“Being chosen is the greatest gift you can give to another human being.”
Before I get into Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, let me qualify: I don’t read many memoirs, let alone celebrity memoirs. The only other two I can recall reading were Amy Poehler’s Yes Please and Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking.
While the aforementioned memoirs were enjoyable – both funny, poignant tales of self-affirmation – Born a Crime was a far more interesting read for me, primarily because it steps into a part of South African history that gets so little coverage in the USA. Set in the last years of apartheid, Born a Crime is Trevor Noah’s story of growing up poor and ‘colored’ (the South African term for ‘mixed-race’) in Johannesburg.
One of the many strengths about Born a Crime is its unique tone. Despite the weighty – and, for him, emotionally sharp – premise, Trevor Noah’s style is by turns comedic, sarcastic, somber, and charming. (Incidentally, readers should consider listening to the audiobook, which Noah narrates perfectly.) In one memorable essay, Noah recounts how, as a child, he shat on the floor of the family kitchen while his blind great-grandmother was in the room with him, oblivious to his presence. In another essay, he gives a scathing commentary on the idiocy of racism, focusing on the nonsensical practices of apartheid. One particularly ridiculous example was how Japanese and Chinese citizens were treated differently. For a time during apartheid, Japanese citizens were granted “honorary white” status and Chinese citizens were not. Police officers could confront an Asian person about sitting on a “white only” bench, having mistaken them for Chinese when they were actually Japanese. Born a Crime is rife with instances like this, which range from frustrating to downright horrifying.
For a person who never learned about apartheid in a classroom – a fact that reflects worryingly on the American school system – Noah’s essays are both fascinating and repulsive. Noah’s conception, as suggested by the title, was a criminal act during apartheid. Born to a black mother and white father, Noah attributes his existence to his mother. She is painted as a courageous, uncompromising woman, with a strong moral compass and complete disregard for the rules and norms that deviate from it. She chose to have a child with a white man and damn the consequences. Through this decision – and several others – Noah’s mom quickly becomes the hero of the story, tackling racism, poverty, and abuse to provide for her family.
While the first-hand account of apartheid and essays involving his mother were attention-grabbing, I think Born a Crime could have benefitted from some more editing. A few of Noah’s essays are longwinded and redundant. This is a minor complaint, though it did cause me to get lost in thought more than once.
That being said, Born a Crime is a fascinating look at the last years of apartheid and a heartfelt tribute to Noah’s mother. It is easily the best celebrity memoir I’ve read.