Trevor Noah’s memoir BORN A CRIME (subtitled Stories from a South African Childhood) is actually three books in one: an insider’s account of what it was like for a mixed-race person to grow up in South Africa during apartheid, a memoir of his impoverished childhood (PS, as I write this, he is still young: only 33), and a biography of his mother, who is a force of nature.
Noah begins each chapter with an overview of some aspect of South Africa. For instance, he points out in Chapter 1 that black South Africans outnumbered white South Africans nearly five to one, “yet we were divided into different tribes with different languages: Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, Sotho, Venda, Ndebele, Tsonga, Pedi, and more.” The whites capitalized on tribal animosity and divided and conquered. In this book, Noah sheds light on how he used his capacity to learn different languages as a way to navigate challenging social situations. If you could speak someone’s language, he would see you as “one of us.” He learned this—among many other lessons—from his headstrong mother.
Noah’s mother, a black woman who chose to ask a white man to help her have a child even though he told her he didn’t want one and wouldn’t marry her, left her family to work in the city. Because of apartheid, she had to hide and sleep in public restrooms until she learned the ropes from other black women who had figured out how to live there. They were prostitutes. She was not. She bought maid’s overalls to pretend to be a cleaner so that she would not be noticed. She went out, but it was difficult to know whom to trust. As Noah observes, “As far as her white neighbors knew, my mom could have been a spy posing as a prostitute posing as a maid, sent into Hillbrow to inform on whites who were breaking the law. That’s how a police state works—everyone thinks everyone else is the police.” That police state also made it impossible for Noah to walk in the park with his father; as a “colored” person, he could not be seen as the son of a white man.
I won’t give away all of the stunning stories that Noah shares about his experiences. He is unflinchingly honest and a remarkably resilient young man. While he might be known now for being the current host of The Daily Show, he also deserves to be applauded for producing this insightful, revealing book.