Book Review — Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Early this morning I finished “Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood”, an autobiographical comedy book written by the South African comedian Trevor Noah. The book was originally published in 2016.
This book is a culmination of the experiences of Trevor growing up in South Africa. The title of the book stems from the criminality of his birth — a product of a black woman and a white father. In apartheid South Africa, the consequence of these different races mating was 5 years imprisonment. In that wise, the condition of his birth is aptly used as the title of the book — Born a Crime.
I remember my brother seeing me skim this book in December and saying that I would love it. I came online to share a passage at the time and the response it got indicated to me that this book needs to be the first book I read as we march in the new year. And boy, was it a good read.
The book started by leading you straight into what Nigerian readers would readily identify with — religiosity. The narration of the different types of churches he attended would bring nostalgia to the Christian reader. A European would find it strange that his mother took him to three different services on Sundays and even attended services during the week, but a Nigerian would not so much. But say what you want about it, for a young Trevor who could not move around freely with his parents in the city or his grandparents in the slums, because of the law, the availability of books from the church would literally make his childhood. Books became his prized possessions.
The evils of apartheid cannot be quantified. A police state meant to bring the indigenous people under control did exactly that. I was shocked to find that apartheid laws run more than three thousand pages and weigh approximately ten pounds. To set it up, it may interest the reader to know that a formal commission was set up to go out and study institutionalized racism all over the world. Then, an advanced system of racial oppression was set up. It was not just a system set up to dehumanize blacks, but one set up to ensure that there was enough distrust of blacks among themselves.
The world has a eurocentric viewpoint and many Europeans would be surprised that there are many South African bearing Hitler. As Trevor explained, it’s completely understandable for a people who like Nigerians are not taught about history. And even more understandable when from an African viewpoint, Hitler isn’t really the worst person to them. Where do you place Cecil Rhodes or King Leopold?
And it is the reason the impact of his mother could not be overemphasized. Indeed, it would not be amiss if this book is called ‘A Paean from Noah to his mother’. Few people would read this book without thinking of his mother the next time they see him on the media. Under apartheid, he says his mum raised him as if there were no limitations on where he could go or what he could do. While the dream of other blacks who surrounded him and his mother was about getting by in the slums, his mum opened up his imaginations to possibilities by taking him places his mates in the slums did not even know existed. When people tried to stop her, she made it clear that if all she’s done is open up her son’s mind to what he could accomplish, that was enough.
I could not miss how his mum taught him to think through writing. They would play games of writing to prove their points and thinking about this, the sharpness of his mind might not be unconnected with the times he spent with his mum debating.
#ICYDK South Africa has eleven official languages.
What you simply cannot miss is how Trevor writes like he speaks. I was fortunate to read this book alongside an audiobook and you can’t help but picture Trevor reading this to you. Just picture this simple conversation:
“I’d argue with the nuns and the priest all the time. Only Catholics can eat Jesus’s body and drink Jesus’s blood, right?’
‘But Jesus wasn’t Catholic.’
‘Jesus was Jewish.’
‘So you’re telling me that if Jesus walked into your church right now, Jesus would not be allowed to have the body and blood of Jesus?’
They never had a satisfactory reply.”
It’s a completely enjoyable narrative style.
As famous as Trevor is, his life trajectory could easily have gone the other way. There was a boy called Teddy who instead of ratting him out when they shoplifted decided against it and went to prison. I could not help thinking about that as I kept reading the book. What if Tom had told the police he stole with Trevor? He would have gone to prison and you would not have known someone like him existed.
And perhaps it’s one reason I couldn’t bear why he kept making excuses for black crimes. There is a difference between explaining the pathology of an issue and making excuses for the lawbreakers. It is also the reason I recoiled when he said he regrets nothing that he has ever done in his life. Bear in mind that he got the car a customer left for his stepfather impounded by the police, regularly stole in shops, sold pirated music and even burnt down a house. Knowing better now, he still would not feel remorse for his actions. Yeah, it’s the fault of the white man!
Be that as it may, one of the best parts of the book was his friendship with a boy called Bongani. That boy is one smart chap. As I read what he did, I could not help thinking what an incredible product person/business developer he would have turned out to be in the right environment. The way he came up with ideas and multiplied their funds is the kind of stuff venture capitalists live for. I wonder what happened to him and his ingenuity.
What is obvious about the book is its didactic nature. You cannot miss his lessons about the hood — the high-effort low-gain nature of hustling, as well as the pull and trap of the hood. It offers a lot of lessons for the young person on the transient nature of an unstructured life and the evanescent characteristics of youth.
The last chapter was devoted to how his patriarchal stepfather almost killed his mother. That was a narration that had my heart in my mouth. At a point, I made a mental note to search about the therapy he underwent. The imagery was something else. It is a very good book. It is a story of triumph against all odds. The story of a boy who did not look black enough to be black despite growing up around black people and never seeing himself as anything else. But more importantly, it is a story of family, of support, and of unconditional love.
It is a well-written book. It is no wonder that when it came out, it became a #1 New York Times Bestseller and was named one of the best books of the year by The New York Times, Newsday, Esquire, NPR, and Booklist. It has been said that it would be adapted into a movie. I just can’t wait to watch how Lupita Nyong would play the role of Noah’s beloved mother, Patricia.