Born a Crime by Trevor Noah is one of the several books I am reading before deciding on a final curriculum for my English 9 co-op class this year. It is one of three that were recommended to me by a couple of rising juniors (my daughter and her friend) when I asked their favorite, school-assigned books of high school, so far. I don’t think this is going into the mix, except on the list of the books they can choose from for their final assignment of the year. I have my reasons, mostly regarding the length of the book and what it can (or can’t) teach about actual literature. It has more to offer a history class, really.
I first encountered Trevor Noah hosting the Pandemic Grammys. I don’t usually watch the Grammys, but I was curious about how the world was handling the Covid Pandemic and also had a fairly cleared schedule during Quarantine. (Didn’t we all?) The host began his thing and I was like, “Who is this guy? I have absolutely no idea. No idea at all.” I assumed he was a musician. My daughter informed me he is a comedian. A few days later I was looking at books on the shelf and did a double-take. Trevor Noah? The host of the Grammys? He wrote that book that I kept hearing about? What did all this mean? Surely it couldn’t be the same Trevor Noah. None of it fit (but then again I had finally put the pieces together and realized the guy from Cupcake Wars had his own magic show. It’s just a diversified time for famous people. Singer/actors writing middle grades series, business moguls entering the space race…). So here was the comedian who had hosted the Grammys who also had this very popular memoir about Apartheid. Several months later I get the recommend and dive in.
Born a Crime is probably not exactly what you expect. For one, maybe because Noah is a comedian, the humor gets overplayed in the reviews. It’s kinda’ funny, like how many other non-humor books are funny. Most great books will give you a laugh now and again, like a good conversationalist, but it is not a comedy at heart. Not at all. It’s not like any of those modern famous people memoirs, either. It is lighter, which may be why its often recommended for teens, but it is just as appropriate for adults. In fact, I know way more about South African Apartheid, have a much deeper understanding, so for that reason I would recommend it for a wider spectrum. And I know I just called it “lighter” because there is an airiness, an openness, a freshness, and an accessibility to it. But it is also dead serious in the story that he has to tell. It never presses on you (though it may squeeze out a tear or two and definitely creates some Aha! moments), but Born a Crime is the story of an impoverished child, an abused young man, and a person who was “born a crime” (mixed race) and therefore alone and ostracized and struggling at every turn, even in a country where over half the population was already considered untouchable, barely human.
I agree with many of the comments, as well, that this story is definitely a memoir but simultaneously the story of Noah’s mother, a tribute to her. It’s tender and thoughtful. It’s interesting and easy to read and understand. It also includes some interesting structure choices. It includes one of those shocking giveaways near the beginning, but while those can often be obnoxious, this one still manages to surprise you along the way. Also, the story is not told chronologically, which was an interesting choice. It jumps all over the place while the narration still has this sense of moving forward toward something. This does require a lot of “I hadn’t yet moved here,” or “Abel was not around yet,” but I think it was necessary. It worked. But it did get confusing, too. Even now, I couldn’t quite put Noah’s life on a timeline for you, and the history of post-Apartheid (not to mention geography) gets a little lost in this back-and-forth.
Noah has a lot to say, and if you look at the quotes below you can tell that. What you can’t see in the quotes is that the bulk of this book is still stories. A story, and lots of vignettes. Noah uses what might be called introductions to each chapter to sort of fill us in on history and his opinion about it, though I never fully understood these asides because the whole book is a mash-up of story, history, and musing on lessons learned. I thought the book-ending of the overarching story was especially effective. The book is touching. Very touching.
I really enjoyed this book. It’s a great read. It’s engaging and certainly educational while not feeling at all that way. I can see why this book has taken off and I would expect it to stick around as a classic akin to The Diary of a Young Girl, just with a lot more cussing.
“Race-mixing proves that races can mix—and in a lot of cases, want to mix. Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race-mixing becomes a crime worse than treason” (p21).
“A shared language says, ‘We’re the same,’ A language barrier says ‘We’re different’” (p49).
“So many black families spend all of their time trying to fix the problems of the past. That is the curse of being black and poor, and it is a curse that follows you from generation to generation. My mother calls it ‘the black tax.’ Because the generations who came before you have been pillaged, rather than being free to use your skills and education to move forward, you lost evetything just trying to bring everyone behind you back up to zero” (p66).
“We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited” (p73).
“Racism is not logical” (p75).
“You do not own the thing that you love” (p100).
“Being chosen is the greatest gift you can give to another human being” (p110).
“People are willing to accept you if they see you as an outsider trying to assimilate into their world. But when they see you as a fellow tribe member attempting to disavow the tribe, that is something they will never forgive” (p118).
“Their children are taught the history of the Empire with a kind of disclaimer hanging over the whole thing. ‘Well, that was shameful, now wasn’t it?’ …. In America, the history of racism is taught like this: ‘There was slavery and then there was Jim Crow and then there was Martin Luther King Jr. and now it’s done.’ …. It was as if the teachers, many of whom were white, had been given a mandate. ‘Whatever you do, don’t make the kids angry’” (p187).
“The richer you are, the more choices you have. That is the freedom of money” (p188).
“But with what raw materials are the poor to make something of themselves? / People love to say, ‘Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.’ What they don’t say is, ‘And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.’ …you need someone from the privileged world to come to you and say, ‘Okay, here’s what you need, and here’s how it works’” (p190).
“Holocaust victims count because Hitler counted them” (p195).
“He has been given an awareness of the world that is out there, but he has not been given the means to reach it” (p208).
“But the hood taught me that everyone has different notions of right and wrong, different definitions of what constitutes a crime, and what level of crime they’re willing to participate in” (p213).
“If I’d put all that energy into studying I’d have earned an MBA” (p217).
“If we could see one another’s pain and empathize with one another, it would never be worth it to us to commit the crimes in the first place” (p222).
“Nelson Mandela once said, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart’” (p236).
“The world has been taught to be scared of him, but the reality is that he is scared of the world because he has none of the tools necessary to cope with it” (p237).
“’Everything I’ve ever done I’ve done from a place of love. If I don’t punish you, the world will punish you even worse. The world doesn’t love you’” (p243).
“I saw that not all families are violent. I saw the futility of violence, the cycle that just repeats itself, the damage that’s inflicted on people that they in turn inflict on others …. / Love is a creative act. When you love someone you create a new world for them” (p262).
“’Pray for Abel,’ she’d say. ‘Because be doesn’t hate us. He hates himself’” (p266).
“Growing up in a home of abuse, you struggle with the notion that you can love a person you hate, or hate a person you love. It’s a strange feeling, You want to live in a world where someone is good or bad, where you either hate them or love them, but that’s not how people are” (p267).
“I don’t know that a child knows that kind of selfless love. A mother, yes. A mother will clutch her children and jump from a moving car to keep them from harm. She will do it without thinking. But I don’t think a child knows how to do that, not instinctively. It’s something the child has to learn” (p279).