Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

trevor-noah-born-a-crime

Trevor Noah is either one of the most talented human beings in eternity, or he found himself an epic ghostwriter. Probably both, because Born a Crime sets out to produce a narrative that’s both gripping and funny while also imparting a brief cultural history of South Africa. Which should be easy, because what could be more amusing than injustice and bloodshed, right? Not only does Noah not fail miserably, the end result is nearly flawless. Even the one hiccup is arguably a matter of style in this rarest of birds: the nonfiction page-turner.

I could go on about how achingly relatable I found Noah’s descriptions of grappling with everything from religion to abuse, how his treatment of political issues struck the ideal balance, neither too specific to his own circumstances nor too didactic, how the revelrous perfectly complimented the revelatory. But I’ll let him speak for himself instead:  

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.

Nearly one million people lived in Soweto. Ninety-nine point nine percent of them were black—and then there was me. I was famous in my neighborhood just because of the color of my skin. I was so unique people would give directions using me as a landmark. “The house on Makhalima Street. At the corner you’ll see a light-skinned boy. Take a right there.”

My grandmother treated me like I was white. My grandfather did, too, only he was even more extreme. He called me “Mastah.” In the car, he insisted on driving me as if he were my chauffeur. “Mastah must always sit in the backseat.” I never challenged him on it. What was I going to say? “I believe your perception of race is flawed, Grandfather.” No. I was five. I sat in the back.

In Highlands North the white never took flight. It was a largely Jewish neighborhood, and Jewish people don’t flee. They’re done fleeing. They’ve already fled. They get to a place, build their shul, and hold it down.

One thing I appreciate about South Africa is that we have not yet refined the system to the point where we feel the need to lie. “Do you know why I pulled you over?” “Because you’re a policeman and I’m a black person?” “That’s correct. License and registration, please.”

Carjackings were common in South Africa at the time, too. So common you weren’t even surprised when they happened. You’d have a friend coming over for a dinner party and you’d get a call. “Sorry. Got carjacked. Gonna be late.” “Ah, that sucks. Hey, guys! Dave got carjacked.” “Sorry, Dave!” And the party would continue. And that’s if the person survived the carjacking. Often they didn’t.

As for that flaw … Each chapter stands alone, beautifully crafted and tight. Most of them also demonstrate awareness of placement within the book as a whole, not repeating information, but that system breaks down a few times, most noticeably when Noah’s “middlemen” friends Tom and Alex are introduced to the reader in a chapter following one in which they featured prominently. He also twice delivers the line, “Cool guys get girls, and funny guys get to hang out with the cool guys with their girls.” But we’re talking minor annoyance here, and only to someone who reads the book in a sitting or two (now whose fault are the high odds of that happening, Trevor Noah?).

Aside from that small detail, the book sings, and sings, and sings. Because in Born a Crime, Noah shows he has what many celebrity writers lack: the ability to determine which personal stories shine light into everyone’s darkness, and a commitment to telling them in a way that grabs the reader and never lets go.

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