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Sentenced at birth

February 12, 2017
Trevor Noah is the current host of The Daily Show. —AP
Trevor Noah is the current host of The Daily Show. —AP

Introducing his book on The Daily Show, Trevor Noah explained that after Jon Stewart chose him as his successor, people wanted to know who the previously obscure comedian was and where had he come from. Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood is the result of those queries, detailing Noah’s journey from growing up during the last years of the South African apartheid and living through its aftermath, to becoming host of the popular The Daily Show.

The title gives the reader insight into a society where ‘crime’ is arbitrary and depends on how much melanin one’s skin has; born to a black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss/German father, Noah’s birth was itself a crime during the apartheid era. Noah calls this “perfect racism” because it not only established whites as the superior race, it applied the ‘divide and rule’ philosophy to drive the black South African majority against each other based on ethnic differences. Even with these politicised differences in place, however, the system couldn’t overcome a fundamental flaw in the rules of apartheid: the sexual nature of human beings. Noah explains how his birth, and the fact that he was a result of interracial coupling, blatantly defied the racist laws put down during the apartheid: “In any society built on institutionalised racism, race-mixing doesn’t merely challenge the system as unjust, it reveals the system as unsustainable and incoherent. Race-mixing proves that races can mix — and in a lot of cases, want to mix. Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race-mixing becomes a crime worse than treason.”

Neither white nor black in the midst of apartheid

Noah grew up in a single-parent home. Apartheid prevented him from even addressing his father in public, so he called his father by his first name, Robert. As Noah grew up, the occasional meetings with his father became less frequent, partly due to his mother’s jealous husband and partly because of the limitations apartheid set upon their secret, illegal relationship. His mother, however, was a different kind of person altogether. With her disregarding apartheid laws every chance she got, Noah grew up witnessing the world rarely accessible to black South Africa. He saw his mother going for “option(s) that [were] not among the ones presented to her,” never stopping to think about the consequences. Her staunch faith as a Christian taught her to only look towards God for judgement. If something was good enough for Jesus, it was good enough for Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. She had a mixed child by choice at a time when mixed (or “coloured”) children to black mothers were obvious proof of a crime committed; she held a job as a secretary when most black women worked either as maids or in factories; she even lived in different white neighbourhoods at a time where segregation laws were so strict that anyone caught breaking them would be subjected to the harshest of punishments. Thus Noah grew up thinking outside the box. With an open, creative mind encouraged by his mother, he learned to find loopholes to get around laws and rules that did not make sense. “We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited ... My mother showed me what was possible.” At the time she gave birth to Noah, Patricia had no way of knowing if/when apartheid would end, “yet she was preparing [him] to live a life of freedom long before [they] knew freedom would exist.” If this memoir is about Trevor Noah, it is also a candid and emotional biography of Patricia Noah — the former’s story is just not complete without the latter’s resilience, strength of character, and unflinching belief in Jesus.

The end of apartheid brought with it different kinds of problems for black South Africa. As unemployment rose, so did the ways in which people started finding different (illegal) ways of earning money. Drug trade, piracy, and theft boomed as ‘legitimate’ businesses in black settlements. Noah started out pirating music and making mixed tapes, eventually becoming a DJ and hosting some of the most widely attended dance parties in the city. He also “hustled” stolen artefacts, explaining: “I never once thought of it as a crime. I honestly didn’t think it was bad. It’s just stuff people found. White people have insurance.” Rationalising the crime made it seem more like survival of the fittest and not actually an action that would have a negative impact on another person. It just made most sense in a situation where you and your family could either starve or survive by stealing from a wealthier — and arguably more privileged — party and Noah grew up acting upon his instincts.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood By Trevor Noah Spiegel & Grau, US ISBN: 978-0399588174 304pp.
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood By Trevor Noah Spiegel & Grau, US ISBN: 978-0399588174 304pp.

Born a Crime is structured so that each chapter is preceded by a brief historical or cultural overview of the upcoming chapter’s main theme. Each theme revolves around South African apartheid, directly or indirectly, and each chapter contains stories from Noah’s life in South Africa. There is no other introduction, no prologue, or epilogue, but these constant reminders of the apartheid before a narration of personal anecdotes never let the reader forget the backdrop of the (often laugh-out-loud funny, other times emotional) stories. Noah’s anecdotes are grouped together to highlight specific social and economic characteristics of apartheid, and the reader realises with each story how intimately the South African apartheid and its aftermath touched Noah’s life. His narration is unapologetically humorous as he gives readers insightful glimpses into South African life and culture, all the while discussing social issues such as race, class, and gender without explicitly making his narration political. Readers may find themselves appreciating Noah’s frank reflections, both personal and social, and find themselves being educated and entertained within the same narrative.

On the back of the book’s jacket is a brief sentence: “Trevor Noah is a comedian from South Africa.” I couldn’t help but wonder at the appropriateness of the eight-word sentence, which, after I finished reading the memoir, is all the introduction the author of this book needs. His entire identity lies within this sentence: a name that holds no significant cultural meaning and so goes against South African customs; his South African heritage which ties him, as a man of mixed race, in his own unique way to the loaded past and present of his country; and his calling as a comedian, the profession which not only brought him much fame, but also gave him the platform to bring his candid social critiques to light. The one-sentence introduction, in my opinion, binds the narrative together beautifully, and is the perfect end to the memoir, while also being just as perfect as an introduction to the new host of one of the most popular late night shows on American television.

The reviewer is a finance support specialist at Yale University

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 12th, 2017