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.