Book Review: BORN A CRIME by Trevor Noah

Born a CrimeBorn a Crime by Trevor Noah

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the back of the book, his bio states simply: Trevor Noah is a comedian from South Africa.

Enigmatic is a word I would add. This is not the story of Trevor Noah’s rise to fame. Indeed, there’s no clear connection from the stories he shares to where he is now.

I’m sure a great deal of the book was intended to be humorous and purposefully irreverent, but I read undercurrents of resentment and extreme selfishness. At some points there was incredible incongruity in the retelling. He writes that he felt (and still feels) no guilt for the enormous repercussions others faced for his actions (i.e. unemployment, homelessness and jail time)…. when those others were Black South African domestic workers and their children. However, he then writes how guilt ridden he was when one of his buddies brought him a stolen digital camera to resell (as part of his regular hustle) with images of a white family vacationing. He actually went into detail about how that one thing, so insignificant compared to other stories he shared, had the power to make him evaluate the direction his life was going in. He was devastated by the thought of a well-off white family being robbed of their vacation photos… even as he sat on a corner in the Alexandra slums taking advantage of his fellow oppressed Black South African neighbors. That was difficult to read and hard to swallow.

Instances like this and others made it feel as if he were playing to an audience. Throughout the book, he played to several different audiences: Americans, Black Americans, the World, South Africa, white people. All large scale and somewhat large in scope with little to no intimacy.
That being said, Born a Crime is a good read. The pacing is consistent throughout. Noah’s commentary on various cultural and societal norms as well as the history of South Africa is insightful and at some times, eye-opening. There’s no real chronology to the stories, he actually jumps around quite a bit with no solid grasp of time period or age, but the stories flow well together.

Early on the book comes across as a loving tribute to his mother. He shared some beautiful moments and teachings from his mom. Towards the middle the underlying resentment becomes quite prominent. I got the sense that there’s quite a bit he has yet to come to terms with, to accept or to forgive. He explains situations and rationalizes experiences but he doesn’t really express any real understanding or empathy for the people he’s writing about. Which is surprising, considering how he prefers to talk about his mother’s courage and devotion to providing for and protecting her children. There are also stunning moments when he belittles his mother on the sly… while propping himself up. His intelligence. His speed. His independence. His logic and realism. Eventually, at a very young age, he became better than his mother. He doesn’t explicitly say this, but it is implied throughout. Ironically, one of his biggest tributes to his mother is her insistence that he learn to think for himself, that he question authority and systems. It becomes evident that his critical thinking and questioning led to an internal rejection of his mother, her faith and cultural beliefs. Due to the way life flows, there is also hope that his thinking will bring him full circle to a wholesome appreciation for everything his mother is and represents.

Common Themes:

Church and faith: Christianity as a white man’s religion. Trevor Noah appears to have equal low regard for the practice of Christianity and tribal mysticism. He writes a great deal about his mother’s faith but nothing of his own. In this way he provides the scope of a panoramic image (mother, tribe, cultural history) without the intimacy of his details (is he a Christ believer, follower, practitioner?).

Critical thinking and breaking cycles of bondage: Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah is a rebel with a cause. She didn’t so much spend time questioning the systems and norms as much as figuring out how she could get around them to live her life on her terms. From an early age, she made decisions for her life and grew from the consequences and results of her decision. She was determined not to live in her mother’s home on tribal homelands in obscure servitude as the second girl child in the family. She was even more determined not to raise children who were beholden to the past and the tribe. Her intelligence, her perseverance, her dexterity, her independence allowed her to venture where most Black people did not dare in apartheid South Africa. Bit by bit, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah carved out a space for herself in a world that was completely against her. Then she made room for her son, Trevor. Eventually, she enlarged that space to include her growing family. When I first read the below passage, I thought, “Even if showing Trevor that the ghetto was not the world was all she had done, she would have indeed accomplished a great deal.”

People thought my mom was crazy. Ice rinks and drive-ins and suburbs, these things were izinto zabelungu – the things of white people. So many black people internalized the logic of apartheid and made it their own. Why teach a black child white things? Neighbors and relatives used to pester my mom. “Why do all this? Why show him the world when he’s never going to leave the ghetto?”

“Because,” she would say, “even if he never leaves the ghetto, he will know that the ghetto is not the world. If that is all I accomplish, I’ve done enough.”

Ms. Noah, you’ve done a superb job!

Independence and outsider: Trevor Noah writes about being an outsider everywhere he went at each stage of life he shares about. Perhaps more from that feeling than his mom’s teachings, he grew to be fiercely independent. It also seems clear that his fondest days were when it was just him and his mom. Before the family expanded and he became an outsider in his own home. In some instances it seems the idea of independence and being an outsider morphed to mean the same thing and become somewhat interchangeable in the retelling of his stories.

Power and impact of choice: At one point he writes: “Nobody wants to be rich. People want to have choices. Money gives you choices.” Perhaps overall, he dissected his movement through the world as varying levels of opportunity and choice. On some level, he may truly believe that money equals choice and translates to power. Perhaps he thought as he took advantage of his opportunities he could create the power to choose his life as well. Ultimately, he has. However, the glaring power moves he made in Born a Crime were when he accepted the benefits of being mixed/colored/lighter skinned in black and white communities when doing so put other black people at a severe disadvantage and occasionally harm’s way.

My mother used to tell me, “I chose to have you because I wanted something to love and something that would love me unconditionally in return.” I was a product of her search for belonging. She never felt like she belonged anywhere.

Love, discipline and rebellion: Noah thinks his mother was too hard on him, but it seems like she let him get away with a lot just from exhaustion. In many ways he parallels his life with his mothers’ life. Her quest for love and belonging became his. Her need to discipline him birthed his need to out-maneuver her and perhaps show her how little he needed her in general. On the flip side, he also viewed her rebellion as his natural inheritance.

Freedom: There is a strong cord of freedom flowing throughout the stories Trevor Noah shares. As a concept, reality, illusion, wish, hope… as something somehow always out of reach. A couple of times, regarding his own troubles and the poor Black South African community in general, Noah writes, “They’re free, they’ve been taught how to fish, but no one will give them a fishing rod.” At one point, he thanks someone from a privileged class for giving him a rod. The analogy has a false ring to it. Or perhaps it’s simply incomplete. The poor, oppressed and disadvantaged people of the world are not incapable of enjoying their freedom because the lack the tools to nourish it. The poor, oppressed and disadvantaged people of the world are prevented from accessing resources (farmable lands, drinking water, washing water, bodies of water with fish, etc.). He actually writes about how the South African government purposefully removed groups of people from their tribal lands and forced them onto near barren lands and locked them in with walls and guns. When apartheid fell, the people pretty much stayed where they had been put for the last century, i.e. Soweto and Alexandra. The irony of looking to your oppressor for a handout is painful. The way around that is to exercise your freedom. Make your way to the resource you need and figure out how to nourish yourself with the tools on hand. Usually the only tools we have are our own two hands. However, necessity is the mother of invention. The poor, oppressed and disadvantage people of the world have been made to think that their better life is on the other side of a wall. In other words, that they need their oppressors. They don’t. They only need access to resources that cannot be owned, but that men the world over continue to capitalize on and create barriers around.

Language and Communication: One of the most beautiful illustrations in Born a Crime, is Trevor Noah’s use of language. He speaks several languages and learned at an early age that language, not skin color is the true indicator of belonging and community. When you speak a person’s language you are able to speak to their heart (paraphrased). Even as he shared how he was able to switch from being an outsider to an insider by speaking the language of the group he was attempting to appear like or to infiltrate, he also showed how speaking the same language with no common understanding is as disastrous as speaking different languages while working towards the same goal. In some ways, Born a Crime is a micro study of how communication between and within groups can go awry and also how it can tie us all together.

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