Book Review: Born A Crime

How do we end the cycle of violence?  Love.  Trevor Noah‘s memoir, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, is rich with humor, inspiration, wisdom and compassion.  It also contains the best explanation of apartheid that I’ve ever read:

The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other.  Apart hate. . .You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all. . .Apartheid. . .convinced every group that it was because of the other race that they didn’t get into the club. . .

Apartheid fell, Mandela walked free, and black South Africa went to war with itself. . .

Apartheid was perfect racism. . .The British abolished slavery in name but kept it in practice. . .a police state. . .

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.

Patricia Noah

The memoir’s title refers to apartheid-era laws which prohibited sexual relations between races.  Mr. Noah’s mother is Patricia Noah, and his father was Robert, a Swiss/German, whose last name is never mentioned.  His mother married three times.  His father never did.

Mr. Noah was blessed with a gift his mother never received:  he was wanted by both parents:

My mom’s attitude was “I chose you, kid.  I brought you into this world, and I’m going to give you everything I never had.”  She poured herself into me. . .If my mother had one goal, it was to free my mind. . .My mom did what school didn’t.  She taught me how to think. . .I never felt poor because our lives were so rich with experience.  My mother took me to places black people never went. . .

My mother started her little project, me, at a time when she could not have known that apartheid would end. . .She was preparing me to live a life of freedom long before we knew freedom would exist. . .He [Trevor] will know that the ghetto is not the world.

Trevor Noah and his father Robert

Being chosen is the greatest gift
you can give to another human being.
– Trevor Noah, Born a Crime

Mr. Noah spent Sundays, his birthday, and Christmas with his father until his mother married auto mechanic Abel Shingange, who was violently abusive.  Robert moved to Cape Town when Mr. Noah was thirteen, and it would be 10 years before the father and son would see each other again.  Mr. Noah was stunned to discover that his father had kept a detailed scrapbook of everything that had been reported about his son.

Frances Noah, Trevor’s grandmother

When you strike a woman, you strike a rock.
– Apartheid chant

Mr. Noah grew up in a world run by women in a country where patriarchy ruled and women were “expected to submit and obey.”  He lived with his mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother in a two-room home in Soweto.  His mother and grandmother were devoutly religious, and his grandmother convinced him that his powerful prayers got answered because he spoke them in English and he was part white.

Frances Noah outside her home in Soweto where Trevor grew up.

He told an hysterical story about the day he was home alone with his blind great-grandmother and didn’t want to use the outhouse.  He decided to poop on a newspaper and bury the evidence in the trash.  Alas, his mother’s sensitive nose picked up the scent.  Because young Trevor feigned innocence, the women decided a demon had done the deed.  The community rallied for the burning of the poop and prayers to drive out the demons:

If you’re not part of the prayer, the demon might leave our house and go to your house and curse you. . .No way I could come clean. . .biggest prayer meeting we’d ever had. . .I had subjected Him to two hours of old grannies praying when I knew that with all the pain and suffering in the world He had more important things to deal with than my shit.

Trevor Noah’s home in Soweto where his grandmother still lives.

In America the dream is to make it out of the ghetto.
In Soweto, because there was no leaving the ghetto,
the dream was to transform the ghetto.
– Trevor Noah, Born a Crime

Apartheid ended when Mr. Noah was five, but he struggled as a mixed-race child to find his place.  He learned that his humor would make him welcome in any group and that language diffused racist sentiments.  South Africa has eleven official languages, and he learned to speak many of them:

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. . .if I spoke like you, I was you. . .It became a tool that served me my whole life. . .

The quickest way to bridge the race gap was through language. . .If the person who doesn’t look like you speaks like you, your brain short-circuits because your racism program has none of those instructions in the code. . .

If you’re black in South Africa, speaking English is the one thing that can give you a leg up. . .language of money. . .equated with intelligence. . .the difference between getting the job and staying unemployed. . .My mom. . .used language to cross boundaries. . .navigate the world.

Patricia and Trevor Noah

My job is to feed your body, feed your spirit,
feed your mind.
– Patricia Noah, Born a Crime

Ms. Noah learned English from a white pastor at a mission school and prepared herself for a career as a secretary.  She read to young Trevor and bought a “beat-up tangerine Volkswagen” to get to church and explore.  With a “sheer force of will,” she got Trevor enrolled in private and charter schools where his entrepreneurial talents emerged.

His school had a “tuck-shop” (canteen) rather than a cafeteria.  Because he could run faster than the other kids, he was “always first in line.”  He quickly discovered the slower kids were willing to pay him to buy food and deliver it to them.

After he conned his mother into buying him a computer, his white friend Andrew gave him a CD writer and taught him how to pirate CDs and video games.  Mr. Noah expanded his tuck-shop enterprise:

I had money, and it was the most liberating thing in the world.  It gives you choices.

Trevor Noah’s Maryvale College school photo

Trevor’s relationship with Andrew opened the world of possibilities for him:

. . .the first time in my life I realized you need someone from the privileged world to come to you and say, “Okay, here’s what you need, and here’s how it works.”  Talent alone would have gotten me nowhere without Andrew giving me the CD writer. . .I didn’t stand a chance without it.

His riff on a popular parable echoes observations made by the Delaney sisters in their books about the difference between those who escape poverty and those who remain trapped:

People love to say, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day.  Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”  What they don’t say is, “And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.”

After graduating from high school, Mr. Noah gave himself a gap year to expand his business and save money for a college education.  He and his buddies hustled with maximum effort which produced minimal real financial gain.  They sold CDs, threw dance parties in Alexandra, fenced stolen goods, and had a payday lending and pawnshop business.

Trevor Noah

If I’d put all that energy into studying,
I’d have earned an MBA.
Trevor Noah, Born a Crime

It all came crashing down when neighbors complained about the noise at a party they hosted in Lombardy.  A cop wearing riot gear pointed a massive assault rifle at Mr. Noah and ordered him to pull the plug on the music.  When he wasn’t able to shut down his computer fast enough, the cop shot the monitor.  Mr. Noah pulled the plug and destroyed his hard drive with its massive music library.  His business was cooked, and he realized he had options not available to his buddies:  he could leave the ghetto.

Trevor Noah on the set of the Daily Show on Comedy Central

I grew up in a world of violence, but
I myself was never violent.
– Trevor Noah, Born a Crime

Mr. Noah’s mother and stepfather were abusive.  She beat him to instill discipline, but her husband Abel Shingange beat him to instill terror:

There was something inside him that wanted to destroy me. . .He was trying to rein in our independence.

Bloodshot “eyes of the Devil” were Mr. Noah’s cue that his stepfather was about to blow.  As a child, he didn’t understand domestic violence and blamed his mother for failing to leave.  His adult perspectives are phenomenal and grounded in his mother’s wisdom:

Abel wanted a traditional marriage with a traditional wife. . .my mother explained. . .the traditional man wants a woman to be subservient, but he never falls in love with subservient women.  He’s attracted to independent women.  “He only wants a woman who is free because his dream is to put her in a cage.”

“He thinks he’s the policeman of the world.  And that’s the problem with the world.  We have people who cannot police themselves, so they want to police everyone else around them.”

“He doesn’t hate us.  He hates himself.”

Trevor Noah with Jay Leno when he first appeared on the Tonight Show in January, 2012.

Mr. Noah and his mother coped differently.  Ms. Noah constructed a cottage in the backyard where she lived with her sons Andrew and Isaac.  Mr. Noah decided the atmosphere at home was toxic and left.

“The police won’t help me.  The government won’t protect me.  Only my God can protect me.  Everyone will know something is wrong with him.  Let the world see him for who he is.”

His mother taught him that they weren’t victims:

I hated him, but I blamed her.  I saw Abel as a choice she’d made. . .”You cannot blame anyone else for what you do.  You cannot blame your past for who you are.  You are responsible for you.  You make your own choices.”

I was blessed with a trait I inherited from my mother:  her ability to forget the pain in life.  I remember the thing that caused the trauma, but I don’t hold on to the trauma.  I never let the memory of something painful prevent me from trying something new. . .wake up the next day and move on.

Trevor Noah

I was astonished to read that the savvy, sophisticated comedian I love on the Daily Show was so poor that his family ate caterpillars for a month.  His mother poured everything she had into her husband’s failing auto mechanic business, but he drank up the profits.

. . .It is so easy, from the outside to put the blame on the woman and say, “You just need to leave.”

. . .Where does a woman go in a society where that is the norm?  When the police won’t help her?  When her own family won’t help her?  Where does she go?  What does she do?

“Why don’t you just leave?”

“Because if I leave he’ll kill us.”

And, this is exactly what Abel tried to do.  He hunted her down when there was a new man in her life and shot her twice.  He would have killed her, but his gun jammed.  Mr. Noah came home and picked up the tab for his mother’s hospital bill.

Trevor Noah reading his book to his dog. His first dog was Fufi who was deaf.

Dogs are cool. . .
a poor man’s alarm system.
– Trevor Noah, Born a Crime

My only disappointments with this amazing memoir were that it didn’t have any photos or recount how Mr. Noah transitioned into his successful comedy career.  I want to close this review with a story about Mr. Noah’s aunt Sibongile and her first husband Dinky:

Dinky was a small man.  He was abusive, but not really.  It was more like he tried to be abusive, but he wasn’t very good at it.

Dinky was trying to masquerade as this patriarch that he wasn’t.  “I control my woman.”  And you’d want to say, “Dinky, first of all, you don’t.  Second of all, you don’t need to.  Because she loves you.”  In Soweto you were always hearing about men getting doused with pots of boiling water ~ often a woman’s only recourse.  And men were lucky if it was water.  Some women used hot cooking oil.  Water was if the woman wanted to teach you a lesson  Oil meant she wanted to end it.



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