Born a Crime had been on my TBR pile for a long time. But when I finally started reading it, I realized I was unprepared for the profound depth of the story Trevor was telling. Yes, there are a few laughs and f-bombs, because, you know, it’s Trevor Noah. But the very personal stories he tells about growing up in South Africa reveal a part of history and culture that even as an educated American, I was only tangentially aware. Both apartheid and tribal history pitted not only individuals but whole groups against one another. And it lasted even after apartheid.
As a retired teacher and a mother, I found Trevor’s naughtiness as a kid comical, probably because I’d known some challenging kids in my career. And he wasn’t my kid. He earned the nickname “Terror” and only his mother would discipline him because he was light-skinned. Even a black grandmother wouldn’t spank a light-skinned child. While that could be an advantage, it also placed Trevor in a virtual no-man’s-land in South Africa. He didn’t fit in anywhere. His coping mechanisms became his humor, hustle, and fluency in eight languages–English, Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, Tsonga, Afrikaans, and German. He discovered that language was more powerful than skin color in defining who you were.
I’ve chosen a few excerpts to share.
Apartheid & racism
“What I do remember, what I will never forget, is the violence that followed. The triumph of democracy over apartheid is sometimes called the Bloodless Revolution. It is called that because very little white blood was spilled. Black blood ran in the streets.”
“In America you had the forced removal of the native onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of those things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.”
“The difference between British racism and Afrikaner racism was that at least the British gave the natives something to aspire to. If they could learn to speak correct English and dress in proper clothes, if they could Anglicize and civilize themselves, one day they might be welcome in society. The Afrikaners never gave us that option. British racism said, ‘If the monkey can walk like a man and talk like a man, then perhaps he is a man.’ Afrikaner racism said, ‘Why give a book to a monkey?’”
Trevor’s grandmother “… believed my prayers were more powerful, because I prayed in English. Everyone knows that Jesus, who’s white, speaks English. The Bible is in English. Yes, the Bible was not written in English, but the Bible came to South Africa in English so to us it’s in English. Which made my prayers the best prayers because English prayers get answered first. How do we know this? Look at white people. Clearly they’re getting through to the right person.”
“The whole issue of Santa Claus is a rather contentious one when it comes to African Christmas, a matter of pride. When an African dad buys his kid a present, the last thing he’s going to do is give some fat white man credit for it. African Dad will tell you straight up, ‘No, no, no. I bought you that.’”
“Growing up the way I did, I learned how easy it is for white people to get comfortable with a system that awards them all the perks.”
Crime and the hood
“The hood made me realize that crime succeeds because crime does the one thing the government doesn’t do: crime cares. Crime is grassroots. Crime looks for the young kids who need support and a lifting hand. Crime offers internship programs and summer jobs and opportunities for advancement. Crime gets involved in the community. Crime doesn’t discriminate.”
“The hood has a gravitational pull. It never leaves you behind, but it also never lets you leave. Because by making the choice to leave, you’re insulting the place that raised you and made you and never turned you away. And that place fights you back.”
His mother & domestic violence
“…the highest rung of what’s possible is far beyond the world you can see. My mother showed me what was possible. The thing that always amazed me about her life was that no one showed her. No one chose her. She did it on her own. She found her way through sheer force of will.”
“She taught me to challenge authority and question the system. The only way it backfired on her was that I constantly challenged and questioned her.”
Where does a woman go when she’s single with three kids and she lives in a society that makes her a pariah for being a manless woman? Where she’s seen as a whore for doing that? Where does she go? What does she do?
“You cannot blame anyone else for what you do. You cannot blame your past for who you are. You are responsible for you. You make your own choices.”
I found myself not so much entertained as enlightened. Recommend.