Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.
The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate, is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all.
That’s how Trevor Noah’s book, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, begins. Right away I realized that this wasn’t going to be another comedian’s book about becoming famous. Noah’s book is as much about apartheid and racism as it is about how he grew up.
Trevor Noah was born in 1984 when apartheid was still in full effect. His birth was literally a crime, as it was illegal at the time for a black woman to have sex with a white man. His birth was proof of their illegal act. For the first years of his life, he was barely allowed outside. His complexion was so light, deemed ‘coloured’ by the system that criminalized his existence, that his mother used to go out with a lighter skinned neighbour and walk behind them like she was the nanny.
Noah talks about growing up Other – how he wasn’t white, was too light to be black and how culturally, he wasn’t ‘coloured’ either. How, when he was 11, he chose to identify as black:
Before the recess I’d never had to choose, but when forced to choose, I chose black. The world saw me as colored, but I didn’t spend my life looking at myself. I spent my life looking at other people. I saw myself as the people around me, and the people around me were black. My cousins are black, my mom is black, my gran is black. I grew up black. […] With the black kids, I just was.
I didn’t know anything about Trevor Noah going into this book. I hadn’t heard of him until he was announced as Jon Stewart’s replacement. I don’t watch The Daily Show anymore because I can’t stay up that late (I am old) but now I wish that I did.
Noah’s life is so far removed from any reality that I’ve ever known. He grew up hiding his parentage, he rolled with a gang in the “hood”, grew up playing in Soweto township, his mother threw him from a moving car when he was nine because the driver was very likely going to kill them, and his mother was shot in the back of the head by his stepfather.
Those last two are mentioned super matter-of-factly in the first pages, by the way.
There are funny moments too – Noah has a way of telling stories in a tongue in cheek manner that made me smile. He talks about how he and his mother used to communicate by letter when they were arguing, how a friend of his once passed him off as an American rapper, and how one time he sh*t on the floor in front of his blind 90 year old great-grandmother.
But mostly, this book was so much more than I thought it was going to be. It’s a rumination on race and belonging, the power of language, culture and the love of one’s parents. I loved every beautiful page and totally recommend that you read this one!