Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah

When a book begins with a nine-year-old getting pushed out of a moving bus by his mother and ends up twenty years later with him hosting The Daily Show, you want to see what mysteries unfold in the middle. 

Trevor Noah’s mother, who he calls a “force of nature,” is the one who shoved him out of the speeding minibus, jumping out with him—to protect both of them from a driver who showed serious intent to harm them both. And so begins the book about a young man who took after the mother he adored, refusing the rules intended to keep her, and him, in their proper places—whatever that was in South Africa’s system of apartheid that separated people by race to a degree that few understood. Chinese were colored, but Japanese were not, and Trevor, who had a white father and a Black mother, wasn’t considered colored, but mixed, an entirely different category, with different rules. Their union was illegal, so he literally was born a crime.

Obviously a bright child, Trevor learned to master the many languages and accents of his complex and diverse neighborhoods, including English, Zulu, German, Afrikaans, and Sotho, which gave him an advantage when getting mugged, cheated, criticized, conned, or when just wanting to communicate with somebody different. 

Language, he writes, is part of a shared identity and “even more than color, defines who you are to people.” Language can unify and divide us, he says. This makes the story of his high school matric dance (prom) even more ironic. He wooed a girl for a month, considering her the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. When she agreed to go to prom with him, he spent a fortune getting the right outfit and planning the perfect night. He was late picking her up, then got lost, and they were two hours late to the dance. Once there, she refused to get out of the car, and he had no idea why. It turned out she was terrified of the whole chaotic situation, something she could not communicate because she did not speak English and her language, Pedi, was one of the few he couldn’t speak, a fact that somehow eluded him in his ill-fated courtship.

Much of the book is about how he tried to find his place as a light-skinned Black man, finally turning to comedy to try to make some sense of it. He was such a misfit, in fact, that at one point neighbors used him as a guidepost when giving directions: “The house on Makhalima Street. At the corner you’ll see a light-skinned boy. Take a right there.”

Noah’s mother, Patricia, had no interest in remaining a subjugated woman and living her life defined by White culture and Black men. She chose to have a child with a man of German-Swiss descent, with no plans of ever marrying him; she trained as a typist at a time when women were supposed to stay at home; and she moved into neighborhoods that were alternately dangerous or above her “station,” all to avoid staying in a small village or a small life.

Patricia was Trevor’s guiding light, foil to his escapades, greatest love and greatest challenge. His biological father remained in his life, even though that was not part of the original agreement and offered a touch of support from a distance. His stepfather Abel provided a model of the kind of man he did not want to be.

For her part, Patricia saw Jesus as her guide, and she and Trevor spent most of each Sunday going to three different churches—White church, Black church, and colored church, providing a framework for her faith, but demonstrating the divisive society in which they lived.

Trevor countered constant bullying with humor, which became his defense and led to a high- paying career. As a teenager, he was eating caterpillars to keep from starving, which he describes in appalling detail, while living in a garage or sleeping in cars every night and wearing clothes too big for him so they didn’t have to replaced so often. Now, at the age of 36 he is making $8 million a year.

The book is essentially an interwoven series of monologues that are harrowing, insightful, terrifying, sad, and, because of the telling, often funny. But there is nothing funny about the system of apartheid under which Trevor was born and the racism and classism in which he lived. Perhaps there will be a sequel to this, explaining how he ended up where he now is. Better yet, maybe his remarkable mother will write a book.

Joe Kucera and Pat Prijatel

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