Intro: You know Trevor Noah, right? The Daily Show on CC, its previous host Jon Stewart, his replacement and all that good stuff? No? Then wherever have you been getting your ‘authentic news’ from? And if you know him, Noah’s biracial looks, his almost British accent and his sincere humor would’ve made you curious. And when his book came out, you’d have wanted to read whats the fuss all about (and understand why he is even writing an autobiographical book in his early 30’s!). I wanted to read it too, but it was Bill Gates recommendation that made me move it from my ‘To Be Read’ list to ‘currently reading’.
About: Born in apartheid to a black native mother and a white father, (during a time when inter-racial relationships were against the law with up to five years of imprisonment) Trevor’s birth was actually the result of a “crime”. This is where the book gets its name (in case you were wondering). Being the comedian that he is, one is poised to laugh at some joke he is going to crack, and so when you start reading his book, you are not surprised by the humor. What is surprising, a few pages in, is when it is not all jokes. He talks about apartheid not as a concept, but as a day-to-day reality he grew up in, about the racial discrimination and miserable lives of the black natives in ghettos (away from the white neighborhoods), with hardly any means struggling to make ends meet. For me, all I knew was “apartheid” is policy of “discrimination based on one’s race” and that it ended in South Africa after Nelson Mandela became the first black president; this book shocked me with the length, breadth and the depth of it. And how the world outside (especially, America) is so different with so much going on.
Noah describes how the black community kept fixing problems of the past, when they were pillaged for generations, and never progressed using skills or education to move ahead in life. It was a curse that Noah’s mother called the “black tax” that they had to keep paying just to bring everyone back up to zero. Read this excerpt from the book just for the sake of perspective:
“I often meet people in the West who insist that the Holocaust was the worst atrocity in human history, without question. Yes, it was horrific. But I often wonder, with African atrocities like in the Congo, how horrific were they? The thing Africans don’t have that Jewish people do have is documentation. The Nazis kept meticulous records, took pictures, made films. And that’s really what it comes down to. Holocaust victims count because Hitler counted them. Six million people killed. We can all look at that number and rightly be horrified. But when you read through the history of atrocities against Africans, there are no numbers, only guesses. It’s harder to be horrified by a guess. When Portugal and Belgium were plundering Angola and the Congo, they weren’t counting the black people they slaughtered. How many black people died harvesting rubber in the Congo? In the gold and diamond mines of the Transvaal?”
Sounds terrible isn’t it? Stuff like that certainly gives me the blues and I go in a denial mode, but Noah’s humorous take on everything lets you take it all in without any of that gloom – that, I think, is the value of this book! Some incidents are outright hilarious and you could not stop laughing out loud. The mixed kid that he was (and looked), Trevor was always confused which group he really belonged to – blacks, ‘coloureds’, Indians or the whites – and his insight into their inter-group dynamics is nothing short of remarkable. But he found is place as someone who gets people’s work done, and so, he was welcome everywhere! “I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your of my color.” His coming of age chapters are entertaining with his many heartbreaks, his years of hustling selling pirated CDs, being a DJ and all his entrepreneurial endeavors which he pulled off quite successfully.
The main theme of the book is Noah’s relationship with his mother, Patricia Noah, who raised him singlehandedly. She was stubbornly religious and tried her best to inculcate religious faith in him. But she was also an independent thinker, fierce and fearless, who raised her son by never letting any social, racial or economic boundaries come in the way. She understood the importance of language, and made sure Noah learnt to speak English (which black people did not), along with other native tongues. Trevor was a very naughty kid and a handful for his mother, almost always giving her a good chase around the neighborhood. Nevertheless, they were a great team and he credits his mother for making a man out of him; this book is Noah’s heartfelt tribute to his mother.
Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood is entertaining, interesting and, of course, funny. But you would leave the book having learnt so much about racial discrimination, poverty, domestic violence and adversity, and everything that made such a brilliant comedian out of him!
“My own family basically did what the American justice system does: I was given more lenient treatment than the black kids. Growing up the way I did, I learned how easy it is for white people to get comfortable with a system that awards them all the perks. I had a choice. I could champion racial justice in our home, or I could enjoy granny’s cookies.
I went with the cookies.”
“That, and so many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people. I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color.”
“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.”
“It’s easy to be judgmental about crime when you live in a world wealthy enough to be removed from it. But the hood taught me that everyone has different notions of right and wrong, different definitions of what constitutes crime, and what level of crime they’re willing to participate in.”
“Growing up in a home of abuse, you struggle with the notion that you can love a person you hate, or hate a person you love. It’s a strange feeling. You want to live in a world where someone is good or bad, where you either hate them or love them, but that’s not how people are.”