February 21, 2020
Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
Genre/Categories: Nonfiction, Memoir, South Africa
*This post contains Amazon affiliate links.
Compelling, humorous, and inspiring…
Trevor Noah’s life in Apartheid South Africa began with a crime. He was born to a white father and a black Xhosa mother. This had to be kept a secret because the relationship was punishable by five years in prison. In a racially divided country, Trevor spent most of his early childhood living behind closed doors because his light color would certainly give away the circumstances of his birth and place his parents (who were living separately) in danger. If the government discovered the circumstances of his birth, they could even take him away from his mother. At the end of Apartheid and later in his childhood, Trevor Noah faced the challenge of deciding with which group he would identify: white, black, or colored (mixed). He felt like an outsider for most of his childhood and young adult years. Trevor enjoyed a close relationship with his risk-taking, rebellious, and spiritual mother. He was intuitive and street smart but also incredibly mischievous. The essays that document his coming of age are humorous, insightful, honest, and at times disturbing.
Amazon Star Rating (February): 4.8 Stars
“Language, even more than color, defines who you are to people.”
Lots to Love: I was starting to fear I’d be the last person to read this! A few things I loved about reading Born a Crime include Noah’s relationship with Mom, Noah’s insight into the importance of language, his descriptions of his mother’s church attendance, his mother’s determination to feed her son’s mind, soul, and body, and Trevor’s honesty and insightful reflections.
- Language, Trevor discovered, could unify people, defuse tense situations, and reduce fear. He used his ability to speak multiple languages to move easily between different groups of people.
- Trevor’s mom supplied books, church, and food. Even though times were tough she fed him something even if it was bone marrow from dog bones. She made sure his first language was English, gave him a nonethnic name, taught him to look forward and not to be angry about the past or life’s circumstances, and taught him to think by having real conversations with him. She always prepared him to live a life of freedom, and she didn’t consider material possessions very important in raising Noah. She refused to be bound by ridiculous ideas about what blacks could or could not do. Noah’s description of the three different types of churches they attended (all in one day!) was entertaining! Despite her difficult circumstances, she never lost her faith. One of her biggest mistakes, however, was marrying an abusive, violent, alcoholic man later in Noah’s childhood.
- Trevor’s mother’s greatest fear was that he would end up paying the black tax (giving back to the family) and that he would get trapped by the cycle of poverty and violence that was a family inheritance. She always promised him that he would be the one to break the cycle, to move forward and not back. She is fascinating in her ability to pursue two goals simultaneously: to live practically and make the best of her circumstances and to dream of a future for her son and teach him to be a man.
- I greatly appreciate Trevor’s explanations of Apartheid conditions and South African culture and his detailed descriptions of every day life. I learned a great deal. For example, I didn’t know that “colored” in Apartheid South Africa refers to a person of mixed race. His explanation of crime in poor communities was especially enlightening.
Themes: A few thought-provoking themes include unconditional love, a strong mother/son relationship, unwavering faith, survival, living and thriving in dangerous times, giving a child power to rise above his circumstances, crime in poor communities, and overcoming hardship.
Fun Idea: If you have middle school children, it might be fun to buddy read with them using the version for young readers. I haven’t looked at it, so check out the appropriateness for your child first.
The Full Picture: Despite everything I loved, I felt just a little underwhelmed with Born a Crime for three primary reasons: 1) this often happens with super hyped books, 2) the writing was a bit repetitive, and 3) I read a physical copy and ignored everyone’s admonition to listen to the audio. I had placed both the physical copy and audio version on hold at the library. The physical copy became available first and I jumped into it. Every review I’ve read recommends listening to audio! So, I still have the audio on hold and I’m eager to listen to some of it when it becomes available in a couple of months to experience that format and compare.
Recommend: I’m recommending Born a Crime for memoir enthusiasts, for fans of Trevor Noah (comedian), for those who are looking for an engaging, nonfiction, diverse read for Black History Month, and definitely for book clubs. Please consider the audio version!
Content Considerations: some profanity, an instance of animal cruelty, domestic violence
My Rating: 4 Stars
Meet the Author, Trevor Noah
TREVOR NOAH is the host of the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning The Daily Show. Noah rose improbably to stardom with The Racist, his one-man show at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He made his US television debut that year on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and has also appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, becoming the first South African stand-up comedian to appear on either late-night program.
Have you read Born a Crime or is it on your TBR?
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