Monday, November 21, 2016

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah’s memoir about growing up mixed in South Africa ends with a bang. In some ways, he is the manifestation of his mother’s dream of escape. A dream of equality might be a step too far, but escape…escape from Soweto, a township “designed to be bombed” with a population of one million and only two roads in or out.
”The story of Soweto is the story of driveways. It is a hopeful place.”
Trevor’s mother’s family lived in Soweto, and though she had courageously—even foolishly, white people in this country might say—gone to live where black people were prohibited in Johannesburg, she somehow managed to make it all work: finding work, renting an apartment, becoming a single mom. She actually charted, as best she could, a future for her family that looked very different from what was expected. That level of desperation is not well known among white people in America.

Although this is a memoir of a thirty-two-year-old comedian, and perhaps because it is the memoir of a thirty-two-year-old comedian, Trevor's mother’s story is the one that resonates most keenly. But let’s give credit where credit is due: Trevor has an amazing delivery. All the while we are listening to the most difficult material, the scariest or most tragic stuff we've never had to face growing up, all the while we are ready to laugh, or to crack a smile. He keeps it light, but he definitely shows how he moved from being “born a crime” into actual crime without making it seem criminal.
"Listen, you shouldn’t get upset. Black people don’t have any money, so trying to get more stuff for less money is just what we do. But let me help. I’ll be your middleman…"
Noah spent most of his youth on the outside of every society he was in, a good position to see each group for what it was. In school he learned to mediate between competing groups and sell them things…pirated CDs, games, food. One day he is caught on film stealing candy from a mall shop that was closed. His interrogators, despite seeing his features and face, thought the boy on film was white, and therefore, despite lengthily interrogating Noah and showing him the film numerous times, Noah himself wasn’t suspected. That level of colorblindness may be more rare in America. It's hard to say that Noah's personality didn't confuse things.

Noah’s facility with languages was his entree into gaining acceptance with diverse populations. He could sound like anyone, speak their language, and earn a spot in their group.
"I could be a part of any group that was laughing…I’d catch a bit of their conversation, learn more about their group, and then leave. I never overstayed my welcome. I wasn’t popular, but I wasn’t an outcast…"
After school he moved into an apartment with help from his mother and a push from his stepfather. He hustled on the streets for years, earning enough to eat and not much more. What came in went out.
"Hustling is to work what surfing the internet is to reading…maximal effort put into minimal gain."
This period of his life is recounted in such an honest way it is sure to be familiar to many who grew up poor in a city with lousy opportunities. What was going to be a short-term hustle to earn enough to get into college became an end in itself. Noah’s "Go Hit-ler" chapter should go down in South African history books as a funny but cautionary tale, a consequence of the separation of the races. It shows us how a teen already out of school and thought to be educated could be so completely ignorant of history. A spectacular end to the street hustle made Noah rethink his prospects.

There are so many quotes and revealing moments in this book, I am tempted to pick them all out for you, but you simply must read it for yourselves. This is the story of a man we can see every night on television, showing us how to laugh at our queer customs and queerer politicians. It is an education how racism plays out in one of the most racially-divided states on earth. The South African government before the end of apartheid made very discrete categories of race to keep the groups separate. But people “want to mix,” Noah tells us, “humans being humans and sex being sex.” Besides that, we are just curious, interested. Why do we, even we Americans, insist on keeping segregation going? What on earth can be worse than what we had in the past or what we have now?

This is an absorbing and deeply informative look at growing up mixed in South Africa. I read Netgalley’s ebook advance from Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, and regret that photographs were not included with the advance copy. Hopefully with the hardcover you will see Noah and his mother, both remarkable people, at various stages of their lives.

An excellent discussion of this book on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross is here. Below please find a brilliant riff on African dictators by Comedy Central's Daily Show host, Trevor Noah, and why we should care.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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