Last Updated on March 9, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 823
The author reflects on his upbringing, which is spent primarily in the company of women. Though he has male relatives, and his relationship with his father is positive, his mother and grandmother represent the center of authority in his young life. His grandfather, Temperance Noah, is around now and then, too, but he’s unpredictable—immensely charming at times but also prone to volatility and anger. During Trevor’s childhood, the family blames his behavior on simple eccentricity. Later, the author notes, the family will learn that Temperance has bipolar disorder.
Though Trevor’s situation is unique among his peers, the author notes that apartheid has actually robbed the majority of them of their relationships with their fathers. Most of the township’s other fathers are at a distance, too—the same set of apartheid mandates that keep Trevor’s father on the other side of racial divide keep most Black fathers working in dangerous jobs far away from home.
For many families in the townships, this empty space is filled with religion. Several days a week, mothers and children gather in each other’s homes to hold exuberant, cathartic prayer meetings. On Tuesdays, the meetings come to the Noah house, where Trevor is the center of attention. He prays in English, the language of the Bibles that were brought to the region by colonizers years before. To his grandma, this means his prayers are the ones that work.
In a misguided attempt to avoid going to the outhouse in the rain one afternoon, five-year-old Trevor takes a calculated risk: he relieves himself inside the house, wraps his excrement in a newspaper, and hides it in the trash, hoping nobody will discover his misdeed. It backfires in a dramatic way—his mother finds it, but instead of blaming Trevor, she interprets it as a cursed omen. All of the community’s women are called to an emergency prayer to cast out the witchcraft. She demands that Trevor pray to kill the demon who left the excrement, which paralyzes him with fear—he feels that he’s the demon who left it. If his prayers are always answered, that means he either has to disobey his mother or pray for his own death at the hands of a vengeful God.
By his own admission, Trevor is punished much more leniently than his peers while growing up. At the time, he considers it special treatment because he is a special kid, but eventually he comes to realize what the difference really is: he’s half white and thus light-skinned, and even among Black South Africans, that distinction affords him a certain amount of privilege that it does not always occur to him to question.
Conversely, it also singles him out. He is the white kid among Black kids, and the Black kid among white kids. To cope, he masters multiple languages so he can always speak to people from a place of familiarity—if someone speaks to him in Zulu, he responds in Zulu. If they speak to him in Xhosa, he responds in Xhosa. He learns not just to respond to people in their language but in their accent as well—the closer he can get to someone’s native tongue, the less he is seen as an outcast.
At school, this makes him something of a novelty. To find a white person who speaks native African languages is exceedingly rare. It doesn’t matter if, as in Trevor’s case, the “white” kid is actually a light-skinned mixed-race kid who identifies most with the Black kids; to them, he’s an outsider. Forced to truly consider his own identity from both a public and private perspective for the first time, Trevor asks to be moved to the majority-Black class at school.
In chapters 3 and 4, the reader learns more about the author, his relationship with his family, and his struggles with an ambiguous racial identity in an environment where such identities are rigidly codified.
As a child, he is naughtier than the other kids in the family, but he is generally punished far less than his darker-skinned cousins. Noticing this pattern of treatment, he initially thinks it is because he is somehow special and not because of racial differences. But looking back from adulthood, he sees the racial bias in these interactions even within his own family. His light skin provides him a privilege that most people in his community don’t have, just as it insulates him from noticing or needing to interrogate that privilege until he is much older.
This anecdote speaks to one of the larger mechanisms that allowed apartheid to take hold: it is possible, even among kin, to create racialized divisions that sow uncertainty. The white government realized this as they developed their segregated system, and they exploited it by leveraging the racial differences between the people of South Africa, thereby pitting them against each other.