“The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all.”
When Trevor Noah was born in South Africa in 1984, his existence was literally illegal, proof that his black, Xhosa mother and his white, Swiss-German father had violated the Immorality Act of 1927, one of the many laws defining the system known as apartheid. The crime carried a punishment of four to five years in prison, and mixed race children were often seized and placed in state-run orphanages. But Noah’s mother was determined and clever, and she managed to hold onto her son, refusing to flee her home country in order to raise him. But it made his childhood complicated, even after apartheid officially ended in 1994. Racial hierarchies and inequities persisted, and despite receiving a good education, his upbringing was anything but easy. In a series of essays, Born a Crime chronicles Noah’s experience growing up under apartheid and its aftermath.
Noah opens with an effective hook; when he was eight or nine years old, his mother threw him out of a moving vehicle. From there he relates his extremely religious upbringing, eventually circling back to the incident that led his mother to push him out of a moving minibus on their way home from church. By then the reader has a much better sense of the context, both political, and personal, that led to the event. In addition to an interesting life, Noah also has a good sense of pacing and narrative style that make his recollections particularly illuminating, as is clear from the first chapter.
Noah is observant, and able to clearly convey the absurdity of the system he was born under while also explaining its function for a North American audience that is probably not terribly familiar with the ins and outs of apartheid. Each section opens with some background history that helps contextualize the story from his life that he is about to tell. This means that the episodes themselves are not overly bogged down with explanation, and readers who are already familiar with South African history can skip much of the exposition. He also highlights important differences in the ways systemic racism has functioned in South Africa when compared to the United States. The most important point to note in terms of understanding his narrative is that the word ‘colored’ in South Africa refers to a mixed race person. Whereas the American “one drop” rule made anyone with any African blood black, mixed race people formed their own category in South Africa, separate from both black and white.
An aspect of the memoir that I found particularly interesting and revealing was Noah’s discussion of language and its power. South Africa has several official languages, including English and Afrikaans, as well as a variety of indigenous languages like Xhosa and Zulu. Noah grew up multi-lingual, criss-crossing language boundaries in the same way that he crossed racial ones. Describing the way language could make him into a chameleon, he writes “My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I answered 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.” For white or colored people, it was considered demeaning to learn African languages, but a black person speaking good English could be considered uppity in the wrong context. Rifts between different African groups could be crossed by speaking their language. Children in schools in the tribal homelands were taught only their native language, the better to divide them from other black tribes. This is an interesting contrast to the strategy employed against indigenous people in North America, who were stripped of their native languages in order to divide them from their culture and heritage, and assimilate them.
Trevor Noah is known as a comedian, successor to Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show. But while there is an understated humour present in Born a Crime, for the most part it is memoir, not comedy. The humour comes mostly in the form of sly comments, such as when he describes his mother’s determination to attend church three times every Sunday: “The more time we spent at church, she reckoned, the more blessings we accrued, like a Starbucks Rewards Card.” However, there are some episodes that are laugh-out-loud funny, such as the time when Noah’s fear of using the outhouse while visiting his mother’s family in the Soweto Township led to his family becoming convinced that there was a demon in the house. For the most part, however, these are leavening incidents in an otherwise serious account of his childhood. This memoir highlights the insightfulness that, while essential to any good comedian, can also be put to other purposes.
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