Originally published on Blavity.com
Funny, thought-provoking and moving, it only took me one day to finish Trevor Noah’s book Born a Crime. As usual, the South African stand-up comedian and Daily Show host brings a bit of levity to serious racial issues, but he also makes you laugh with humorous tales from his boyhood. Centering on his relationship with his mother, Noah shows us what it’s like being a son of South Africa, with all of its joys and sorrows.
Here are three reasons you should put it on your summer reading list:
1) It’s an intimate look into apartheid (and post apartheid) South Africa
“In America you had the forced removal of the native onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of those things happening to the same group of people that was apartheid.”
From the start, Noah tries to help readers understand the historical, cultural and political dynamics leading up to apartheid as well as the challenges of living within its confines. In 1927 South Africa enacted a law to “prohibit illicit carnal intercourse between Europeans and natives,” and which made Noah’s conception and birth crimes. His mother lived underground and illegally in white Johannesburg and posed as a maid, often getting arrested. Her relationship with Noah’s father and his birth were equally as stealth. With a Swiss/German father and a Xhosa mother, Noah was often kept indoors as a child and rarely walked down the street with either of his parents. He writes, “where most children are proof of their parents’ love, I was the proof of their criminality. The only time I could be with my father was indoors…I couldn’t walk with my mother, either; a light-skinned child with a black woman would raise too many questions.”
2) It’s an insightful exploration of racial identity
According to South Africa’s standards, Noah looked colored, but he always identified as black, though his father was white. Being interracial in a color-coded society gave Noah a perceptive eye for the politics of identity and race. Those who stand between worlds will find Noah’s experience familiar: “When I was forced to choose, I chose black. The world saw me as colored, but I didn’t spend my life looking at myself…My cousins are black, my mom is black, my gran is black. I grew up black. Because I had a white father, because I’d been in white Sunday school, I got along with the white kids, but I didn’t belong with the white kids. I wasn’t a part of their tribe…”
Noah moved between white cities, black townships and colored suburbs, so he used language to bridge the gap. He writes, “language, even more than color, defines who you are to people. 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.“
3) His relationship with his mother is full of hilarity, tragedy, and love
This memoir in many ways reads like a love letter to his mother. In his early days they were inseparable and in his tweens and teens they banter over religion and his mother’s stubborn faith in Jesus. As a young man, he is frustrated by his mother’s complacency in an abusive relationship, but his love and respect shine through in every sentence. Their conversations are funny, their bond moving and their stories of survival and triumph are remarkable. Trevor writes, “I was blessed with another trait I inherited from my mother: her ability to forget the pain in life.” As his mother lays in the ICU from being shot, their relationship carries them over to the bright side.
“We sat there and she squeezed my hand and we cracked each other up the way we always did, mother and son, laughing together through the pain in an intensive-care recovery room on a bright and sunny and beautiful day.”