Born in the final decade of apartheid, comedian Trevor Noah weaved and blended his way through life in the Johannesburg township of Soweto before gaining fame in his native South Africa, let alone hosting The Daily Show. A straightforward, rise-to-fame biography, Born a Crime isn’t. Noah captures the harshness and humor as a quasi-travelogue noting the various people, places, personal events, and foods he encounters.
In this very wordy review, I examine how Noah tries to make sense of the nonsensical.
Hard Knock Life
Outside of a few movies, reading Born a Crime: Stories of a South African Childhood is a rare occasion for me to read about the sickening depth and breadth of South Africa under apartheid. It was the horrible system where a white minority deploys the worst elements of slavery, divide-and-conquer strategy, and segregation/Jim Crow to force Blacks into becoming second-class citizens. Apartheid eventually withers away, but Nelson Mandela’s democratic election didn’t wipe the residue of apartheid clean overnight.
Race relations and divisions present themselves throughout Noah’s memoir. Apartheid meant everyone was coercively classified into different racial groups. Trevor is a colored (mixed-race) South African, but wasn’t part of the colored community. His mother is black; his father’s white. He had to decide which racial group to socialize with at school. He chose to hang out with the Black kids despite his light skin.
Trevor’s mother, Patricia, had to go through ridiculous measures to hide the proof of her sexual relationship with a white man. On walks through the park, she would enlist a colored woman to pretend to be Trevor’s mom. If there’s no colored woman accompanying them, she dropped little Trevor at the signt of the police and pretend he wasn’t her son.
In the midst of systemic cruelty, Patricia’s actions were necessary. While Trevor’s birth father was distant and his stepfather would later prove to be a monster, I found Patricia to be an admirable mother.
A Mother’s Love
Under apartheid, blacks were told where to live, where to work, and how to learn. Opportunities were limited, but Patricia survived and thrived. Sexual relations between Whites and non-Whites were forbidden, there was a curfew for Blacks at night, but Trevor’s mother, Patricia, overcame legal and cultural barriers to be a self-sufficient woman. Patricia is the real star of the book. Her love, generosity, and willingness to sacrifice bolstered young Trevor.
Meanwhile, his Swiss father, Robert is a decent, if aloof, man. He, too, had to act distant in public during apartheid. In a separate chapter, Trevor details how his reconnecting with Robert made him more whole.
As a devout Christian, Patricia provided a day-long churchgoing experience (going throuh three culturally and ritually different churches on Sunday), constantly expressed her faith in Jesus, didn’t spare the rod to Trevor in his pre-teen years. For the latter, her hiding (spanking) Trevor was to make him a better person compared to the potentially fatal beatings from police or gangs.
The streets the Noahs walked were filled with unrest and uncertainty. Trevor retalls his experiences with a humorous touch, such as when his mother threw him out of a minibus while he was asleep. The humor comes from Trevor’s desire to be “just a kid” in the midst of danger.
Troublesome, but Rarely Troubled
Trevor had a mischievous streak going into his teenage years. As a toddler, he had pooped on the kitchen floor where his blind great-grandmother never saw him. Trevor then disposed of the waste in the garbage. After his great-grandmother told Patricia of the odor, she discovered it, the neighborhood knows about it, and they all treat it like an invading demon’s mark upon the house. No one found out Trevor did it. Wow.
Trevor is nonchalant at some of his delinquent acts. He has no regrets or apologies for causing that stink in the kitchen, busting windows from throwing rocks, or indirectly causing a house to be burned down. He does seem more contrite about his inexperience with girls.
I shook my head reading about how a mixed-race girl named Maylene accepted then turned down Trevor’s valentine for a more popular, better-looking White student. I laughed at his unrequited crush, Zaheera, and how he friend-zoned himself out of any possible romantic dates. His date at his matric (prom-like) dance was a difficult puzzle: she spoke a language Trevor or no else understood thus Trevor never got to enjoy that night. I won’t spoil how the date ends, but what she did makes her more puzzling.
Good Friends, Good Times
Trevor recalls most of his family and friends fondly. Everyone’s a character: from Temperance, lady-chasing grandfather, to his best friend, Teddy, who didn’t snitch on Trevor when both had shoplifted, to always-hustling Tom, to his dancing buddy named Hitler. For the latter two, Trevor speaks about different kinds of racial absurdity: how no one found out Trevor, Teddy’s light-skinned friend, was his accomplice and why blacks consider names of dictators good enough for their children.
Young Trevor had a knack for being useful to others. Variously, he’d bring food for impatient schoolmates during lunch break, having the ability to speak several languages which allowed him to get along with others, and entertained block parties as a DJ with an impressive MP3 collection.
When discussing his days as a DJ, Trevor describes the gray market economy of Soweto, it takes me back to my early childhood years in the projects during the “Just Say No” era of the 80s and early 90s. I’m reminded how people try to make the best out of the very little they have.
When Trevor tells the reader he hates used cars, that’s not boasting from a man with celebrity and a hefty bank account. It is (I thought, at first) a statement from one who rode in a mom’s shoddy Volkswagen. But having that broke-down V-Dub gave them a leg up on others in transportation. If the car didn’t work and the Noahs had to make it to church, mother and son took the minibus.
Trevor’s resentment over used cars didn’t just come from their inability to run. They reminded him of someone much more wicked. A rare person Trevor holds anger against.
Sins of the Stepather
During Trevor’s story, Trevor’s stepfather, Abel, reveals his ugly side underneath his affable facade. On one hand, Trevor states he’s was “cool” with Abel. However, he becomes unhinged after having a few drinks. He was abusive to both Trevor and Patricia. Trevor learned to escape his clutches. Any attempts Patricia made to report his domestic assault on her would get brushed off when Abel made friendly chatter with the police.
Even worse, a revenge-minded Abel shot Patricia, who had had enough and divorced him, in the back of the head. She would miraculously survive while her faith never wavered, thank God. Abel got a light sentence for the attempted murder. His current status as a free man is maddening. Trevor recounts all this as a very anguished and trying time.
If you’ve made it this far in my review of a very dense book, congratulations. Some parts of Born a Crime are tough to read and some are hilarious. I was never more than a casual fan of The Daily Show. I’ll admit not having the time to sit through his stand-up act for research. Now, this book has got my attention to Trevor Noah’s sense of humor and perspective.
Rating: ***** out of *****