Book Review: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

As with many of my interests these days, I first came across Trevor Noah via YouTube. More precisely, through a YouTube video embedded in a New York Times video. Upon watching the video I laughed more than I had in a long time. The fact of the matter is that I don’t remember which video it was because I laugh that hard at almost everything of his that I watch. His comedy has the excellent quality of being both hilarious and full of depth.

For those of you who are unaware of whom I am talking about, Trevor Noah is a comedian from South Africa who currently hosts The Daily Show on Comedy Central. Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood is his autobiography which touches upon major and what may appear to be minor episodes of his child and young adulthood, including the crime of his own birth.

The book opens with a excerpt from the the South African Immorality Act of 1927, which existed “To prohibit illicit carnal intercourse between Europeans and natives and other acts in relation thereto.” As the son of a black mother and a white father, Noah’s birth was inherent proof of his parents’ illegal actions. Throughout the text Noah describes his experience growing up as apartheid was crumbling and he himself did not fit in anywhere. This is something that Noah discusses at length, by describing how he does and does not fit in the categories that had been created for South Africans.

As a mixed race person myself, I particularly enjoyed reading Noah’s description in chapter two regarding why the systems of societies based on institutionalized racism proved not only unjust but also unsustainable due to the fact that race-mixing proves that the races can and want to mix and that “[b]ecause a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race-mixing becomes a crime worse than treason.” (p. 21)

What I took most to heart from this book was Noah’s dedication to his mother, to whom the book is dedicated. As someone who is very close with my own mother I always enjoy texts that explore the parent-child relationship. Their relationship as described in the text is different from my relationship with my own mother to be sure, but I was reminded of my mum as Noah described his upbringing in chapter five saying that his mother “raised [him] as if there were no limitations on where [he] could go or what [he] could do. When [he] look[s] back [he] realize[s] she raised [him] like a white kid—not white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was [his] oyster, that [he] should speak up for [him]self, that [his] ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered” (p 73) which is exactly how I feel that my mother raised me.[1]

Although Noah was born over a decade before me in a country and an environment that is half a world away from my own, I feel a sort of kinship with him after having read this book. Not only that, but I find myself more informed after having read about his experience, not just because of what the book itself contains, but also the curiosity that it has instilled in me to do further investigation into the history and culture that are presented in the text.

Each chapter is prefaced with a small description, never more than a page and a half, sometimes only a paragraph, that gives a perspective outside of the flow of narration throughout the autobiography. The narrative voice is still Noah’s, but these prefaces give a distanced perspective, sometimes providing historical context, and sometimes adding to the winding narration by giving a slightly different viewpoint from the main text.

Despite the comedy present through every inch of this book, there exist nuance and meaningful life lessons on every page. That is not to say that I necessarily agree with everything presented in the text, but the narration provided me with enough food for thought that I was able to question my beliefs and re-adjust my thought processes to allow for the new information obtained from both the text and my resulting outside research. I know for a fact that this is a book that I will re-read many times. I’ve already gone over it twice, some passages more than that. I have 23 post-it notes from my first reading alone, which took me less than 24 hours, I was so enraptured by the text.

All told, I highly recommend this autobiography as a must-read, for everyone, but especially to those who find themselves in want of something that while light-hearted gives serious food for thought, and what USA Today calls “A soul-nourishing pleasure,”[2] something that I wholeheartedly agree with.

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

[1] Note: It has been pointed out to me that this sounds like I believe that white parents tell their kids that they can succeed, whereas black parents do not, which is not what I meant at all. What I am trying to get across (and what I think Noah is trying to get across) is that due to systemic racism and oppression, limits are put upon children of color in order to protect them from harsh realities, which can damage their ability to aspire to great heights. My mother always acted like “can’t” was a swearword in our house, but many kids are told that they cannot do something, simply because their parents are concerned that an unjust system would cause them pain, both emotional distress and physical harm.

[2] This is according to the blurb on the cover of my book.