I’m guessing that, like most people who picked up Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, I was surprised when I found that it has nothing to do with his comedy show. I personally know people who turned away from the book when they discovered this and, upon finishing it myself, I have to say that that’s a shame. Though I also expected an amusing yarn on how Trevor became host of The Daily Show, I think I’m ultimately better off for what I read in its place. Sometimes it is worth giving a book a chance to prove itself, and Born a Crime ultimately blew me away on that measure.
This is the story of Trevor Noah’s childhood and life in South Africa. By itself, this might sound like just another random celebrity memoir describing a meteoric ascent from obscurity to fame. But I was continually awed by how unique Trevor’s experience was. This was a boy born in apartheid-era South Africa, a time period where an elite white government had institutionalized racism to a degree not seen before or since. What’s more, Trevor was the son of a white Swiss immigrant and black South African woman at a time when such a union was illegal. Thus Trevor was “born a crime,” the product of two wildly different ethnic backgrounds yet belonging to neither.
A Childhood in Turbulence
Perhaps my historical background has made me complacent, but when I initially gleaned that one of the book’s major themes would be about growing up as an oppressed minority, I will admit that I was expecting it to be much like tales in America that I’ve read about before. As a result, I went into the book a bit skeptical and not expecting much out of it that I hadn’t heard elsewhere. Needless to say, I was wrong.
Trevor’s experience was very much that of the ultimate outsider. This comes up so many times in the book yet always boggled my mind. The stories are endless. His mom refused to hold his hand in public and had to say that he didn’t belong to her, for fear that she would get thrown in prison. Trevor’s school life ended up as an attempt to straddle both the white and black worlds. Intolerant white people viewed him as better than the rest of the blacks because he had lighter skin; it was thus easier to be accepted into their world, though never fully belonging to it.
For their part, black people were often at a total loss as to what to make of him. While he encountered some hostility for being of the Xhosa tribe and not the Zulu, the general attitude towards him from the black community was more one of curiosity. Trevor was given preferential treatment for being whiter than other blacks. This was bizarre to hear about but went along with the sad, yet accurate, observation that, during apartheid, those who could be accepted by the white people were clearly better off. Because of this, Trevor was often tragically pushed away by the very people he wanted most to connect with, which they viewed as “for his own good.”
Mixing Drama with Humor
But I don’t want to give the impression that this book is all sad drama. As is his wont, Trevor Noah helps turn this book into one of the most entertaining ones I have read this year, while still remaining surprisingly informative. For the record, I listened to Born a Crime in the audiobook format, and I would recommend that for anyone interested in checking it out. Trevor Noah personally narrates it and, through this, I could hear every joke and just the right tone throughout the book from the man himself.
Nowhere was this more clear than in one of my favorite stories from the book: tales about his dancing friend, “Hitler.” Trevor describes his time as a DJ; he would show up to parties, mix some music, and bring along his buddy Hitler who would whip out all the greatest dance moves to kick the night into high gear. Through these stories, I was both cracking up at every turn and learning about how divorced the South African education system for blacks was from the rest of the western nations. Apartheid forced such a horrible ignorance upon blacks that they would hear bits and pieces about how scary the actual Adolf Hitler was. So, when naming children or pets, if you wanted your kid or dog to turn out intimidating and powerful, you’d call him Hitler. This results in one of the funniest moments in the book when Trevor Noah and his friend are asked to DJ and dance at a local Jewish synagogue, and don’t understand the reaction they get. But I don’t want to spoil the entire story, so just look forward to that one as you read or listen to the book!
Born a Crime was one of the funniest books I’ve read in a while, and it surprised me at how Trevor Noah’s background and writing was able to deliver such a moving story. I would easily watch a movie depicting his childhood. Heck, I’d watch a multiple-season TV show about it. Listening to Trevor Noah read Born a Crime helped me feel a surprisingly honest connection to the man that is likely to inspire me to watch The Daily Show more often, read a book about South African history, and ultimately have a new perspective on how unique the experience of mixed-race children is from the rest of us. I could have hoped for nothing more, and thus I wholeheartedly would recommend this book to anyone.