Chapters 3–8

Summary: Chapter 3: Trevor, Pray

South African culture contains contradictions. Their justice system has modern elements: a judge, jury, and lawyers. The laws, however, seem ancient. Well into the twenty-first century, one could be arrested and found guilty by a jury for practicing witchcraft.

The only regular male presence in Trevor’s young life was Patricia’s father, Temperance Noah. Trevor remembers Temperance charming all the women of Soweto. Later, Trevor learned that Temperance had bipolar disorder. Trevor remembers swings from broad charm and benevolence to extreme rage, to solitude and depression. Trevor’s grandmother, Frances, was calm and sharp-minded. Patricia did not find it hard to raise Trevor without the help of a husband. The women of Soweto, many of whom were raising children without male help, formed their own religious community. At their prayer meetings, they sought help for their personal challenges, and Trevor felt he, too, was being helpful by offering his prayers. 

Homes in Soweto were typically built piece by piece, and most did not include indoor plumbing. Once, when Trevor was five years old, he didn’t want to use the outdoor toilet while it was raining. Instead, Trevor had a bowel movement onto a newspaper and placed it in the dust bin. Trevor’s blind great-grandmother, Koko, didn’t know it was Trevor making noise. Patricia arrived home and discovered the dust bin’s contents. When Trevor swore he had not been at home, the family decided that the bowel movement must have been left by a demon. Trevor was asked to pray to God to kill the demon, and Trevor did his best in front of the women in a prayer meeting that lasted two hours. Later, once he was alone, Trevor prayed again. Trevor hoped to be forgiven for wasting God’s time on such a trivial matter.

Summary: Chapter 4: Chameleon

Language, Noah believes, is a good tool for dismantling racist ideologies. However, it is also a good tool for perpetuating them, because language is another way for humans to decide who is and isn’t like them. The South African government used language to maintain divisions among the South African tribes.

Trevor’s grandmother Frances regularly beat his Black cousins with a belt. When Patricia asked her mother why she did not beat Trevor the same way, Frances answered that she was afraid to beat a white child, because they bruise so easily. Patricia was the only person who didn’t treat Trevor differently because of his light skin. Trevor learned early on that language was the best way to navigate his complex reality, and he made sure he could shift between Zulu, Tswana, and English whenever necessary. There were children of all races and colors at Trevor’s Catholic school, Maryvale College. It was easy for Trevor to socialize with his peers until primary school. In the sixth grade, Trevor was placed in the high-aptitude class, where he had no Black classmates. At recess, Trevor was not accepted by the Black children in the other classes until he proved that he could speak their African languages. Trevor asked to be pulled out of the advanced classes and placed with his Black peers.

Summary: Chapter 5: The Second Girl

Before apartheid, Black South African children were taught in English mission schools. They learned English and studied science, history, medicine, and law. Bantu, or “native,” schools established by the apartheid government were designed to keep the Black populations in poverty. Bantu schools taught mostly agriculture and simple counting and measuring. The distinction between these two approaches, Noah believes, was that the English colonizers gave Black South Africans hope of a better life if they became civilized. The Bantu approach offered no such hope.

Patricia’s parents, Temperance and Frances, did not have a happy marriage. When Patricia was young, she told her mother she wanted to live with her father. Temperance instead sent her to live with his sister in Xhosa, a semi-sovereign “homeland” nation where Patricia was educated in a mission school. She became self-sufficient, working at a young age so as to not be a financial burden on her family. At twenty-one, Patricia began secretarial school in Soweto but was forced to send her wages back to her family. Looking back, Patricia refers to this as the “black tax”: before her hard work could benefit her personal advancement, it must first support the older generations. This expectation was given to Patricia even in her name— “She Who Gives Back.” When Patricia gave a name to her son, she intentionally chose one with no Biblical or familial ties—“Trevor.” Patricia made sure Trevor had a way to free his mind, and she fostered in her son a love of reading and thinking. 

Shortly after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, marking the beginning of the end for apartheid, Patricia moved with her son to a town called Eden Park. Though they lived very modestly, Patricia raised Trevor to believe in his own voice and the possibilities of his future. She saw that their world would change, and she wanted her son to be ready. 

Summary: Chapter 6: Loopholes

The racial divides of South African apartheid were not logical to Noah. Chinese immigrants were classified as Black, while Japanese immigrants were classified as white. However, many South Africans were not able to distinguish between Chinese immigrants and Japanese immigrants, so it made for a confusing social and legal stratification.

Trevor was an active and mischievous child. Patricia had some unique ways of handling her son’s misbehavior. Patricia and Trevor began exchanging comically formal letters when Trevor was around eight years old. The pair would argue in writing over Trevor’s chores or his poor grades, as they preferred not to address the conflict in person. Trevor became a fast runner and was quick to evade punishment. On the rare occasions when Patricia was able to catch Trevor, she made sure her son knew why she was spanking him and that she still loved him. Patricia surprised Trevor by occasionally supporting his rebellious side when they both disagreed with a rule he broke at school. Trevor learned from Patricia to challenge authority, and he soon developed a reputation for being disobedient. Patricia’s boyfriend, Abel, lived in the garage of a white family in Eden Park. One day, Trevor was playing with matches and a magnifying glass in the garage and inadvertently started a fire, but no one could think of a punishment for Trevor. Trevor’s cousin Mlungisi could not believe the things Trevor got away with. Trevor got his resilient spirit from his mother; they were both able to forget painful things quickly.

Summary: Chapter 7: Fufi

It is unusual for Black South Africans to own cats as pets as many of them believe cats are witches and carried jinxes. One South African soccer player was jailed for beating a cat to death when it interrupted a match. 

Once Patricia had moved her son from a Black neighborhood to a mixed-race neighborhood, she brought Trevor two black cats. Someone in their neighborhood killed the cats and left the bodies on Trevor’s front gate. Soon, Patricia brought home two dogs. Trevor named one of the dogs Fufi. Trevor always believed that Fufi was not as intelligent as their other dog, Panther, until a vet explained that Fufi was deaf. Trevor loved Fufi, and he marveled at her ability to jump high. Fufi liked to jump over their walls, roam the neighborhood, and then wait outside the gate for Trevor and Patricia to come home. One day, Trevor found Fufi in another boy’s yard. Trevor argued with the boy, who believed that Fufi was his dog, until Patricia offered to buy Fufi from the other family. Trevor was upset that Fufi loved another boy; he was hurt that his dog had betrayed him. Patricia reminded Trevor that Fufi did not love Trevor any less, and Trevor applied that lesson later on in life. Trevor still reminds his friends that they do not own the object of their love.

Summary: Chapter 8: Robert

Once Trevor was older, Patricia encouraged him to seek out his father. Patricia hoped that Trevor would find a piece of himself, and that it would be good for him to show his father who Trevor had grown up to become.

As a grown man, Trevor Noah has still never met his Swiss grandparents, or his father’s sister. Noah still doesn’t know much about the man he never called “Daddy.” Robert never understood apartheid, and he hated racism. He opened one of the first racially integrated restaurants in Johannesburg. The steakhouse was very successful until complaints were filed, and Robert decided to shut down the restaurant rather than cater to only white customers. Once apartheid ended, Trevor began visiting his father regularly, and the two celebrated some special occasions together. As Trevor entered his teenage years and Robert moved to Cape Town, Trevor and Robert lost touch. About ten years later, once Trevor had become a successful radio and television host, Trevor resumed contact with his father and began visiting him again. During that first visit, Robert revealed that he had been tracking Trevor’s career. In return, Trevor tried to get to know Robert better by asking a series of questions. Robert had always been a private person, and he preferred that Trevor get to know his father better by spending time together.

Analysis: Chapters 3–8

Just as the South African justice system uses contemporary methods to enforce arcane laws, the people in Trevor’s family are full of contradiction as well. Bipolar disorder dictates the extreme behaviors of Patricia’s father, whom Trevor loves. Trevor also loves his mother, who raises him according to her own progressive ideals but disciplines him in a traditional way. She defies the rules of the apartheid government but embraces the religion that they force upon her. She worships in a modern church but also believes that it is possible for a demon to defecate in her parents’ home. When Trevor prays at his mother’s request to help cast out the demon, it illustrates his reverence for God in a practical way. By apologizing for his own actions, which caused a trivial matter to be brought before God, he displays the same pragmatism that he did earlier in the autobiography.

Noah continues to highlight the contradictions that abound within South African society. While the government forced its people to adopt a universal, monotheistic religion, they did not impose a universal language. This omission was by design. If members of different tribes could not understand one another, they also could not comprehend or empathize with one another or recognize a common enemy in their white oppressors. Trevor’s mastery of English was also by design, as Noah illustrates when he shares more about Patricia’s upbringing. Patricia’s decision to leave her mother’s home when she was young is another indication of her resolve, as is her proficiency in English and her choice to utilize it to secure more lucrative employment and a better life for her son. She teaches Trevor English in order to better his chances in life. The books she shares with him are not only a sure way to increase his language skills but a pastime that will allow an imaginative and solitary child to excel in a creative field as an adult.

Noah juxtaposes his ability to fit in with his family versus his peers with the anecdote about his grandmother’s reluctance to beat him. Trevor had a somewhat easier time fitting in at school because he used his affinity for languages to his advantage. His school is a microcosm of South African society, where students divide themselves into social groups based on racial or color lines. Just as his biracial appearance keeps him from fitting in with his family, it also prevents him from joining a specific group of people. His language skills allow him to gain acceptance from, if not admission into, various groups. Patricia’s language skills also grant her greater status among her colleagues than within her own family. Her education and self-sufficiency enable her to chart her own path but do not guarantee that her path will lead to success. She is able to overcome the many obstacles that the apartheid government places in her way, such as dictating where she is permitted to live and the types of employment she can seek.

Patricia parents Trevor with the goal of making him self-sufficient and beholden to no one. His very name, which is neither Biblical nor Xhosa, provides him with a blank slate. Like her parents, she raises Trevor to be obedient and respectful and beats him when he was not. While Patricia’s parents expected their discipline to go unquestioned, Patricia always gives Trevor a reason for his punishments so that he can understand what he is to gain from them. Trevor challenges authority with the same stubbornness and perseverance that his mother uses to circumvent the laws that might impede her success, but unlike her he does not plan his acts of rebellion with any greater goal in mind. Patricia also provides Trevor with the insight he needs to soothe his own suffering. When she explains that his dog Fufi still loves him, she shows him that shared love is not diminished, and that we do not own those we love, just as her family does not own her. Patricia also encourages Trevor to reconnect with his father, which provides him with yet another means of understanding himself, gaining insight into a world that is different from his own, and deciding what kind of man he wants to be.