21 February 2018

Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah

Posted by Callan Bentley

Trevor Noah is a South African stand-up comedian who rocketed into American awareness when he was selected as the successor to Jon Stewart as the host of Comedy Central’s news program The Daily Show. This book is Noah’s autobiography of growing up in South Africa, at first under apartheid, and then in the new post-apartheid era. It is the best account I’ve read of the institutional and cultural structure of that country’s unique form of institutionalized racism. It’s also a powerful insight into the attendant sexism, something that will unfortunately be recognizable to modern readers in the United States. Noah was raised by his mother, at first independently of his distant father, and then in the same house as an abusive stepfather. Noah’s father is white, and his mother is black, which makes him “colored” in the South African racial classification scheme. In many of the book’s anecdotes, the question of what to do with the multilingual colored boy provides the dramatic impetus. That apartheid existed in my lifetime strikes me as a horrific curiosity; we are not far removed from this police state. Its racial legacy is on plain display to anyone visiting modern South Africa, which is still starkly divided by race and economic comfort. The shantytowns you see lining the highway as you drive from the airport to Cape Town stand in stark contrast to the armored compounds in which the rich of Johannesburg luxuriate. Noah is a gifted story teller, and though there’s plenty of humor to be found in these pages, it’s not the focus. He presents a clear, thoughtful articulation of the bizarre society of apartheid South Africa. Some of his insights are brilliant distillations of the psychology of extraordinary situations: how groups treat outsiders, the motivations of the impoverished, and regular old teenage romantic angst. I think it’s particularly useful in the context of the Trumpocene epoch in America, when I fear there’s a similar mistrust between societal groups developing, similar ferocity of racial animus, a similar dismissal of women’s reports of abuse, and a similar imbalance between who has all the guns. I was struck while reading it of the parallels to the country and time I live in. It wasn’t an alternate universe I was reading about, it was a cautionary tale of direct relevance. Recommended.