Sunday, January 1, 2017

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

Title: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
Author: Trevor Noah
Pages: 224 pages
Release Date: November 15th 2016
Publisher: Doubleday Canada
Genre: Nonfiction; African; Memoir; Race
My Rating: 4/5

Trevor Noah's unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents' indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the earliest years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, steal him away. Finally liberated by the end of South Africa's tyrannical white rule, Trevor and his mother set forth on a grand adventure, living openly and freely and embracing the opportunities won by a centuries-long struggle. 

Born a Crime is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. It is also the story of that young man's relationship with his fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother: his teammate, a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that would ultimately threaten her own life.

The eighteen personal essays collected here are by turns hilarious, dramatic, and deeply affecting. Whether subsisting on caterpillars for dinner during hard times, being thrown from a moving car during an attempted kidnapping, or just trying to survive the life-and-death pitfalls of dating in high school, Trevor illuminates his curious world with an incisive wit and unflinching honesty. His stories weave together to form a moving and searingly funny portrait of a boy making his way through a damaged world in a dangerous time, armed only with a keen sense of humor and a mother's unconventional, unconditional love.

During breakfast every day, I watch the previous night’s Daily Show starring Trevor Noah. I’m new to this routine, new to The Daily Show, but leading up to the election and then its fucking horrible aftermath led me to shows, websites, twitter feeds, etc etc that I never paid much attention to before. The Daily Show is one of these.

With all due respect to Trevor Noah, I had no plans to ever read this. Celebrity memoirs don’t usually interest me. The celebrity memoirs I would read don’t exist because the people are dead. Or they’re assholes or incredibly private. Or both. However, I was gifted this book.

Noah never mentions The Daily Show. He mentions his comedy career only when absolutely necessary. That part of his life is fairly recent. His first twenty years or so were spent either under South Africa’s apartheid system or dealing with the aftermath of being a “colored” (the name given to people of mixed race) man navigating a post-apartheid environment.

Noah grew up in the Johannesburg area of South Africa during apartheid and was literally "born a crime,” as interracial relationships were punishable by law. He was a level of poor Americans cannot begin to comprehend. He was shut out from the world. "Black people were not properly educated. White people didn't talk to black people. So why would black people know what's going on in the white man's world?", Noah says on why no one knew who Hitler was. "Black people knew of Hitler as a powerful person. A tough guy. If you want your son to be tough, you name him Hitler." Noah knew more than one 'Hitler'.

Trevor Noah has a wisdom one can only get from growing up in apartheid South Africa. There were a few passages that were particularly memorable:

On the "black tax":
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 you skills and education to move forward, you lose everything just trying to being everyone behind you back up to zero.
On crime:
In the hood, even if you’re not a hardcore criminal, crime is in your life in some way or another. There are degrees of it. It’s everyone from the mom buying some food that fell off the back of a truck to feed her family, all the way up to the gangs selling military-grade weapons and hardware. 
The hood made me realize that crime succeeds because crime does the one thing the government doesn’t do: crime cares. Crime is grassroots. Crime looks for the young kids who need support and a lifting hand. Crime offers internship programs and summer jobs and opportunities for advancement. Crime gets involved in the community. Crime doesn’t discriminate.

How he became a comedian and then host of a renowned American political satire program, I still do not know. That’s in the next book I suppose.

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