Book Reviews

Book Review – Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

I only really knew of Trevor Noah from The Daily Show. I didn’t know any of his background at all when I picked up this book. When I realized he had been raised in South Africa, I was interested even more. Back in the 1980s and 1990s I worked for a freight company that had an office in South Africa. I had debated even taking the job at the time due to this. Imagine living a life there, instead of just hearing about it from a safe space across the ocean.

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood does not trace Noah’s path to his place on The Daily Show. It stops well before that. The story is one of a boy who was born in a country where there really was no place for him. His mother was a black Xhosa woman and hi father was white and originally from Switzerland. His birth was actually illegal thanks to the miscegenation laws still on the books. He was looked down on by both communities. Still, he managed to navigate life and end up successful. How that happens is not detailed, but it’s a look back on how the man we know on The Daily Show was shaped but the tumultuous times he grew up in.

What I do remember, what I will never forget, is the violence that followed. The triumph of democracy over apartheid is sometimes called the Bloodless Revolution. It is called that because very little white blood was spilled. Black blood ran in the streets.

Noah’s mother was an unconventional woman, to say the least. She didn’t take “no” for an answer. She did what she wanted to do, and when she wanted a child, she had one, even though it was illegal for her to do so with a white man. Noah’s father would be mostly out of his life growing up, but he did know who his father was and eventually made contact with him. Like Trevor’s mother, they were navigating uncertain waters during the collapse of the white government and the changing of the laws.

However, the book is also more than that. Trevor was a curious and mischievous child who seemed to have a knack for reading people and working a situation to his advantage. Sure, he got in trouble at times, but he also got out of trouble, while learning many lessons along the way.

You can tell a child, “Whatever you do, don’t draw on the wall. You can draw on this paper. You can draw in this book. You can draw on any surface you want. But do not draw or write or color on the wall.” The child will look you dead in the eye and say, “Got it.” Ten minutes later the child is drawing on the wall. You start screaming. “Why the hell are you drawing on the wall?!” The child looks at you, and he genuinely has no idea why he drew on the wall. As a kid, I remember having that feeling all the time. Every time I got punished, as my mom was whooping my ass, I’d be thinking, Why did I just do that? I knew not to do that. She told me not to do that. Then once the hiding was over I’d say to myself, I’m going to be so good from here on. I’m never ever going to do a bad thing in my life ever ever ever ever ever—and to remember not to do anything bad, let me write something on the wall to remind myself…and then I would pick up a crayon and get straight back into it, and I never understood why.

Imagine being a child who can’t go outside. That was Trevor’s early years. He had to be hidden away from society. We think children might be negatively affected by the isolation of the pandemic, Trevor endured far worse and for no other reason than the color of his skin. He was so fair-skinned that walking with his mother would be impossible. She could be accused of kidnapping someone else’s child. At the same time, she wanted to raise him to believe he could do anything he set his mind to. There are many oxymorons in this book, but not on purpose.

She taught me to challenge authority and question the system. The only way it backfired on her was that I constantly challenged and questioned her.

At the same time, Trevor is typical of children all over the world. He resists education, but his mother holds his feet to the fire there regardless. She takes him to three different churches on Sundays, enduring a long day on the ineffective transportation systems of the time, all the while trying to convince his mother they don’t really have to go. He has an opportunity to take a beautiful girl to the prom, then messes that up too. His comedic talents come through as he recounts many of the stories from his early years, which makes this a very fun book to read, even though much of it is a serious topic.

The one flaw of the book is that it jumps around a lot. It’s not always a chronological memory of Trevor’s life. There are times when one chapter ends with him as a teenager and then suddenly he’s back to six years old in the next chapter. Indeed, when he finally reunites with his father, Trevor learns that the father has all of the news clippings from his success as a comedian in South Africa in a scrapbook. His father was watching him, but didn’t want to interfere. However, there’s no talk of how Trevor jumped from school to that point in his life. I guess that’s a story for another book.

In society, we do horrible things to one another because we don’t see the person it affects. We don’t see their face. We don’t see them as people. Which was the whole reason the hood was built in the first place, to keep the victims of apartheid out of sight and out of mind. Because if white people ever saw black people as human, they would see that slavery is unconscionable. We live in a world where we don’t see the ramifications of what we do to others, because we don’t live with them. It would be a whole lot harder for an investment banker to rip off people with subprime mortgages if he actually had to live with the people he was ripping off. If we could see one another’s pain and empathize with one another, it would never be worth it to us to commit the crimes in the first place.

The world of Apartheid and its immediate aftermath is not one we can understand in the United States. I remember when the Howard Beach incident happened, one of my (white) friends said, “They didn’t belong there!” I responded with, “What the hell are you talking about? This isn’t South Africa!” After reading Born A Crime, I realize that I was more spot-on with that analysis than I ever knew. If most of what you think you know about that life is Nelson Mandela, this takes the concept of Apartheid and makes it personal, to a little boy who did nothing to deserve someone’s hatred except be born. And that should never be a crime. I highly recommend it.

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