“Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood” by Trevor Noah – Review

BY: ANGIE HADDOCK

“The memoir of one man’s coming-of-age, set during the twilight of apartheid and the tumultuous days of freedom that followed.”

Goodreads


“Hustling is to work what surfing the Internet is to reading. If you add up how much you read in a year on the Internet—tweets, Facebook posts, lists—you’ve read the equivalent of a shit ton of books, but in fact you’ve read no books in a year.”

Trevor Noah

I wanted to start with that quote because, as avid readers, I thought you all would appreciate it.

Firstly, all the friends who recommended this book to me said I had to listen to the audiobook, because Trevor reads it himself.  So, that’s the format I chose. Not only is Trevor funny, and a good storyteller, but he’s also fluent in multiple South African languages… which helps greatly, as he uses several in this book.  (Let’s be honest, my brain wouldn’t have the first clue how to pronounce anything in Zulu, even if I was just reading it quietly to myself!)  This is a pretty quick listen, as the audiobook is just shy of nine hours long.

The book tells stories from Trevor’s youth, up until his early twenties.  While he is pursuing stand-up comedy by the end, it does not talk at all about his career as a comedian.  I would say the main topics are race and racism, growing up poor, and his relationship with his mom. Random anecdotes on religion, extended family, and schoolboy shenanigans are also fun rides.  Anyone who came of age in the nineties is sure to feel a kinship with him when he reminisces on the slow hell that was making mixed CDs in Windows ’95. 

While I don’t want to give away too many of the details, a few stories certainly stand out above the rest.  The story of him having a friend named Hitler really stuck with me.  He talked about how, in Africa, Hitler was just one of many “bad dudes” in history books.  He’s not seen the same way there as he is in Europe or America. Then again, various African nations had had dictators and genocides of their own, so those seemed more threatening. One of the things that this story highlighted for me was how we’re shaped by the stories of the culture we’re in, and how we have to understand the stories of other places and cultures to understand the people who come from these places. 

Eventually, Trevor and his friends are scheduled to perform for a high school of Jewish kids.  Obviously, things go awry.  When the administrators at the school get offended, and tell the boys to leave, Trevor interprets their actions as coming from a racist place – racist against them, as black kids.  He only figures out later that it’s the “Hitler” thing that made them mad.  This part brought to mind the George Bernard Shaw quote: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”

A few quotes from the book that highlight the topics of race, and related issues:

 “Language, even more than color, defines who you are to people.”

“In any society built on institutionalized racism, race mixing doesn’t merely challenge the system as unjust, it reveals the system as unsustainable and incoherent. Race mixing proves that races can mix, and in a lot of cases want to mix. Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race mixing becomes a crime worse than treason.”

“In society, we do horrible things to one another because we don’t see the person it affects. We don’t see their face. We don’t see them as people. Which was the whole reason the hood was built in the first place, to keep the victims of apartheid out of sight and out of mind. Because if white people ever saw black people as human, they would see that slavery is unconscionable. We live in a world where we don’t see the ramifications of what we do to others, because we don’t live with them. It would be a whole lot harder for an investment banker to rip off people with subprime mortgages if he actually had to live with the people he was ripping off. If we could see one another’s pain and empathize with one another, it would never be worth it to us to commit the crimes in the first place.”

Another big aspect is Trevor’s relationship with his mom.  Obviously, I did not grow up as a mixed child under apartheid… but I did grow up with a single mom, so some of his musings really struck a chord with me.  His mom seems like a defiant, strong-willed woman who wanted a better life for herself than her family had had, and a better life for her kids than she had had.  The final story in the book is about his mom being shot. I got to the part where he finds out she’d been shot… right as I pulled into my drivewa, done with running errands. I was in shock, and thought to myself, “there’s no way I can stop and get out of the car right now.  Oh crap, I have ice cream in one of my grocery bags.”  Needless to say, I ran into my house and turned the story back on, so I could find out what happened! 

I should mention that the stories in this book are grouped more by theme than by chronology. So, there are some characters that you meet more than once, and you may not know their full story until later on in the book.  Stick around, though, and he’ll put all the pieces together for you.


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