“Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah

I read “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah a few months ago but somehow the time slipped away and I did not review it right away. So here it comes!

Initially I picked the book because it seemed to be read by some of the folks that I follow on Goodreads and I really don’t regret choosing it. Firstly, it is brilliantly written – it is easy to read, it is candid and brutally honest through the dark humor yet it is also very funny. I think it is an explosive combination that draws to you in.

Secondly, the book is very insightful content-wise. “Born a Crime” is a collection of autobiographical stories about Trevor Noah’s childhood in the South Africa growing up as a mixed child during apartheid and the time that followed shortly after. This is what the title of the book itself also means – it was a crime for white and black folks to have children together during apartheid hence the author was born a a a crime as his father was white Swiss and his mother originated from the South Africa locals.

Before I picked up the book, I did know some general facts about the South Africa and apartheid but not in details. In that sense, the book was really eye opening. I had no idea that for instance, the system, for instance, classified the Japanese people as white because the country had business with Japan and Chinese people as black (which makes no sense, especially in terms of practical law enforcement). Or that, for instance, author’s mother who is black was not allowed to take him to a park so she has to ask her mixed friend and then follow them behind as though she was a nanny. These details were really interesting to discover in a way that the author shared them through his personal and and honest experience. I think once we see systems put in place through the eyes of specific people and how these systems affect the people living in it, only then we can see their true value.

Perhaps my favourite part of the book was the unconventional childhood of the author. I had a feeling of déjà vu the whole time I was reading the book. I think that’s probably because I also did not grow up with a conventional childhood living in a nice big house and riding a school bus (which I did want all the time!). That by all means made me who I am right now just like with Trevor Noah – we lived alternative, different lives which hard to imagine for some – by the the time you are an adult, you have seen so much of it that hardly anything is to scare or surprise you. I think that was my deja vu – I also had a fair share of weird stories and for some would be hard time understand .

***

“The white man was quite stern with the native. “You need to pray to Jesus”, he said. “Jesus will save you.” To which the native replied, “Well, we do need to saved – saved from you, but that’s beside the point. So let’s give this Jesus thing a shot”.

***

At that time, I attended a private Catholic school called Maryvale College. I was the champion of the Maryvale sports day every single year, and my mother won the moms’ trophy every single year. Why? Because she was always chasing me to kick my ass, and I was always running not to get my ass kicked. Nobody ran like me and my mom.”

***

“There is something magical about Soweto. Yes, it was a prison designed by our oppressors, but it also have us a sense of self-determination and control. Soweto was ours. It had an aspirational quality that you don’t find elsewhere. In America the dream is to make it out of the ghetto. In Soweto, because there was no leaving the ghetto, the dream was to transform the ghetto.”

***

“I never understood why my grandmother had a driveway. She didn’t have a car. She didn’t know how to drive. Yet she had a driveway. All of our neighbors had driveways, some with fancy, cast-iron gates. None of them had cars, either. There was no future in which most of these families would ever have cars. There was maybe one car for every thousand people, yet almost everyone had a driveway. It was almost like building the driveway was a way of willing the car to happen. The story of Soweto is the story of the driveways. It is a hopeful place.”

***

That, and so many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that 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 on Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.”

***

“Being at H.A. Jack made realize I was black. Before that recess I’d never had to choose, but 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. I spent my life looking at other people. I saw myself as the people around me, and the people around me were black. 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. I wasn’t a part of their tribe. But the black kids braced me. “Come along”, they said. “You’re rolling with us”. With the black kids, I wasn’t constantly trying to be. With the black kids, I just was.”

***

“We always wore secondhand clothes, from Goodwill stores or that were giveaways from white people at church. All the other kids at school got brands, Nike and Adidas. I never got brands. One time I asked my mom for Adidas sneakers. She came home with some knockoff brands, Abidas.
“Mom, these are fake,” I said.
“I don’t see the difference.”
“Look at the logo. These are four stripes instead of three.”
“Lucky you,” she said. “You get one extra.”

***

“The butcher sold bones, too. We called them “soup bones,” but they were actually labeled “dog bones” in the store; people would cook them for their dogs as a treat. Whenever times were really tough we’d fall back on dog bones. My mom would boil them for soup. We’d suck the marrow out of them. Sucking marrow out of bones is a skill poor people learn early. I’ll never forget the first time I went to a fancy restaurant as a grown man and someone told me, “You have to try the bone marrow. It is such a delicacy. It is divine.”. They ordered it, and the waiter brought it out, and I was like, “Dog bones, motherfucker!” I was not impressed.”

***

I would definitely recommend reading “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah – not only it is factually insightful but it is also a good laugh.

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