
Patricia’s most central values are freedom and independence, which she had to spend much of her own life fighting for—and yet she uses her own freedom to help others pursue theirs. Accordingly, Trevor’s name makes him free because he is not forced to belong anywhere in particular—and can instead choose his own identity and sense of belonging.
Patricia also makes sure Trevor speaks English as his first language and gives him as many books as possible—he treasures them and particularly loves fantasy. She “spoke to [Trevor] like an adult, which was unusual.” Unlike school, Patricia teaches Trevor to think.
Patricia treats parenting as something of a moral mission, and she clearly succeeds. In order to help Trevor take advantage of the freedom she seeks to offer him, Patricia also needs to give him the ability to think for himself and the resources (namely, the English language) to expertly navigate his country.
Apartheid ends gradually, with various laws coming off the books or otherwise losing their force. A few months before its ultimate collapse, Patricia and Trevor move to Eden Park, a colored neighborhood with real, suburban houses, surrounded by black townships. Trevor is uncomfortable having his own bedroom and sleeps in his mother’s bed. They also get a car, the secondhand Volkswagen that often fails to start up (forcing them to hitchhike). But this lets them freely explore—they visit every park and picnic spot imaginable. Patricia refuses to spend money on anything but food and books—all Trevor’s clothes are secondhand and their furniture is always falling apart. Even the food they do get is the cheapest available, the meat often limited to scraps and bones intended for dogs.
Patricia realizes that apartheid is on the way out and takes advantage of the opportunity to create a better home environment for herself and Trevor, ending up in a place she probably could not have dreamed of when he was born and it was unclear whether apartheid would ever come to an end. While their Volkswagen’s mechanical failures are a reminder that they are still relatively poor and have only achieved a limited sort of freedom, they nevertheless pursue their freedom at all costs, even if it means eating low-quality meat or dressing in rags.
However, Trevor “never felt poor because our lives were so rich with experience.” They visit white neighborhoods and other “places black people never went.” In essence, Patricia raises Trevor “like a white kid […] in the sense of believing that the world was my oyster, that I should speak up for myself, that my ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered.” Following one’s dreams depends on the limits of one’s imagination, but Patricia shows Trevor limitless possibilities, even though nobody ever did the same for her. And, most astonishingly, she does this all despite never having known that apartheid was nearing its end. She refuses to bend to “the logic of apartheid” and wants to make sure that, in her words, “even if [Trevor] never leaves the ghetto, he will know that the ghetto is not the world.”
Patricia expresses her love for Trevor by showing him possibilities his peers cannot see; she recognizes that, even if he never ends up succeeding, this expanded sense of possibility is its own reward because it allows him the kind of perspective that would never be available to someone who spent their entire life trapped in Soweto. Just as she pursued her own freedom by living in a white part of downtown Johannesburg during apartheid, now she pursues freedom for Trevor by showing him things he can achieve through his own effort, even if the world does its best to thwart him.