By LEAH COOPER
There are many ways to describe Trevor Noah’s memoir, “Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood.” A young man’s recollections of his childhood. A tribute to the mother of that young man. A lesson in the history of apartheid and its lingering effects after it ended when Noah was five years old. The New York Times Book Review 100 Notable Books of 2017. USA Today “A soul-nourishing pleasure…an enormous gift.” What it is not is a story about how Noah rose through the comedic ranks to become the host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” though he does mention getting started in the local comedy scene towards the end of the book.
Each chapter begins with a fact about apartheid and/or the effect it continues to have in South African society. Then the font changes and he recounts a personal memory of his childhood through young manhood. The book opens with the South African Immorality Act of 1927, prohibiting any European male from having illicit carnal intercourse with a native female, or vice versa, with punishment of up to five years imprisonment for the male and four years for the female. Noah’s mother was a Xhosa and his father a white Swiss businessman, so his birth was literally a crime. He had to remain hidden for the first years of his life. His mother was both very stubborn and deeply religious. Growing up he said the Bible was his action movie.
Noah’s mom was not one to be satisfied with the status quo. In a time when jobs for black women were limited to factory worker or maid, she took a secretarial course. “At the time, a black woman learning how to type was like a blind person learning how to drive. It’s an admirable effort, but you’re unlikely to ever be called upon to execute the task.” She was a rebel, but her timing was good. In an effort to quell international protests against apartheid, the South African government began making minor reforms, including token hiring of black workers in low-level white-collar jobs – like typing.
True to the format of a memoir of a young man’s life, there are three chapters on “A Young Man’s Long, Awkward, Occasionally Tragic, and Frequently Humiliating Education in Affairs of the Heart.” These revolve around Valentine’s Day, The Crush, and The Dance. They provide humor, but also evoke sadness.
Noah’s mother believed in tough love. She was determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse. Their relationship is very close and evolved through the course of the book. Two quotes of hers particularly resonated with me. The first is, “Learn from your past and be better because of your past but don’t cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold on to it. Don’t be bitter.”
The second quote I particularly like is, “Trevor, remember a man is not determined by how much he earns. You can still be the man of the house and earn less than your woman. Being a man is not what you have, it’s who you are. Being more of a man doesn’t mean your woman has to be less than you.”
Noah’s mom worked to expose him to worlds that she never saw, sacrificing so that he could go to good schools; buying him books she never got to read. Noah says he immersed himself in those worlds and came back looking at the world in a different way. He came to realize the futility of violence and to realize that relationships are not sustained by violence but by love. I encourage you to check out this book from Jefferson Carnegie Library and learn how Trevor Noah came to this realization.
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