“Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood” by Trevor Noah

It’s been such a long time since I’ve done a book review that I feel as if I’ve forgotten how to write one.

“Where most children are proof of their parents’ love, I was the proof of their criminality.”

I picked up Born a Crime in March and read it sporadically until I got hooked and completed it in a few days last month. I don’t often read celebrity bios, but this one caught my attention because there was a lot of buzz about it and it was featured in the New York Times Books section. Plus, Trevor Noah is cute. His winking dimples compelled me to read his book.

Noah is a comedian and the host of the Daily Show, a satirical news talk show that airs on Comedy Central. I hardly watch the show and haven’t seen it since Noah took over from its previous host Jon Stewart, but I’ve heard it’s great. Prior to the Daily Show, I did not know of Trevor Noah. The few times I’ve heard him speak, I assumed he was British. I never would have guessed that he’s from South Africa, which I learned by reading reviews of Born a Crime.

Born a Crime is about Noah growing up in South Africa as a kid of mixed race: His mother is a black woman of the Xhosa ethnic group and his father was a white Swiss. He was born during apartheid, hence the title of the book because it was a crime for Blacks and Whites to be romantically involved in South Africa at the time, and raised in its shadow. By the time Noah was about seven years old, apartheid was outlawed but still had a strong hold on the people of South Africa.

Noah stresses this fact in the book to show how horrible the system of apartheid was. Though humor is weaved throughout the narrative and helps to keep the reader interested, Noah balances it with a serious tone when discussing hard subjects such as apartheid, racism, and discrimination. So though his autobiography is entertaining, like when we read about his mom chasing him around the neighborhood to beat him, we are always reminded that he wrote the book not just to entertain but to reveal the effects of apartheid and the inanity of racism.

The book is a quick read, though I took about a month to get through it (I was busy and in a weird mood). However, once I committed to it, I was engrossed and eager to continue whenever I took a break. The book is divided into three parts and each section begins with historical facts about what apartheid is and was used to do. The book itself opens with an excerpt from the Immorality Act of 1927, prohibiting sexual relations of any kind between Europeans and natives.

I must admit that I read the book without paying attention to why it’s divided into sections. I guess I did that because the narrative wasn’t very linear. The first chapter, Run, opens with an incident that occurred when Noah was nine, but the narrative doesn’t continue on from that age; it jumps around. It wasn’t until I completed the book that I noticed its subtitle and realized that the autobiography is composed of stories about Noah’s life in South Africa. I guessed then that the book is organized thematically rather than chronologically.

Since I don’t know much about South Africa or apartheid, I appreciate that Noah makes an effort to educate his readers about both. Prior to reading this, I had a faint idea of what apartheid was. The more I read, the more upset I got because the system of apartheid effectively turned people against each other; uprooted people from their native lands and subdued those who would speak out against such laws.

Through his stories, Noah exposes race as a social construct that can be undermined, which is illustrated in the various situations where people made assumptions about his race because of how he looked or spoke. It shows how silly it is that we organize society and oppress people because of the color of their skin. The section where Noah discusses a quirk of apartheid where people can be promoted or demoted to a race angered and saddened me because he also mentioned that sometimes a child is born with dark skin and the family has to decide whether to demote to another race or abandon their child.

We get a lot of stories about Noah’s crazy shenanigans as a kid and the lengths his mom went to protect him. He was an energetic kid who always got into trouble. He also talks about the preferential treatment he received because his skin’s light tone and the constraints that made public interaction with his parents near impossible. Because of apartheid’s laws, his parents couldn’t acknowledge him as their child while in public.

It’s obvious that Noah loves and respects his mother and though he was raised in poverty and life was hard, he appreciated what he had and the lessons his mom imparted to him. His mother is an admirable woman. She undermined the constraints against her and carved out the life she wanted. Further, she instilled such bravery, strength, and optimism in her son.

This was quite an unexpected read because I didn’t expect to get so much out of the book. I appreciate that Noah allowed us this glimpse into his early years.

Overall: ★★★★☆ ½

I’m glad I bought and read this. It was entertaining and eye-opening and I learned more about a country I barely knew. There’s much more that stood out to me, but I didn’t want to make this review too long.

One of the most hilarious things I read, though, was that bone marrow is now a delicacy at restaurants. That surprised me and I had to tell my mom and other family members because we eat bone marrow and wouldn’t expect it to be something that can be ordered at a restaurant.

Buy | Borrow | Bypass

I teeter between Buy and Borrow. I chose Buy because if, like me, you don’t know much about South Africa and apartheid, you might want to have your own copy so you can highlight and take notes to look up things later. It was a good read, though, so I think it was worth the purchase.

Quotes from the book:

“Language brings with it an identity and a culture, or at least the perception of it. A shared language says ‘We’re the same.’ A language barrier says ‘We’re different.’”

“So many black families spend all of their time trying to fix the problems of the past. That is the curse of being black and poor, and it is a curse that follows you from generation to generation. My mother calls it ‘the black tax.’ Because the generations who came before you have been pillaged, rather than being free to use your skills and education to move forward, you lose everything just trying to bring everyone behind you back up to zero.”

“Learn from your past and be better because of your past…but don’t cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold on to it. Don’t be bitter.”

“Relationships are built in the silences. You spend time with people, you observe them and interact with them, and you come to know them — and that is what apartheid stole from us: time.”

“Being chosen is the greatest gift you can give to another human being.”

“Every year under apartheid, some colored people would get promoted to white…People could submit applications to the government. Your hair might become straight enough, your skin might become light enough, your accent might become polished enough — and you’d be reclassified as white. All you had to do was denounce your people, denounce your history, and leave your darker-skinned friends and family behind.”

“We spend so much time being afraid of failure, afraid of rejection. But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to.”

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19 thoughts on ““Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood” by Trevor Noah

  1. Pingback: 2017 Reading Wrap-Up: Second Quarter | Zezee with Books

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  3. Pingback: “Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood” by Trevor Noah — Zezee with Books – REVIEW SA

  4. I’d definitely like to read this! I only watch his show occasionally, but I did watch an interview with him (maybe on Colbert?) when the book came out, and it sounded fascinating. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Very informative.

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  5. Bone marrow.. can be ate? :O :O Okay, besides that eye-opening fun fact, this was a wonderful review. I’ve seen this book around too, but I think its the “humour” and the author’s real life job that made me wonder if it was really something I’d want to check out. It sounds like everything was well-balanced and very insightful too. I’m really glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

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    • Yup! Lol! Part of the reason why I love bones. But I only eat them at home. Would look messy chewing up bones at a restaurant, though Noah says they get out the marrow for you, so I guess it’s served separately, but part of the fun is biting into the bone.
      But anyway, it is well-balanced and a good read so I recommend you give it a try.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly. That made me so angry and upset because it was an effective way of making people adhere to that system so they felt they had to strive toward a certain race and work to remain there and not be demoted.

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  6. Wow, your review definitely has me intrigued. I don’t know who the guy is, but I think the way he balances seriousness and humor is a great way to deliver and I truly enjoyed those quotes!

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