Author: Yoon

Born a Crime

Welcome to Our Hillbrow lays its foundation in a dark part of South African history. Hillbrow, a town that has recently escaped the Apartheid, still abounds with xenophobia and discrimination, legacies of its dark colonial past. In the attached video, Trevor Noah gives a personal account of his childhood in a comedic manner. During the Apartheid, the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act(1949) forbade people of color from marrying white people. The child of a white father and a black mother, he was “born a crime.” Not even allowed to acknowledge his birth, his family had to pretend to be strangers in public, risking arrests when caught. Trevor faced additional discrimination from black people – people he considered his own.

Called a “half-breed,” Trevor was ostracized even from black people for not being entirely black. We notice a systemic discrimination that has permeated even the everyday lives of its victims. Xenophobia becomes commonplace, a mode of life. Such internecine violence and discrimination brings to mind Fanon’s picture of the colonial society. “Whereas the colonist or police officer can beat the colonized subject day in and day out, insult him and shove him to his knees, it is not uncommon to see the colonized subject draw his knife at the slightest hostile or aggressive look from another colonized subject” (Fanon 17).

Fanon, Trevor, and Welcome to our Hillbrow all bring a common question to mind. What are the legacies of colonialism, and how do people cope with them?

The Urban Dialectic

Johnson, in the beginning pages of the book, presents us with several different accounts of the cholera outbreak, each building on the changes the other has led to. He talks of institutional changes in London politics as prices for nightsoil-men services has gone up; he mentions how such changes led to cesspools being clogged, and to the new sewer renovations; the renovations then influence waste disposal to affect water at the Broad Street Pump, which leads to the Lewis baby getting infected…and so on and so forth.

A similar trend can be found even in the unraveling of the cholera outbreak. Snow’s findings lead to reactions from the government, which in turn pique Farr and Whitehead’s interests – they, in their efforts to disprove Snow, happen upon their own realizations of the truth, and the leading chain of actions again feeds off of one another.

In observing the narrative style that Johnson selects, the idea of the dialectic comes to mind. The idea of the Hegelian dialectic shows that when a thesis is proposed, it is met with an antithesis, and the interaction between them results in a synthesis – which then meets its own antithesis, and so forth. The idea of the dialectic ties into the what Johnson wants to deliver to us – the urban dialectic, or the idea of the city as an entity unto itself. The compilation of individual choices interacting with one another – the constant interaction between thesis and antithesis – morphs the city from a simple collection of individual decisions to a separate entity that seems to make its own decisions – the synthesis.

Johnson further extends the idea of the city as a living entity in showcasing a sort of temporal network. Decisions made by previous cities have an impact in the decisions of cities in the future, and a network is established between the past and present, between two living cities.

What other networks can we see in Johnson’s text that has been influenced by the idea of the dialectic? Do they reinforce the idea of living cities, or do they espouse different conceptions of urban life?