LitStack Review: Born a Crime – Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

Born A Crime – Stories from a South African Childhood
Trevor Noah
Random House
Release Date:  November 15, 2016
ISBN 978-0-3995-8817-4

Reading biographies from entertainers tends to be a mixed bag. Sometimes you truly get a view of someone’s winding road to fame; other times, you get the equivalent of your grandparents’ slide show of their various trips to Yosemite. Rarely are they great literature. But what they always are, is a glimpse into a person who is speaking in a voice outside of what you see on a screen or on stage or from the annals of history. And sometimes, that voice resonates.

Trevor Noah is a young man (he’s only 32) who had the unenviable task of taking over the helm of The Daily Show following the departure of its venerated creator, producer, writer and host, Jon Stewart. The show, lauded for its political satire, seemed an odd fit with this somewhat unknown comedian who wasn’t even American. Thankfully, although The Daily Show with Trevor Noah has yet to find the same pithy footing as its predecessor, it is still entertaining, still occasionally zings and snaps, and continues to have a deeper stable of guests than is found on other late night talk shows.

Trevor (and I think he would want me to call him Trevor) does not hide the fact that he is from South Africa; it often figures into his monologs and commentary. His accent is smooth, but recognizable. He has often commented on his humble beginnings.  Yet his impish smile, his impeccable English, his wealth of knowledge and his comfort in front of a camera tamps down on what that truly means.

It wasn’t until I read Born a Crime – Stories from a South African Childhood that I realized just how far this young man had to come before landing his gig on American TV. Sure, he has related how his birth was literally an illegal act:  apartheid was still the law of the land when he was born to a black mother and a white father in 1984, with their “illicit carnal intercourse” punishable under the Immorality Act of 1927. Having a mixed race child could have landed them both in jail, with Trevor becoming a ward of the state. But there is so much more to it than that.

Growing up in Soweto, a slum that became a city after apartheid ended. His not fitting in with the white kids, the black kids or the “colored” (mixed) kids. His feisty mother, who ruled over him with an iron will and an abiding relationship with Jesus. His absent father, and later, his abusive stepfather. The lack of opportunity for young black men… no, for blacks, in South Africa, during apartheid when they were enslaved, and perhaps more perniciously after apartheid fell.

But Trevor does not spin a tale of woe. This was his life – he knew nothing else. In the book, he does not bemoan his state, nor does he glorify it; he simply relates what it was like for him growing up.

But in the telling, we learn as well as being entertained. Trevor does more than merely relate what happened to him – he tells stories. Some of them are harrowing, some are full of pathos, but most of them have an element of fun to them, even as they relate something far bigger.  For example, one of my favorite stories has to do with one of the young men in his “crew” – a dancer named Hitler.

Trevor explains that Hitler is not an uncommon name in South Africa. During apartheid, black people generally had two names – a traditional African one, and a European one (that their white masters could pronounce). These European names were fairly random, and tended to come from figures in the Bible, or celebrities, or people from history. And, because blacks were not educated, they had no sense of the values of Western history; all they knew was that Hitler conjured up a sense of power. Since white people had to stoop to ask black people to help fight him, he must be tough. “So if you want your dog to be tough, you name your dog Hitler. If you want your kid to be tough, you name your kid Hitler.”

The problem comes when Trevor and his crew are asked to perform at a cultural day at a Jewish school. Since Hitler is their best dancer, they bring him out with a flourish, accompanied by the mantra, “Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler!” Of course, the crowd is aghast, but Trevor has no idea why; he thinks it’s because their hip-hop moves are too suggestive for the uptight assembly. When asked pointedly to leave, they don’t merely leave – they dance out, with “Go Hitler!” echoing down the halls.

As a Midwestern Protestant American bleeding hearts liberal, that story should be mortifying to me. But seen through the lens of Trevor Noah’s black South African post-apartheid perspective, it reads in an entirely different way; and told with his flirtatious and somewhat gleeful sense of humor (the man is a professional comedian for a reason!), it’s downright amusing. And enlightening. And illuminating.

And frankly, it’s amazing to read about what Trevor Noah went through as a child, and reconcile those humble beginnings with the polished, intelligent, well spoken, genuinely sweet young man sitting behind The Daily Show desk. Yet there he is.

Born a Crime only takes us through the first 16 or 18 years of Trevor’s life, before he got into show business, before he became a successful comedian, started dating a supermodel, or became the host of The Daily Show. But honestly, I can’t imagine that any of that mundane Hollywood stuff would be nearly as compelling as the stories he gives us in Born a Crime. Because even though the voice we hear in Born a Crime is not one of glitz and glamour – quite the opposite – it’s truly a voice that resonates.

~ Sharon Browning

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