Born a Crime, the Memoir by comedian Trevor Noah (don't expect funny)
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, Trevor Noah
Published 2016, 285 pages
Wow. Fascinating, disturbing, eye-opening, funny, and informative. This story of Noah growing up in South Africa and coming of age at the end of apartheid is so good. That word feels inadequate. He put a face on poverty and racism that is new for me. It made me think in a new way. A good book can do that.
In some ways the book broke my heart. Describing his lonely childhood spent hiding in his apartment because it was dangerous for him to be seen on the street since his color didn't match that of his neighbors, describing the constant ostracism he faced because he was either too black or not black enough to fit in with any group, describing his severe (financial) poverty were all heartbreaking.
"I was kept inside. Other than those few instances of walking in the park, the flashes of memory I have from when I was young are almost all indoors, me with my mom in her tiny flat, me by myself at my gran's. I didn't have any friends. I didn't know any kids besides my cousins. I wasn't a lonely kid - I was good at being alone. I'd read books, play with a toy that I had, make up imaginary worlds. I lived inside my head. I still live inside my head. ... I have to remember to be with people."
But then, there's his mom. She sounds like an amazing woman. She decided she wanted a child and had met a man she wanted to be the father. Neither was interested in marriage (and it was illegal for them even to be together), but they agreed to have a child. Noah knew his father and had a quiet, reserved relationship with him. But his mom, now she was a force to be reckoned with! She raised him with fierce love and protectiveness, but also firmly, sternly, and with high expectations. Though he was a self-professed troublemaker and he went to great lengths to avoid a "beating" when he misbehaved, he knew all punishments were given with great love. (He even got arrested for "stealing" a car rather than have his mom know he'd taken his step-dad's car without permission.)
He explains that she was always looking for teaching moments, especially about how to treat a woman. Sounds like she's a very wise woman.
"The smallest thing could prompt her. I'd walk through the house on the way to my room and say, "Hey Mom" without glancing up. She'd say, "No, Trevor! You look at me. You acknowledge me. Show me that I exist to you, because the way you treat me is the way you will treat your woman. Women like to be noticed. Come and acknowledge me and let me know that you see me. Don't just see me when you need something."
I was intrigued by his theory that language can make friends of anyone. If you can speak their language, they will more readily trust and believe you - so he learned languages.....and there are many tribal languages.
"I became a chameleon. My color didn't change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn't look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you."
His thoughts about poverty and crime and having money were eye-opening and thought provoking. Because he grew up with nothing, when, as a teen, he finally found a way to get some disposable income (not exactly legally), he didn't know how to manage his funds or actions appropriately. He tells of a white friend, Andrew, who helped him get some music equipment to help with his 'business' - and how important it is to empower people. Noah says,
"My family had been denied the things his family had taken for granted. I had a natural talent for selling to people, but without knowledge and resources, where was that going to get me? People always lecture the poor: "Take responsibility for yourself! Make something of yourself!" But with what raw materials are the poor to make something of themselves? People love to say, "Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime." What they don't say is, "And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod." That's the part of the analogy that's missing."
Noah's mom eventually met and married a man, Abel, that became abusive to both Noah and his mom. His thoughts about that time of his life are illuminating - how a strong, independent minded woman could stay with someone who hit her:
"The Abel who was likable and charming never went away. He had a drinking problem, but he was a nice guy. We had a family. Growing up in a home of abuse, you struggle with the notion that you can love a person you hate, or hate a person you love. It's a strange feeling. You want to live in a world where someone is good or bad, where you either hate them or love them, but that's not how people are."
He starts each chapter with a page or two about the realities of apartheid. So, in addition to the personal stories he shares, I learned a lot about apartheid and how government can institute laws and encourage traditions that divide rather than unite. Things like demanding each tribe live in separate neighborhoods and keep their own language, making it difficult to communicate across boundaries; or, divide neighborhoods by shades of color so that anyone different cannot possibly fit in; or, only providing the minimum in education - separately, of course - but no science or history, only enough math to count their crops. Such a harsh and soul crushing way of life.
I found this book revelatory in many ways. It made me think about racial inequities, of course. But also financial and educational inequities. I thought about love, choosing love in spite of the harsh life you see ahead of you; I thought of the way government can induce and inflame discontent and then use that against the population to keep them powerless.
Also, just an alert, there are some f-bombs scattered throughout, but not excessively or gratuitously. I highly recommend this book - I think it would be an excellent read for a book club too. If you've read it, what do you think? Did you find it entertaining and informative or boring and droning? Let's talk about it in the comments.