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The German education system has ensured that each student grows up with an understanding of the Holocaust and its implications. The American education system does not teach students about slavery and segregation with the same awareness and humility, Noah believes. South Africa takes a similarly detached approach to teaching about apartheid.
While he was in the ninth grade, Trevor made a friend named Daniel who sold bootleg CDs. When Trevor learned that Daniel had trouble getting his Black customers to pay on time, Trevor offered to help Daniel collect payments in exchange for a portion of the profits. When Daniel graduated, he gave the business, including the equipment, to Trevor. For the first time, Trevor had money of his own. Trevor knew that none of his newfound wealth would have been possible without Daniel’s gift. One day, Sizwe saw that Trevor had begun making mixed CDs, expertly curated with smooth transitions between songs. Sizwe knew that he and Trevor could make a lot of money showcasing Trevor’s song mixing talents in front of a live audience.
After Trevor graduated, he and Sizwe set up on a street corner selling CDs, playing music, and dancing. A young man named Hitler was the best dancer in their group. Many Black South Africans chose European names like Hitler, Mussolini, or Napoleon out of a vague sense that these were powerful men whom white people fought against. The Holocaust is the worst moment in history for many people in Western cultures. For many black Africans, Hitler was seen as little more than a significant historical figure. This disconnect led to a heated argument Trevor had with a teacher at a Jewish school. Trevor and Sizwe’s group was hired to perform at the King David School. Trevor’s group was instantly shut down when they brought out their dancers and started shouting “Go Hitler! Go Hitler! Go Hitler!” Trevor did not understand her hostility, and he believed this white woman was reacting in a racist manner to his Black friends. These white people couldn’t handle a group of talented Black dancers, Trevor thought.
Noah explains how squatter settlements like the Johannesburg township called Alexandra (known to most residents as just “Alex”) will never grow into cities the way Soweto was able to. The people who moved to Alexandra were not given land by the government. Nonetheless, today Alex is home to nearly 200,000 people.
Sizwe was from Alex, where he became known as a protector of other children from the township. One day after graduation, Sizwe invited Trevor to visit Alex for the first time. Trevor was captivated by the energy of the “hood,” as Sizwe called it. At any moment, the busy streets of the grid system township could be interrupted by an altercation between gangsters and cops. Sizwe’s family lived in a relatively wealthier part of Alex where the government had replaced shacks with built houses. Sizwe and his friends were known as “cheese boys,” because they could afford to add cheese to their food orders.
Trevor made a plan to move to Alex to sell bootleg CDs in order to afford university tuition. Sizwe expanded their business into buying and selling stolen goods, like DVD players and designer shoes. Moms were the best customers, and they trusted Sizwe and Trevor to take their daughters to parties. In exchange, Trevor and Sizwe would forgive any debt the moms owed them. However, success in the hood did not last. At one of the parties, cops shot Trevor’s computer, putting the boys out of business for a while. Trevor and Sizwe took their dance group to a competition against Soweto, hoping to take home the cash prize. Their minibus was stopped by cops, who found a gun. The cops recognized that Sizwe and his friends were from Alex and started hitting the boys, calling them trash. It was clear that the group was expected to bribe the cops to avoid jail time, but they had run out of money. When the group was taken to jail, Trevor called a friend from Highlands Park to send the boys bail money. Trevor realized that his friends from Alex had fewer options in life. Unlike Sizwe and Hitler, Trevor would be free to leave “the hood” whenever he chose.
Noah highlights the way a government educates its children about a shameful period in their country’s past by juxtaposing the Holocaust, slavery in America, and apartheid. All of these historical atrocities led to consequences that echo long after their end. Noah not only illustrates the disparities in how a culture acknowledges or disregards its past, but he also illustrates that these three very different countries all have reason to be ashamed. Being a comedian, Noah structures the misunderstanding at the Jewish school to emphasize the humor in it. The introduction to Trevor’s friend Hitler makes it immediately clear that something uncomfortable will happen regarding this name. Noah provides the context for a name like Hitler being innocuous, even common, in South Africa, a place with an extremely diverse population. When Hitler’s name inevitably resonates with someone in a cringe-inducing moment, the boys are met with a hostility that they do not understand, which speaks to how different cultures see certain historical names in different ways.
Noah adds an additional layer of discomfort when he shares Trevor’s reaction to the confrontation and again uses humor to make the incident more palatable. When Trevor incorrectly assumes that the teacher who confronts him is racist, he is every bit as colorblind to her as the police previously were to him. The ignorance of Trevor and his friends shows their lack of understanding of the history behind certain names. While their education was focused on apartheid history, it is obvious that their knowledge of world history is lacking. The insensitivity of this situation is even more remarkable because Trevor’s family lives in a Jewish neighborhood. This interaction further illustrates how insular communities are in South Africa even after apartheid, when it became more common for people from different races to live among one another. The reader can empathize with Trevor due to his naiveté. However, he is arrogant and is still just a young man who feels that others are threatened by his talent.
Trevor’s impressions of the township of Alex demonstrate that he is ready to geographically and culturally branch out. Alex is a rough neighborhood, but the township captivates Trevor with its energy. The sellers of the bootleg CDs bond while selling their merchandise and take advantage of communities that are used to buying grey-market goods. When they begin buying and selling stolen goods, they add a more blatantly illegal service to their business model. The mothers who are their best customers do not judge them for their business model, though Patricia certainly would. Trevor is not only ready to leave his neighborhood, but he also shows he is ready to separate himself from his mother and her strict beliefs.
Just as the introduction to Hitler foreshadows trouble, so does the moment when Trevor crosses the line from pirating music into perpetuating the cycle of thievery. Though he has shoplifted small items in the past, he only did so for his own consumption. Now, he does not personally steal the big-ticket items he sells, but he keeps other thieves in business and gives them a financial motive to continue victimizing honest merchants. When the law does catch up with Trevor and his friends, it is not because of their illegal activities. They are arrested only because they are from a different neighborhood. The police who beat Sizwe and his friends do so not because of the gun found in their possession, but for something that is not an actual crime in most modern societies. The corruption is evident as we see Trevor taken to jail here, when earlier he went free after shoplifting. In both circumstances, he is powerless to affect the outcome, a concrete example of the perverted system of policing in South Africa at the time.