1

Cary Knapp

Irma was devastating but it did provide some unexpected free time. “I’ll read,” I thought, but I couldn’t concentrate. So I listened to a book I had read months ago, one that I liked but hadn’t felt “review worthy.” Hearing the audio version, I changed my mind. “Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood” by Trevor Noah could easily be considered a just another celebrity memoir, but it’s so much more than that, and revisiting it in the author’s voice made me realize how good it really is.

Many people have heard about Noah, and many have not. A comedian and TV personality, he performs his standup comedy across U.S. and has been the host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central since September 2015, replacing the highly popular Jon Stewart. The book, tales of Noah’s boyhood in South Africa during and after apartheid, came out in November 2016, and it’s easy to be skeptical about it. After all, Noah is becoming one of the most famous faces of TV comedy today and the book would sell well no matter what. Those afraid of jumping on the bandwagon couldn’t be more mistaken. “Born a Crime” is everything a reader could expect from a well-written memoir. It is essential reading not only because it is a personal story of survival, told with acumen and wit, but because it does more to expose apartheid — its legacy, its pettiness, its small-minded stupidity and its ...

Irma was devastating but it did provide some unexpected free time. “I’ll read,” I thought, but I couldn’t concentrate. So I listened to a book I had read months ago, one that I liked but hadn’t felt “review worthy.” Hearing the audio version, I changed my mind. “Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood” by Trevor Noah could easily be considered a just another celebrity memoir, but it’s so much more than that, and revisiting it in the author’s voice made me realize how good it really is.

Many people have heard about Noah, and many have not. A comedian and TV personality, he performs his standup comedy across U.S. and has been the host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central since September 2015, replacing the highly popular Jon Stewart. The book, tales of Noah’s boyhood in South Africa during and after apartheid, came out in November 2016, and it’s easy to be skeptical about it. After all, Noah is becoming one of the most famous faces of TV comedy today and the book would sell well no matter what. Those afraid of jumping on the bandwagon couldn’t be more mistaken. “Born a Crime” is everything a reader could expect from a well-written memoir. It is essential reading not only because it is a personal story of survival, told with acumen and wit, but because it does more to expose apartheid — its legacy, its pettiness, its small-minded stupidity and its harm — than probably any other recent history book or academic text.

The book opens with this intriguing paragraph: “On February 20, 1984, my mother checked into Hillbrow Hospital for a scheduled C-section delivery. Estranged from her family, pregnant by a man she could not be seen with in public, she was alone. The doctors took her up to the delivery room, cut open her belly, and reached in and pulled out a half-white, half-black child who violated any number of laws, statutes, and regulations — I was born a crime.”

Born to a black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss father, it was considered a capital offense for a white person to have sex with a black person, let alone have a child with a black person. Noah spent his earliest days hiding indoors. His parents, who never married, couldn’t be seen together, and because his mother was so dark skinned, she couldn’t walk through the streets with him, lest someone might accuse her of kidnapping another person’s child. Living much of the time in Soweto (where six or seven houses shared a toilet) their lives dealt with devastating poverty, violence and racism from all sides. Noah’s mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah — a deeply religious, free-spirited, witty, independent and strong-willed woman — never let anything bother her. Nothing stopped her from raising Noah to know he was loved, and that he truly could accomplish anything he wanted, despite all of the obstacles in his way. “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.”

“Born a Crime” provides a firsthand account of the final days of apartheid and its aftermath, and what it was like to grow up as a mixed-race child, where he wasn’t white enough to be considered white, nor was he black enough to be considered black. While at times this had its advantages, for the most part, it left him on the outside looking in, having to cope with everything on his own, fight his own battles and to struggle to find people who sincerely liked him for who he was and not the uniqueness of his skin color.

It’s definitely not a funny story, despite the fact that Noah is a comedian. While the book does include some of the ironic humor that’s become his trademark, this is an emotional, brutal and educational story of a life that thrived against all the odds stacked against it. It’s also about growing up in a culture of deprivation, fear and crime, and how easy it was — and still is — to embrace that culture when it provided the only ways to make money, eat, dress and entertain yourself.

More than anything, though, “Born a Crime” is about the unwavering love of a mother for a child she chose to have. She knew it would be difficult raising her son in the age of apartheid, and in fact, she had no idea when he was born that it would end anytime soon. But Noah was an amazing child, and while he exasperated, frightened and upset his mother from time to time, she knew he would accomplish great things one day.

Noah is a good writer, the kind of storyteller who immediately sucks you into the world of his story and keeps you engrossed. The audio version of this book is brilliant because he reads it himself, delivering his narrative like he does on The Daily Show. If you read the print version, however, you can still hear his voice through his words. Trevor Noah’s story is a lesson of the injustices of the past, and a warning for what is still possible to happen again in our world.

Share this!