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My mother used to tell me, “I chose to have you because I wanted something to love and something that would love me unconditionally in return.” I was a product of her search for belonging. She never felt like she belonged anywhere. She didn’t belong to her mother, didn’t belong to her father, didn’t belong with her siblings. She grew up with nothing and wanted something to call her own.

My grandparents’ marriage was an unhappy one. They met and married in Sophiatown, but one year later the army came in and drove them out. The government seized their home and bulldozed the whole area to build a fancy, new white suburb, Triomf. Triumph. Along with tens of thousands of other black people, my grandparents were forcibly relocated to Soweto, to a neighborhood called the Meadowlands. They divorced not long after that, and my grandmother moved to Orlando with my mom, my aunt, and my uncle.

My mom was the problem child, a tomboy, stubborn, defiant. My gran had no idea how to raise her. Whatever love they had was lost in the constant fighting that went on between them. But my mom adored her father, the charming, charismatic Temperance. She went gallivanting with him on his manic misadventures. She’d tag along when he’d go drinking in the shebeens. All she wanted in life was to please him and be with him. She was always being swatted away by his girlfriends, who didn’t like having a reminder of his first marriage hanging around, but that only made her want to be with him all the more.

When my mother was nine years old, she told my gran that she didn’t want to live with her anymore. She wanted to live with her father. “If that’s what you want,” Gran said, “then go.” Temperance came to pick my mom up, and she happily bounded up into his car, ready to go and be with the man she loved. But instead of taking her to live with him in the Meadowlands, without even telling her why, he packed her off and sent her to live with his sister in the Xhosa homeland, Transkei—he didn’t want her, either. My mom was the middle child. Her sister was the eldest and firstborn. Her brother was the only son, bearer of the family name. They both stayed in Soweto, were both raised and cared for by their parents. But my mom was unwanted. She was the second girl. The only place she would have less value would be China.

My mother didn’t see her family again for twelve years. She lived in a hut with fourteen cousins—fourteen children from fourteen different mothers and fathers. All the husbands and uncles had gone off to the cities to find work, and the children who weren’t wanted, or whom no one could afford to feed, had been sent back to the homeland to live on this aunt’s farm.

The homelands were, ostensibly, the original homes of South Africa’s tribes, sovereign and semi-sovereign “nations” where black people would be “free.” Of course, this was a lie. For starters, despite the fact that black people made up over 80 percent of South Africa’s population, the territory allocated for the homelands was about 13 percent of the country’s land. There was no running water, no electricity. People lived in huts.

Where South Africa’s white countryside was lush and irrigated and green, the black lands were overpopulated and overgrazed, the soil depleted and eroding. Other than the menial wages sent home from the cities, families scraped by with little beyond subsistence-level farming. My mother’s aunt hadn’t taken her in out of charity. She was there to work. “I was one of the cows,” my mother would later say, “one of the oxen.” She and her cousins were up at half past four, plowing fields and herding animals before the sun baked the soil as hard as cement and made it too hot to be anywhere but in the shade.

For dinner there might be one chicken to feed fourteen children. My mom would have to fight with the bigger kids to get a handful of meat or a sip of the gravy or even a bone from which to suck out some marrow. And that’s when there was food for dinner at all. When there wasn’t, she’d steal food from the pigs. She’d steal food from the dogs. The farmers would put out scraps for the animals, and she’d jump for it. She was hungry; let the animals fend for themselves. There were times when she literally ate dirt. She would go down to the river, take the clay from the riverbank, and mix it with the water to make a grayish kind of milk. She’d drink that to feel full.

But my mother was blessed that her village was one of the places where a mission school had contrived to stay open in spite of the government’s Bantu education policies. There she had a white pastor who taught her English. She didn’t have food or shoes or even a pair of underwear, but she had English. She could read and write. When she was old enough she stopped working on the farm and got a job at a factory in a nearby town. She worked on a sewing machine making school uniforms. Her pay at the end of each day was a plate of food. She used to say it was the best food she’d ever eaten, because it was something she had earned on her own. She wasn’t a burden to anyone and didn’t owe anything to anyone.

When my mom turned twenty-one, her aunt fell ill and that family could no longer keep her in Transkei. My mom wrote to my gran, asking her to send the price of a train ticket, about thirty rand, to bring her home. Back in Soweto, my mom enrolled in the secretarial course that allowed her to grab hold of the bottom rung of the white-collar world. She worked and worked and worked but, living under my grandmother’s roof, she wasn’t allowed to keep her own wages. As a secretary, my mom was bringing home more money than anyone else, and my grandmother insisted it all go to the family. The family needed a radio, an oven, a refrigerator, and it was now my mom’s job to provide it.

So many black families spend all of their time trying to fix the problems of the past. That is the curse of being black and poor, and it is a curse that follows you from generation to generation. My mother calls it “the black tax.” Because the generations who came before you have been pillaged, rather than being free to use your skills and education to move forward, you lose everything just trying to bring everyone behind you back up to zero. Working for the family in Soweto, my mom had no more freedom than she’d had in Transkei, so she ran away. She ran all the way down to the train station and jumped on a train and disappeared into the city, determined to sleep in public restrooms and rely on the kindness of prostitutes until she could make her own way in the world.

My mother never sat me down and told me the whole story of her life in Transkei. She’d give me little bursts, random details, stories of having to keep her wits about her to avoid getting raped by strange men in the village. She’d tell me these things and I’d be like, Lady, clearly you do not know what kind of stories to be telling a ten-year-old.

My mom told me these things so that I’d never take for granted how we got to where we were, but none of it ever came from a place of self-pity. “Learn from your past and be better because of your past,” she would say, “but don’t cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold on to it. Don’t be bitter.” And she never was. The deprivations of her youth, the betrayals of her parents, she never complained about any of it.

Just as she let the past go, she was determined not to repeat it: my childhood would bear no resemblance to hers. She started with my name. The names Xhosa families give their children always have a meaning, and that meaning has a way of becoming self-fulfilling. You have my cousin, Mlungisi. “The Fixer.” That’s who he is. Whenever I got into trouble he was the one trying to help me fix it. He was always the good kid, doing chores, helping around the house. You have my uncle, the unplanned pregnancy, Velile. “He Who Popped Out of Nowhere.” And that’s all he’s done his whole life, disappear and reappear. He’ll go off on a drinking binge and then pop back up out of nowhere a week later.

Then you have my mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. “She Who Gives Back.” That’s what she does. She gives and gives and gives. She did it even as a girl in Soweto. Playing in the streets she would find toddlers, three- and four-year-olds, running around unsupervised all day long. Their fathers were gone and their mothers were drunks. My mom, who was only six or seven herself, used to round up the abandoned kids and form a troop and take them around to the shebeens. They’d collect empties from the men who were passed out and take the bottles to where you could turn them in for a deposit. Then my mom would take that money, buy food in the spaza shops, and feed the kids. She was a child taking care of children.

When it was time to pick my name, she chose Trevor, a name with no meaning whatsoever in South Africa, no precedent in my family. It’s not even a Biblical name. It’s just a name. My mother wanted her child beholden to no fate. She wanted me to be free to go anywhere, do anything, be anyone.

She gave me the tools to do it as well. She taught me English as my first language. She read to me constantly. The first book I learned to read was the book. The Bible. Church was where we got most of our other books, too. My mom would bring home boxes that white people had donated—picture books, chapter books, any book she could get her hands on. Then she signed up for a subscription program where we got books in the mail. It was a series of how-to books. How to Be a Good Friend. How to Be Honest. She bought a set of encyclopedias, too; it was fifteen years old and way out of date, but I would sit and pore through those.

My books were my prized possessions. I had a bookshelf where I put them, and I was so proud of it. I loved my books and kept them in pristine condition. I read them over and over, but I did not bend the pages or the spines. I treasured every single one. As I grew older I started buying my own books. I loved fantasy, loved to get lost in worlds that didn’t exist. I remember there was some book about white boys who solved mysteries or some shit. I had no time for that. Give me Roald Dahl. James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. That was my fix.

I had to fight to convince my mom to get the Narnia books for me. She didn’t like them.

“This lion,” she said, “he is a false God—a false idol! You remember what happened when Moses came down from the mountain after he got the tablets…”

“Yes, Mom,” I explained, “but the lion is a Christ figure. Technically, he is Jesus. It’s a story to explain Jesus.”

She wasn’t comfortable with that. “No, no. No false idols, my friend.”

Eventually I wore her down. That was a big win.

If my mother had one goal, it was to free my mind. My mother spoke to me like an adult, which was unusual. In South Africa, kids play with kids and adults talk to adults. The adults supervise you, but they don’t get down on your level and talk to you. My mom did. All the time. I was like her best friend. She was always telling me stories, giving me lessons, Bible lessons especially. She was big into Psalms. I had to read Psalms every day. She would quiz me on it. “What does the passage mean? What does it mean to you? How do you apply it to your life?” That was every day of my life. My mom did what school didn’t. She taught me how to think.

The end of apartheid was a gradual thing. It wasn’t like the Berlin Wall where one day it just came down. Apartheid’s walls cracked and crumbled over many years. Concessions were made here and there, some laws were repealed, others simply weren’t enforced. There came a point, in the months before Mandela’s release, when we could live less furtively. It was then that my mother decided we needed to move. She felt we had grown as much as we could hiding in our tiny flat in town.

The country was open now. Where would we go? Soweto came with its burdens. My mother still wanted to get out from the shadow of her family. My mother also couldn’t walk with me through Soweto without people saying, “There goes that prostitute with a white man’s child.” In a black area she would always be seen as that. So, since my mom didn’t want to move to a black area and couldn’t afford to move to a white area, she decided to move to a colored area.

Eden Park was a colored neighborhood adjacent to several black townships on the East Rand. Half-colored and half-black, she figured, like us. We’d be camouflaged there. It didn’t work out that way; we never fit in at all. But that was her thinking when we made the move. Plus it was a chance to buy a home—our own home. Eden Park was one of those “suburbs” that are actually out on the edge of civilization, the kind of place where property developers have said, “Hey, poor people. You can live the good life, too. Here’s a house. In the middle of nowhere. But look, you have a yard!” For some reason the streets in Eden Park were named after cars: Jaguar Street. Ferrari Street. Honda Street. I don’t know if that was a coincidence or not, but it’s funny because colored people in South Africa are known for loving fancy cars. It was like living in a white neighborhood with all the streets named after varietals of fine wine.

I remember moving out there in flashbacks, snippets, driving to a place I’d never seen, seeing people I’d never seen. It was flat, not many trees, the same dusty red-clay dirt and grass as Soweto but with proper houses and paved roads and a sense of suburbia to it. Ours was a tiny house at the bend in the road right off Toyota Street. It was modest and cramped inside, but walking in I thought, Wow. We are really living. It was crazy to have my own room. I didn’t like it. My whole life I’d slept in a room with my mom or on the floor with my cousins. I was used to having other human beings right next to me, so I slept in my mom’s bed most nights.

There was no stepfather in the picture yet, no baby brother crying in the night. It was me and her, alone. There was this sense of the two of us embarking on a grand adventure. She’d say things to me like, “It’s you and me against the world.” I understood even from an early age that we weren’t just mother and son. We were a team.

It was when we moved to Eden Park that we finally got a car, the beat-up, tangerine Volkswagen my mother bought secondhand for next to nothing. One out of five times it wouldn’t start. There was no AC. Anytime I made the mistake of turning on the fan the vent would fart bits of leaves and dust all over me. Whenever it broke down we’d catch minibuses, or sometimes we’d hitchhike. She’d make me hide in the bushes because she knew men would stop for a woman but not a woman with a child. She’d stand by the road, the driver would pull over, she’d open the door and then whistle, and I’d come running up to the car. I would watch their faces drop as they realized they weren’t picking up an attractive single woman but an attractive single woman with a fat little kid.

When the car did work, we had the windows down, sputtering along and baking in the heat. For my entire life the dial on that car’s radio stayed on one station. It was called Radio Pulpit, and as the name suggests it was nothing but preaching and praise. I wasn’t allowed to touch that dial. Anytime the radio wasn’t getting reception, my mom would pop in a cassette of Jimmy Swaggart sermons. (When we finally found out about the scandal? Oh, man. That was rough.) But as shitty as our car was, it was a car. It was freedom. We weren’t black people stuck in the townships, waiting for public transport. We were black people who were out in the world. We were black people who could wake up and say, “Where do we choose to go today?” On the commute to work and school, there was a long stretch of the road into town that was completely deserted. That’s where Mom would let me drive. On the highway. I was six. She’d put me on her lap and let me steer and work the indicators while she worked the pedals and the stick shift. After a few months of that, she taught me how to work the stick. She was still working the clutch, but I’d climb onto her lap and take the stick, and she’d call out the gears as we drove. There was this one part of the road that ran deep into a valley and then back up the other side. We’d get up a head of speed, and we’d stick it into neutral and let go of the brake and the clutch, and, woo-hoo!, we’d race down the hill and then, zoom!, we’d shoot up the other side. We were flying.

If we weren’t at school or work or church, we were out exploring. My mom’s attitude was “I chose you, kid. I brought you into this world, and I’m going to give you everything I never had.” She poured herself into me. She would find places for us to go where we didn’t have to spend money. We must have gone to every park in Johannesburg. My mom would sit under a tree and read the Bible, and I’d run and play and play and play. On Sunday afternoons after church, we’d go for drives out in the country. My mom would find places with beautiful views for us to sit and have a picnic. There was none of the fanfare of a picnic basket or plates or anything like that, only baloney and brown bread and margarine sandwiches wrapped up in butcher paper. To this day, baloney and brown bread and margarine will instantly take me back. You can come with all the Michelin stars in the world, just give me baloney and brown bread and margarine and I’m in heaven.

Food, or the access to food, was always the measure of how good or bad things were going in our lives. My mom would always say, “My job is to feed your body, feed your spirit, and feed your mind.” That’s exactly what she did, and the way she found money for food and books was to spend absolutely nothing on anything else. Her frugality was the stuff of legend. Our car was a tin can on wheels, and we lived in the middle of nowhere. We had threadbare furniture, busted old sofas with holes worn through the fabric. Our TV was a tiny black-and-white with a bunny aerial on top. We changed the channels using a pair of pliers because the buttons didn’t work. Most of the time you had to squint to see what was going on.

We always wore secondhand clothes, from Goodwill stores or that were giveaways from white people at church. All the other kids at school got brands, Nike and Adidas. I never got brands. One time I asked my mom for Adidas sneakers. She came home with some knockoff brand, Abidas.

“Mom, these are fake,” I said.

“I don’t see the difference.”

“Look at the logo. There are four stripes instead of three.”

“Lucky you,” she said. “You got one extra.”

We got by with next to nothing, but we always had church and we always had books and we always had food. Mind you, it wasn’t necessarily good food. Meat was a luxury. When things were going well we’d have chicken. My mom was an expert at cracking open a chicken bone and getting out every last bit of marrow inside. We didn’t eat chickens. We obliterated them. Our family was an archaeologist’s nightmare. We left no bones behind. When we were done with a chicken there was nothing left but the head. Sometimes the only meat we had was a packaged meat you could buy at the butcher called “sawdust.” It was literally the dust of the meat, the bits that fell off the cuts being packaged for the shop, the bits of fat and whatever’s left. They’d sweep it up and put it into bags. It was meant for dogs, but my mom bought it for us. There were many months where that was all we ate.

The butcher sold bones, too. We called them “soup bones,” but they were actually labeled “dog bones” in the store; people would cook them for their dogs as a treat. Whenever times were really tough we’d fall back on dog bones. My mom would boil them for soup. We’d suck the marrow out of them. Sucking marrow out of bones is a skill poor people learn early. I’ll never forget the first time I went to a fancy restaurant as a grown man and someone told me, “You have to try the bone marrow. It’s such a delicacy. It’s divine.” They ordered it, the waiter brought it out, and I was like, “Dog bones, motherfucker!” I was not impressed.

As modestly as we lived at home, I never felt poor because our lives were so rich with experience. We were always out doing something, going somewhere. My mom used to take me on drives through fancy white neighborhoods. We’d go look at people’s houses, look at their mansions. We’d look at their walls, mostly, because that’s all we could see from the road. We’d look at a wall that ran from one end of the block to the other and go, “Wow. That’s only one house. All of that is for one family.” Sometimes we’d pull over and go up to the wall, and she’d put me up on her shoulders like I was a little periscope. I would look into the yards and describe everything I was seeing. “It’s a big white house! They have two dogs! There’s a lemon tree! They have a swimming pool! And a tennis court!” My mother took me places black people never went. She refused to be bound by ridiculous ideas of what black people couldn’t or shouldn’t do. She’d take me to the ice rink to go skating. Johannesburg used to have this epic drive-in movie theater, Top Star Drive-In, on top of a massive mine dump outside the city. She’d take me to movies there; we’d get snacks, hang the speaker on our car window. Top Star had a 360-degree view of the city, the suburbs, Soweto. Up there I could see for miles in every direction. I felt like I was on top of the world.

My mom raised me as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do. When I look back I realize she raised me like a white kid—not white culturally, but 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.

We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited. Growing up in Soweto, our dream was to put another room on our house. Maybe have a driveway. Maybe, someday, a cast-iron gate at the end of the driveway. Because that is all we knew. But the highest rung of what’s possible is far beyond the world you can see. My mother showed me what was possible. The thing that always amazed me about her life was that no one showed her. No one chose her. She did it on her own. She found her way through sheer force of will.

Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that my mother started her little project, me, at a time when she could not have known that apartheid would end. There was no reason to think it would end; it had seen generations come and go. I was nearly six when Mandela was released, ten before democracy finally came, yet she was preparing me to live a life of freedom long before we knew freedom would exist. A hard life in the township or a trip to the colored orphanage were the far more likely options on the table. But we never lived that way. We only moved forward and we always moved fast, and by the time the law and everyone else came around we were already miles down the road, flying across the freeway in a bright-orange, piece-of-shit Volkswagen with the windows down and Jimmy Swaggart praising Jesus at the top of his lungs.

People thought my mom was crazy. Ice rinks and drive-ins and suburbs, these things were izinto zabelungu—the things of white people. So many black people had internalized the logic of apartheid and made it their own. Why teach a black child white things? Neighbors and relatives used to pester my mom. “Why do all this? Why show him the world when he’s never going to leave the ghetto?”

“Because,” she would say, “even if he never leaves the ghetto, he will know that the ghetto is not the world. If that is all I accomplish, I’ve done enough.”

Apartheid, for all its power, had fatal flaws baked in, starting with the fact that it never made any sense. Racism is not logical. Consider this: Chinese people were classified as black in South Africa. I don’t mean they were running around acting black. They were still Chinese. But, unlike Indians, there weren’t enough Chinese people to warrant devising a whole separate classification. Apartheid, despite its intricacies and precision, didn’t know what to do with them, so the government said, “Eh, we’ll just call ’em black. It’s simpler that way.” Interestingly, at the same time, Japanese people were labeled as white. The reason for this was that the South African government wanted to establish good relations with the Japanese in order to import their fancy cars and electronics. So Japanese people were given honorary white status while Chinese people stayed black. I always like to imagine being a South African policeman who likely couldn’t tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese but whose job was to make sure that people of the wrong color weren’t doing the wrong thing. If he saw an Asian person sitting on a whites-only bench, what would he say?

“Hey, get off that bench, you Chinaman!”

“Excuse me. I’m Japanese.”

“Oh, I apologize, sir. I didn’t mean to be racist. Have a lovely afternoon.”

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