Wednesday, August 09, 2017

How To Raise A Kid Who Was Born A Crime

I'm reading Trevor Noah's Born A Crime.  Lots to chew on with every page.  It starts with a copy of the Immorality Act, 1927 which states that 
"1.  Any European male who has illicit* carnal intercourse with a native female, and any native male who has illicit carnal intercourse with a European female . . .shall be guilty of an offense and liable on conviction to imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years."
Part 2 says the same about females, but their maximum imprisonment was only 4 years.  In Chapter 2, Born A Crime, we learn:
"I grew up in south Africa during apartheid, which was awkward because I was raised in a mixed family, with me being the mixed one in the family.  My mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, is black.  My father, Robert, is white.  Swiss/German, to be precise, which Swiss/Germans invariably are.  During apartheid, one of the worst crimes you could commit was having sexual relations with a person of another race.  Needless to say, my parents committed that crime." 
So why is Trevor, in that situation, a living crime?
"In any society built on institutionalized racism, race-mixing doesn't merely challenge the system as unjust, it reveals the system as unsustainable and incoherent.  Race-mixing proves that races can mix - and in a lot of cases, want to mix.  Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race-mixing becomes a crime worse than treason."
To find out how his mom and dad got together, you'll need to read the book, but to follow up on the title of this post, I want pull out a few quotes about how Nombuyiselo reared Trevor.

While other members of the family had names with meaning, which the children inevitably lived out, Nombuyiselo wanted Trevor 'beholden to no fate.'  So she gave him a name with no meaning built in.
"She wanted me to be free to go anywhere, do anything, be anyone. 
She gave me the tools do do it as well.  She taught me English as my first language.  She read to me constantly. . . My mom would bring home boxes that white people had donated - picture books, chapter books, any book she could get her hands on. . .  
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 that passage mean?  What does it mean to you?  How do you apply it to your life?"  That was eery day of my life.  My mom did what school didn't.  She taught me how to think."

I'm skipping over a lot, but I do want to capture what I thought were key parts of the upbringing without sticking in whole pages.
"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.  She 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 had brands, Nike and Adidas.  I never got brands.  One time I asked my mom for Adidas sneakers.  She came home with some knock-off brand, Abidas.
"Mom, these are fake,"  I said.
"I don't see the difference."
"Look at the logo, There are four strikes instead of three."
"Lucky you,"  she said.  "You got one extra."
After writing more about all the places his mom would take him in their spare time - to fancy white neighborhoods, ice skating, the drive-in movie theater - he tells us why that mattered:

"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."

But if you think his mom treated him like a little prince, well, you'd be wrong.

"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 - and then I gave birth to the most selfish piece of shit on earth and all it ever did was cry and eat and shit and say, "Me, me, me, me me."
My mom thought having a child was going to be like having a partner, but every child is born the center of its own universe, incapable of understanding the world beyond its own wants and needs, and I was no different."

As Noah traces his upbringing, he does it with the background of the ending of Apartheid in South Africa and his perspective is a little different from what we normally get in the media.

And how does this sort of child rearing work?  In Noah's case, pretty amazingly.  Here's this poor (in the literal sense) mixed race South African kid being raised by a single mom, not fitting in either the black world or the white world because his light skin reveals the crime his mom committed.  Yet from their he eventually got out of South Africa and took over when Jon Stewart left The Daily Show.  That says a lot for him mom's parental skills.  There are millions of talented kids out there, but most of their talents will never be more than partially realized.  This is why I think parenting is the most important job in the world and screwing up that job makes a civil society that more difficult.

*It seems to me the word illicit here is superfluous.  Using it implies there was such a thing as non-illicit carnal knowledge. . .   But I'm assuming that in this system, mixed marriage was also illegal.  So there would have been nothing but illicit carnal knowledge between the races back then.

1 comment:

  1. I think, if he were my son, I'd be pretty proud of how he turned out. Intelligent, well-read, witty, and handsome, too. What's not to like??


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