The Need to Know: A memoir that is by turns hilarious and biting, Born a Crime is highly recommended.
I’m sorry to say that before reading Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime, I knew very little about Trevor Noah or the tragic system of oppression known as South African apartheid. Most Americans were raised on knowledge of American slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation, even if some Americans have attempted to re-write that history to make it more palatable. But while I could gesture toward some kind of vague similarity between United States’ Jim Crow laws and apartheid or make some reference to Nelson Mandela before reading this memoir, I could say very little else.
This book did not teach me everything there is to know about South African apartheid, and it does not purport to do so. But what Born a Crime does do is provide valuable contextual details about how the system of apartheid operated, some of the motivations and tensions undergirding the system, and what it was like for black and colored men and women after it ended. Importantly, Noah’s Born a Crime grounds the story of South African apartheid within Noah’s childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, and his relationships with his family, particularly his black mother, Patricia, and his white father, Robert.
The book opens with an excerpt from the shocking Immorality Act of 1927—which stipulated that “carnal intercourse” between “a European” and a “native” was illicit and would result in imprisonment. I know that this excerpt should likely not be that shocking, given that United States’ Loving v. Virginia case wasn't ruled on until 1967.
It’s one thing to know that these laws existed as late as the 1960s and 1980s; however, it’s another to read the words, and to hear people like Natasha Trethewey (Former United States Poet Laureate) and Trevor Noah talk about the very real impact that these racist laws had on their own births and lives. As a result of this legislation, Noah, the son of a black woman and a white, Swedish father, was, in the words of the title, “born a crime.”
Told in a series of vignettes, Born a Crime offers trenchant observations on apartheid, perceptions of masculinity and femininity in South Africa, and divisions--perceived and real--between various races, languages, etc. It’s a compelling, smart cultural analysis of a system that might feel historically and currently familiar to Americans in some ways. Take this passage for example:
“The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate, is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all.”
A pervasive theme that runs throughout the memoir is Noah's uncertainty about where he belongs in his school, his neighborhood, and his family. He’s “colored,” which means, as he says, that he must determine where he belongs and who will accept him. His loneliness is profound at times. As he states in one passage, “I was like a Peeping Tom, but for friendship.”
But despite the often weighty subject matter, Born a Crime also made me laugh out loud on several occasions. Like here, when Noah considers the place of Christianity in South Africa:
"But the more we went to church and the longer I sat in the pews the more I learned about how Christianity works: If you’re Native American and you pray to the wolves, you’re a savage. If you’re African and you pray to your ancestors, you’re a primitive. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water into wine, well, that’s just common sense.”
This book is about the sweetness and the sour.
In the end, it's about the crippling social, political, and economic consequences of apartheid, and how difficult it was for Noah to fit into the strict racial and social classifications of apartheid and post-apartheid; but it’s also an inspirational story about strong womanhood and making strong men, and how Trevor is able to avoid the so-called South African “black tax” without abandoning those he loves.
A wise, heart-stirring, and hilarious memoir, Born a Crime should be added to your to-read list asap.
About the Author
When my toddler and infant sleep--or are otherwise engaged--I write, read, and eat lots of chocolate.