By now, Trevor Noah has become a household name in the US. As the host of The Daily Show, having taken over from Jon Stewart in 2016, Noah has come a long way from growing up in a poor neighborhood in his native South Africa during apartheid. What makes his life story even more remarkable is that his birth was a result of a criminal act – his mother was a black South African while his father was a white Swiss, and miscegenation was illegal during apartheid. Hence, the name of his biography – Born a Crime – Stories from a South African Childhood.
I got this book because a friend highly recommended it, but I have to admit I was a little apprehensive. As Noah is a well-known US celebrity, I thought his book would be tame and politically correct. Well, how wrong I was. From the start, he doesn’t pull any punches in talking about his life. He balances hard-hitting commentary with humour and bluntness as well as poignant recollections of painful memories. When he talks about how his devout Christian mother and him spent Sundays going to 3 different churches for the entire day, he says that “white church” was his favorite because of how comfortable it was and how brief the services were (just one hour). “Black church” was an ordeal, as services went on for 3 or 4 hours. “I eventually decided black people needed more time with Jesus because we suffered more,” he says, which struck me as both hilarious and sad. Then he complains about his mother’s old, beat-up car. Almost all bad experiences were a result of that old car, said Noah. Having to miss school, hitch-hiking, being late for work. And having to find a mechanic, who ended up marrying his mother, beating her, and eventually shooting her in the head. That escalated fast (Noah is not joking about that, it really happened). All this is just the first chapter.
South Africa is one of the world’s most fascinating countries because of its racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. I have great memories of visiting there in 2010. But under apartheid, this diversity was twisted so that it was completed corrupted and abused – blacks were forced to live separately; coloreds and Indians were treated as being inferior to whites but better than blacks; child siblings of different skin complexions could be classified separately. As the biracial, light-skinned son of a black woman, Noah is caught up in this. The remarkable thing is Noah isn’t bitter or sad, but filled with optimism as well as a resolve which stayed with him his whole life. As he says, his mother told him not to forget pain, but to also not let pain rule him.
Not surprisingly, Noah’s mother is a key figure in his life and in the book. She is a woman of great resilience and spirit, who worked and brought up young Trevor without any shame, and instilled in him a strong attitude towards life. But she is the victim of the greatest tragedy in Noah’s life, when she is shot in the head by her abusive ex-husband (not Noah’s father). She recovers, which goes to show how tough she is, and Noah’s love for her and vice versa are very apparent.
Noah fills the book with hilarious and harsh anecdotes, as well as commentary on racial and social issues. Sometimes, it sounds brutal such as when he talks about the Coloured people in South Africa – people of mixed ethnic origin. Now, you might wonder – isn’t Noah himself Coloured since his parents were black and white? No, because Coloureds were mixed going back several generations, as their ancestors were the early Dutch and European settlers and locals over two centuries ago. Noah’s point is that this is the Coloured’s tragedy because they don’t have a solid heritage. That isn’t a problem in itself (obviously there are lots of mixed people worldwide) but in South Africa, Coloureds were caught up in the middle of the country’s racial hierarchies, during apartheid and even now.
This book is a great example of this – it’s not dominated by pain and terror, but by humor and fond memories of growing up, getting in trouble, and hustling in the hood, whilst learning some hard lessons. Noah’s autobiography is a fantastic read for learning about South Africa, race, the hood, and basically how a boy from a South African ghetto grew up to become an international comedian and personality. It is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. Interestingly, the last biography I read was also about a South African, Elon Musk, which was also good. The country might have some serious problems, but it produces some special people.