In Born A Crime, Trevor Noah, host of the popular late night program, The Daily Show, compiles stories from his childhood in South Africa.
Trevor was born in 1984 to a Black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss-German father; a union that was considered illegal under apartheid.
Trevor writes about the system of oppression in South Africa and how the structure was carefully studied and carried out. Examples of how to oppress people were deliberately taken from other countries, including the U.S.
By the time South Africa became a democracy, racism and white supremacy were already deeply institutionalized. Even after Nelson Mandela was elected president and the African National Congress came into power, Black people still lacked opportunities and adequate resources to lift their families out of the circumstances that apartheid manufactured. Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, and books by other South African writers, journalists, and scholars provide a rich account of apartheid and the legacy of the racist regime.
Born a crime is not a linear story. The book is a set of vignettes about Trevor’s life. Many stories will make you laugh out loud, and others will leave you gasping. These stories highlight important themes from the impact of colonialism in South Africa to the privileges that come with being presumed to be white. Born a crime also explores Christianity, language, gender, and violence.
One of my favorite stories in the book centers on Trevor and his friend “Hitler” (yes, I know. Trevor’s point exactly), a star dancer in Trevor’s crew. In this scene, Hitler is dancing at a Jewish gathering where Trevor is DJing and cheering “Go Hitler! Go Hitler! Go Hitler!” They eventually get kicked out.
Trevor shares this story to describe the impact of colonialism on name preferences in South Africa. During apartheid, Black South Africans were forced to give their children names “that white people could pronounce.” As a result, many Black South Africans named their children Hitler because they were missing the context of historical events.
Trevor notes that the South African education system inadequately teaches students about history. In many instances, the experiences of oppressed groups are glaringly missing as if history is a one-sided phenomenon. Although names are often selected from the Bible, according to Trevor, the parents that named their children Hitler were probably unaware that apartheid was modeled after Hitler’s racist policies. Trevor’s accounts are like the history textbooks in the U.S. that misrepresent slavery or leave it out altogether.
Trevor Noah is a brilliant storyteller. In Born A Crime, he weaves serious discussions of social inequities in South Africa to hilarious anecdotes about his upbringing, childhood mischief, and experiences with his friends and family.
Born A Crime was very much about Trevor as it was about his mom, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, a woman who resolved to ensure that Trevor experienced life on his own terms.
The book was a quick read. I tried to read it slowly, so I had something to look forward to but ended up finishing it in one weekend. The book will be adapted to a movie and Lupita Nyong’o will play Trevor’s mother.
I’m looking forward to watching these stories play out in the film.