Born a Crime is about Trevor Noah’s life and how the coupling of his Black Xhosa mother and White Swiss-German father was against the law during apartheid. How his appearance as a mixed child meant his parents had to disguise their relationship to him when in public. And then how he later navigated growing up in South Africa during a major period of change. The book is about Noah’s coming of age but it’s also about South Africa, apartheid, and the period in time when Black people began to receive and exercise their rights as citizens.
Trevor Noah released Born a Crime a few years ago. I planned to read it but for whatever reason kept putting it off. Earlier this year one of my career interview subjects mentioned the book and put it back on my radar. I finally got around to reading the book and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I first became aware of Trevor Noah from his Netflix comedy specials and cheered his success when he became the host of The Daily Show.
I didn’t know exactly what to expect from Born a Crime but somehow I thought it would be your typical male celebrity memoir. The author explains a bit about their background and then focuses the majority of the book on their career in show business. But when I finally opened the book I realized how wrong my assumptions and expectations were.
Born a Crime tells the story of Trevor Noah’s childhood, teens, and young adulthood growing up in South Africa. Granted Noah is still young so his experience in South Africa occurred towards the end of apartheid and the period of change period that followed. From the start, something that pulled me into the book was that in addition to telling Noah’s story it also covered the history of apartheid and how the various social and cultural systems developed in South Africa.
Shortly before I began reading this book I happened to listen to a podcast episode that covered the history of apartheid through the story of Nelson Mandela. I’d heard of Nelson Mandela before so I knew who he was and why he was famous. But as with most countries outside of America, I had limited knowledge of the history of Black people in these other parts of the diaspora. I had a basic understanding of colonization. But not a detailed grasp of how a country filled with Black people came to be ruled first by foreign colonial powers and then Afrikaners, a minority group descended from Dutch settlers.
Between most chapters, there’s a blurb of sorts that provides historical information and cultural explanations that add context to Noah’s experiences. I enjoyed Noah’s life story but these short asides were some of my favorite parts of Born a Crime. I knew that apartheid was a system set up in South Africa that placed limitations on where Black people could go and what they could do based upon their race. But I didn’t realize how intricate the system was and that it wasn’t just a matter of Black and White people but rather several racial groups.
For the most part, people in America self-identify and report their race rather than the government making the designation. But in apartheid, South African people would go into government offices and workers would look at the individual to decide on their classification. What was also crazy about this is that during times of renewal people could move up or down within the classification system.
Someone could be Black at one time and later bump up to Colored. While another person could start out White and then downgrade to some other classification. Looking at some people I would have a difficult time trying to classify them based on their features. But under apartheid, they had tests to aid in making the decision. When I read about history and nonsense like this my head wants to explode from the ridiculousness.
I remember seeing the movie Sarafina! when I was a kid and realizing that Black people had to carry passes to move about. Reading about apartheid reminded me of Jim Crow because of how discrimination and inequality were structured and built into the system. The applications differed but the intent and structure were very similar as both systems had laws about races socializing, the use of facilities, access to resources, etc.
There’s the shared history of slavery being officially abolished but Black people not receiving any kind of reparations or meaningful assistance to help them become self-sufficient after generations of being underpaid or not paid at all. Black people then struggled from high rates of unemployment and poverty as a result of it being difficult to find work paying a livable wage which over time created a wealth gap between the races. I was surprised to learn that apartheid did this as well but also went beyond by completely prohibiting Black people from holding particular positions. Not even a matter of paying them less or only allowing them to work in their own communities but just outright outlawing it.
Noah describes the goal of apartheid being to make South Africa a White country. Achieving that goal required oppressing Black people and denying them their rights. This ensured a permanent underclass that could then provide cheap labor which would contribute to White wealth. This is a play-by-play repeat of the systematic oppression of Black people in America. The only difference being, as Noah points out:
In America, you had the forced removal of the native onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of those things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.
Before apartheid, European missionaries taught Black South Africans who were able to attend formal schools. There they learned English and a little bit of everything which prepared many of them for the later movement against apartheid. After apartheid was implemented it became imperative to limit the knowledge of Black South Africans. Schools were faced with the option of curtailing their curriculum or closing. The Afrikaners felt that it was a waste to provide Black South Africans with advanced educations. Instead, Black South Africans should receive just a basic education that focused on agriculture.
When the missionary schools closed the people of Noah’s grandfather’s generation had to attend what’s referred to as Bantu schools. These schools taught very basic subjects and only prepared students for working on farms thereby limiting their future opportunities.
Noah’s mom was fortunate enough to live for a period of time in a part of the country where she was able to attend one of the few remaining missionary schools. Her relatively advanced education gave her the confidence to strive for more for herself and her son.
The kids of Noah’s generation were among some of the first to be able to attend a wider array of private and government schools that taught more expansive curriculums. Noah’s mother also exposed him to experiences that were considered beyond what should be expected for a Black or Colored boy. With encouragement from his mother, Noah’s education and experiences expanded his aspirations to what seemed unimaginable for Black people from earlier generations. The downside to this was that there was no clear path to achieving these hopes and dreams immediately after apartheid as opportunities were difficult to come by. It was also difficult to grow and move beyond what people in these communities thought possible out of a need to belong and be accepted.
Admirably from what was supposed to be a spirit-breaking system of oppression arose ingenious ideas for surviving. Without equal access to public resources the communities in South Africa, such as Soweto, created underground economies. As in America, Black people in South Africa had a hard time finding good jobs. Black men were often relegated to performing the most back-breaking and dangerous jobs. Many men also spent part of their lives in prison as a result of trying to eke out a living through working in illegal trades. A lot of Black women were relegated to working as domestic servants.
Noah describes living under apartheid as living in a police state where there’s a system set in place to control Black people. Police officers were usually not from the Black neighborhoods that they policed and were the equivalent of American SWAT teams. Noah compares the police force in Soweto and other Black neighborhoods to an occupying army. This is also an apt description for local police in a lot of Black neighborhoods in America. Even today, there is often a marked difference in the presence of the police in Black vs. White neighborhoods and how officers interact with Black vs. White citizens.
But apartheid didn’t just stop at economics, education, and law enforcement. Instead, it extended to culture, religion, and where and how Black people were allowed to live. The tribes of South Africa originated from different parts of the country. But they were forced out of what became the cities and into particular areas of the country to make more land available for the Afrikaners. Quite often the areas where they were resettled had poor quality soil and no modern amenities such as running water, electricity, etc.
They used what they could get and spent what they could afford to build houses and communities for themselves in these newly created neighborhoods. Some families would start out with little more than shacks and over time saved the money and resources needed to buy or build the homes that they wanted for their families.
Despite South Africa being located in Africa, the system of colonization caused traditional languages and cultural practices to be looked down upon. Through missionaries and other machinations, the Black people of South Africa were to some degree pushed to adopt Christianity and various aspects of European culture.
In addition to being open to trying different kinds of food, I’m also curious about cultures from other parts of the world. So it was interesting to learn about South African culture in general as well as the traditions and beliefs of the individual tribes.
Noah explains that when he was growing up his mom was a fervent Christian who pretty much dedicated Sundays to attending various churches. Some of the most memorable stories in Born a Crime revolve around Noah, his family, church, and praying.
I’ve seen the movie Shaka Zulu so I was aware of the Zulus. While watching one of Trevor Noah’s Netflix specials he mentioned the Xhosa tribe and its language which includes what I would describe as clicks. It’s actually pretty cool because it’s similar to some of the sounds from beatboxing.
I’m fluent in English, can speak and read basic French, and know a few phrases in Spanish. But I truly admire people who can speak many languages because it’s a great way to connect with other people. I was really impressed to learn that there are about 11 official languages spoken in South Africa. Noah speaks English fluently but can also speak several of the traditional African languages as well as Afrikaners.
I’m always surprised by people who are resistant to children and other individuals learning multiple languages. So I was initially confused as to why people living in a country that has so many official languages wouldn’t try to learn as many as possible or at least the most popular languages so they could better communicate with each other. But as Noah went on to explain it actually made it easier for the apartheid government to maintain a division between these tribes and communities by encouraging them to only learn and speak their own tribe’s language.
Another major theme in Born a Crime is relationships. There are the usual youthful trials and tribulations of navigating adolescence. Some of Noah’s experiences are downright hilarious and at other times pretty sad. But the book shines brightly in the instances where Noah discusses his relationship with his ever-present mother.
His mother, Patricia, is an absolute character. She’s a very devout church lady with great dreams for her son and a raggedy car that doesn’t run dependably but ironically becomes the driving force behind several important events in the book. They have their ups and downs, Noah receives his fair share of whoopings, but through it all his mom is always there for him. And as a result of being the only constant in each other’s lives, the two become a bit of a team.
Unfortunately, throughout Born a Crime, domestic violence has a constant presence in many of the adult relationships that surround Noah. He explains the misogynistic views of many of the men in his community and even within his family. These men believe that they have to 1) keep their wives and girlfriends “in check” 2) if need be resort to violence to maintain control and respect. It says a lot that some men (and women) all around the world hold these beliefs. It’s especially prevalent in societies that are patriarchal and where machismo and misogyny are accepted. There’s also an undercurrent of undiagnosed mental health issues and alcoholism.
Noah’s mother’s relationships feature heavily in Born a Crime. Based on what’s described of her romantic relationships there seems to be a pattern of pursuing relationships with men that are complicated and plagued with difficulty. In particular, there are some glaring similarities between the description of her father as a young man and Noah’s stepfather. Both men are shown to exhibit unpredictable and irresponsible behavior. It seems to be a case of pursuing a relationship with a man as an adult in hopes of obtaining the love, support, and other emotional things she didn’t get from her father as a child.
Noah wasn’t a bad kid in the sense of doing things to purposely cause harm or destruction. But his penchant for pushing boundaries and need to be constantly stimulated meant that he was always up to some mischief. His childhood shenanigans help to balance the seriousness of the topic of apartheid. And as he gets older Noah shares stories of his hustling days, social life changing style makeover, and a hilarious misunderstanding involving someone naively named Hitler.
This isn’t the book to read if you’re interested in Noah’s career journey because it’s not your standard entertainer’s bio. Born a Crime touches on the early stages of his entertainment career but doesn’t delve very deeply. To be clear it’s not a dry and boring think peace by any means. But the book is a solid introduction to both Trevor Noah and a particular time in South Africa. If you’re interested in those subjects, I would highly recommend Born a Crime as a very good read.
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