Book Review: Born a Crime

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. Trevor Noah. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2016. 304 pp.

Trevor Noah is best known as a stand-up comedian and the current host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show”.  Noah is a quick witted mixed-race South African born man who has a flare for biting mockery of the current political reality in the United States.  He has picked up the baton from Jon Stewart who did much the same from the perspective of an Jewish-American.  It is clear from his comedy and satire that his background as a person of mixed race during Apartheid South Africa plays into his worldview.  This book lays out the childhood that created this distinctive point of view.  This book is simultaneously funny, politically astute, and gut wrenching.

Noah drops his readers immediately into Apartheid South Africa at the time of his birth.  He painstakingly teases out how the laws of South Africa, at the time, made his very existence a crime and the implications of that.   Noah’s mother was a black South African.  Noah’s father was white man from Switzerland.  That a white man had sex with a black woman was a crime.  Noah’s birth was evidence of that crime.  Noah’s parents made the decision not to marry, which would have been impossible any way, and the story takes off explaining the great lengths that his mother went through to protect herself, Noah, and his father from prosecution.  She literally had to pretend that someone else was Noah’s mother and that she was just accompanying her in public.  There is an amusing account in this section of the book where Noah and his parents were in a park together.  The young Trevor did the unthinkable and called called his father “daddy”.  When others noticed this, his father ran away from the scene, and Trevor thinking this was a game chased after him.

Noah’s family was an urban Johannesburg family with ties to a larger family in the Soweto township.  Noah describes visiting his larger family.  In this context, his reality as eternal outsider is very clear.  Noah is, clearly, not a white child.  Yet, he is not viewed as a black child either.  There is an account in this part of the book where he is playing with his black cousins and he, while playing doctor, injures one of them.  Trevor’s grandmother punishes all the other children involved by hitting them.  Though he is most responsible for the act.  She does not hit Trevor.  When asked by his mother why she did not punish Trevor his grandmother responds, “I don’t know how to hit a white child.”  Ostensibly, the logic here is that when you his a white child it leaves black and blue marks that would not be visible on a black child.  If you read between the lines she, though the child is her own grandchild, is afraid of being accused of assaulting a white person and the implications of that.  Noah is not white, but he is not black either.

One of the themes in this text is that the way you speak and that the language you speak frames people’s perception of you.  Noah is a humble polyglot.  He attributes his facility with languages to the insistence of his mother that he learned languages as a means of having access to various parts of society.  Johannesburg is a place where the speaking of numerous languages is highly advantageous because so many languages live side by side.  There is an amusing story about how he ended up with the South African equivalent of our “prom date” and neither of them shared a common language.  It is hard for the American mind to comprehend two people living in the same city who have no way to find a common language.  The comedy from this incident is painfully side-splitting, but it points to something that could happen in South Africa that is not likely to happen in the United States and how important language acquisition can be in other places in the world.  Noah is fully aware that when he speaks English or Afrikaans he appears differently to people than when he speaks one of the South African local languages.  His color literally changes when his words do.  He describes encounters where when initially harassed by police because he is perceived as black, the same officer will ultimately apologize when he later considers Noah to be colored which is in South Africa is different from being black.  Noah uses the South African distinction between Chinese, colored people, and Japanese, white people to demonstrate the absurdity of it all.  Finally, he explains how a person of color whose skin is light enough and who drops their ties with the black community could legally become white.  Noah is in the situation when he attends school and literally needs chose his race in the school’s framework, and he carefully explains why he chose to be black.

Noah’s adolescence is about finally finding a group that he seems to fit in with.  This group seems to surround his interest and ability in electronics, music and entertainment.  Noah manages to acquire a computer and some music equipment.  He begins downloading music; a lot of music.  He is able to mix that music and successfully enter into business being a disc jockey.  In his world, he is unique.  Most disc jockeys are actually working off of physical CD’s and only have enough music to produce a show that may last a couple of hours.  Noah is working from a hard drive and can be the sole entertainer for an entire night.  This business quickly moves in several directions at once.  He and his friends acquire a CD burner and begin making pirated custom CD’s for minibus drivers who attract customers by having fresh music.  They develop a show that is about both music and dancing.  The principle dancer has to notable name “Hitler”.  The name Hitler is completely an accident of white cultural appropriation by black South Africans, and leads to a massive misunderstanding when their dance show is hired by a Jewish community group.  The chants of “Go Hitler!” by the dancers were not well received by their audience.  The CD selling business put Noah and his friends in close contact with much more solid organized criminals in Johannesburg.  Ultimately, the CD business engaged in some vertical integration involving loan sharking, and the fencing stolen goods.  The business of pirating CD’s was the rationale that justified their more murky criminal enterprises.

Noah centers his story, here, on the fencing of stolen goods.  The moral problems with this are overlooked by Noah and his friends by stating that white people have insurance to protect them against the risk of having property stolen.  No one is actually losing property in these exchanges and they are literally viewing their work as generating something out of nothing.  Now, the mature Trevor Noah who makes his living as an entertainer has realized that all this rationalization is unfounded especially when it comes to the artists whose music he was stealing to make the CD’s.  The issue of what happens when something gets stolen is teased out in this text.  First, there is an incident where when Noah and his friends are playing a party and the police get involved and shut it down.  An ambitious police officer who wanted to hasten the end of the music shot Noah’s computer and the electrical chain reaction that stemmed from that fried the all important hard drive.  In an instant the group of friends major source of income was lost.  Second, the loss of income caused the friends to turn making fencing stolen property their primary source of income.  Third, and finally they acquired a digital camera that was obviously stolen from a white family.  This camera illustrates the problem.  On this camera, were the pictures of a family vacation.  Yes, the theft of the camera could probably be made whole by an insurance claim, the theft of the pictures could not.  Noah, at that point, realized that their criminal activity could have very personal implications for others that he was not comfortable with being involved in.

This is not only a story about race, but it is also a story about gender.  Noah’s mother and father ultimately split up.  Eventually, she takes up with a black mechanic named Abel.  Eventually, she marries Abel and has a child with him.   Trevor is clearly not Abel’s child and clearly never will be.  Throughout this book, Noah’s mother is portrayed as a head-strong independent woman.  Her marriage to Abel appears to be almost at odds with her personality.  It is inexplicable that this woman would choose to marry a man who is so controlling as Abel.  Abel is a drunk and a mean drunk.  The first hint that we get than things are going seriously wrong is that when Trevor’s mother forgives Trevor for forging her name on a school form Abel pulls him aside and beats Trevor.  It is clear that Abel is all about obedience and respect and that this will be enforced through violence, not anger, but violence.  Abel is painted as a talented mechanic and a poor business man.  At the same time, Noah’s mother is a free-spirit but a savvy woman with money.  This should be a match made in heaven.  Alas, it is not.  Noah’s mother ultimately takes control of the financial affairs of the business and is able to make headway into matters.  As she meets with success the relationship between Abel and Noah’s mother deteriorates.  He is embarrassed that she, a woman, is more capable than him when it comes to business.  He becomes violent toward her.  It is shared that on numerous occasions Noah’s mother attempted to report to the South African police that he beat her.  Each time the police took this as a “domestic matter” that had nothing to do with them.  She, a black woman, had no right to challenge her attacker under the law.  She just had to take it.

In the end, Noah receives a fateful call from his half-brother that their mother “has been shot”.  It is noted by Noah that no one had to tell him who shot his mother.  In the end, it was clear that Abel shot her.  In the events that followed, first, it was assumed that she was dead, and then she was taken to the hospital where she would need massive treatment to survive.  The hospital workers knowing the cost of the procedures actually tried to dissuade Noah from volunteering to pay for them because it would ultimately be the ruin of his own life.  He actually had to pause and consider whether to save his mother’s life given that it would likely plunge him into an insurmountable financial ruin.  Literally, he had to answer how much his mother’s life was worth to him.  The story details that Abel briefly considered suicide and was talked out of it, and that Noah himself challenged Abel about the attempted murder of his mother.  Abel in the end threatened to kill Noah himself and this appears to be what lead Trevor Noah to leave South Africa for the United States.  Ultimately, Abel was charged and convicted of attempted murder.  This was not an immediate act.  The possible violent death of a black woman in South Africa was not immediately recognized as a heinous crime.  Note, this all occurred post-Mandela and post-Apartheid.  In the midst of this humorous narrative, this account is written with certain reverence and seriousness.  Racism in South Africa is laughable, and something to be laughed at.  The gender discrimination that ultimately led to the attempted murder of Trevor Noah’s mother was serious and grave.  A line is drawn here in the text.  This man almost got away with killing this woman not because she was black but because she was a woman.  He beat her and got away with it.  He ruined her life and got away with it.  He thought he could kill her and get away with it.

Born a Crime is an excellent text to be read with a later middle school student or a high school student.  It is a fascinating read, chock full of well-crafted humor and great storytelling.  It should be noted that there is plenty of foul language to go around.  Noah is not writing a polite book.  He is writing a funny book, but not a polite one.  The charm of this book is that it makes its way into very serious subjects without preaching to the reader.  Part of the reason why this works is that the setting of the book is South Africa, but the intended audience lives in the United States.  This is the trick.  Noah gets to talk about the horrors of racism, sexism, police brutality, political corruption, and organized crime freely because he is not talking about our racism, sexism, police brutality, political corruption, and organized crime.  He’s talking about South Africa’s.  Now, clearly, Noah does not believe that these are only South African problems.  It is clear that he wants the reader to extrapolate from these stories to their own setting, but he never tells them that they have to.  As a parent, this can be a great text to get children to speak about what they are experiencing day to day with respect to these issues.  Keep in mind the Trevor Noah in this text is a child.  A teenager will not be able to easily relate to the Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show” but should be able to relate to the South African teenager Trevor Noah.  This is why this is almost the perfect book for a child to use to explore their world.

The characters in this text are real.  You want to meet these people and you want to hangout with them.  Noah is good at, both, painting the picture and telling the story.  You can feel the bustle and hear the sounds of Johannesburg as you read.  You can feel the tension between the leader of the Jewish community center and Trevor’s friends when the “Hitler” incident occurs.  You can feel the sense of loss when the hard drive is destroyed.  You can feel the steeled resolve in the face of terror when Noah is first struck by Abel.  Finally, you’re going through the gut wrenching agony and heated anger that come with learning that his Noah’s mother was shot.  Admittedly, this is disclosed early in the text when he describes Abel as the man who will ultimately put a bullet in his mother’s head, yet, you only in the end learn that she survives.  This book will pull you in and keep you there until you finish it.  It is very much worth the read and very much a book that can be used to read together with a teenager.  Noah is not only a brilliant comedian and social critic, he is also a fantastic writer.

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