Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime | A heart-wrenching tale about life during racist apartheid

Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime | A heart-wrenching tale about life during racist apartheid

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In America, Trevor Noah is known as the dimpled successor of The Daily Show, which was previously hosted by Jon Stewart. During this late-night comedy news hour, Trevor and his correspondents give a funny perspective on the top stories around the world.

His bright smile, spot-on impressions, and unique perspective keep his audience laughing. But behind his smile is a boy dealing with the after-affects of surviving apartheid.

What was apartheid?
South African leaders studied racist systems around the world and perfected them. They named their system apartheid. It was similar to the Jim Crow era of segregation but with even more advanced laws. Native Africans and Caucasians were not allowed to live in the same areas, let alone be in relationships.
In Trevor Noah’s words, apartheid was “perfect racism.”

Noah’s memoir, Born A Crime, gives us a peek into the world that likely contributed to the stand-up comedian’s battle with depression.

It’s not too shocking his life was hard though. As a mixed South African born during the era of apartheid, he was born a crime. (Thus, the title of the book.)

THE STORY

The book opens on a young Trevor Noah and his single mother jumping out a car to escape death.

That, my friend, is one of the less wild stories he has to share.Crack open this book and you’ll join Trevor and his mom as they survive against all odds.

His mom, Patricia, constantly fights against the system by living her life unapologetically and always close to the edge. Going where she pleases, ignoring the laws and the dangers of breaking them. It’s how she ended up with Trevor’s dad, a Swiss man.

You can tell the comedian worked closely with excellent editors for this memoir. The entire book is a literary masterpiece. It’s no wonder they’re turning it into a movie where Lupita N’Ongo stars as Trevor’s mom.

As you read through his childhood, Trevor makes anecdotal statements concerning some of life’s hardest issues like:

How to help the poor,

Bridging the divide between races and cultures,D

White privilege and how systematic racism prevails.

How to Help the Poor

One of my favorite stories in Born A Crime is found in Chapter 15: Go Hitler.

Trevor is in high school and has found his nitch: hustling. He sells a little bit of everything and has a knack for bootlegging CD mixes. His friend, Andrew, is the one who helped him gain his CD making skills.

“Andrew the computer geek showed me how to do it, where to buy the cheapest parts [for computers], how to assemble them, how to repair them. He showed me how his business worked, too, how to download music, where to get rewritable CDs in bulk.

BORN A CRIME | CHAPTER 15

He started as a middle man working for Andrew. Then, as Andrew was about to leave the school, he gave Trevor the missing piece to his set up: a CD writer.

Back then, CD writers were expensive. It was an item someone of Trevor’s status never dreamed of getting. Trevor used the gift to build a capitalistic music empire. He started making so much money that he regularly ate out and bought unnecessary items like a cordless phone.

Trevor declares his success to be owed to Andrew.

“Without him, I would never have mastered the world of music piracy and lived a life of endless McDonald’s. What he did, on a small scale, showed me how important it is to empower the disposed and the disenfranchised in the wake of oppression.”

BORN A CRIME | CHAPTER 15

He then asserts that, if we want to truly help the poor. then those with privilege must help by providing hand-ups.

“Andrew was white. His family had access to education, resources, computers…My family had been denied the things his family had taken for granted…
“People always lecture the poor: ‘Take responsibility for yourself! Make something of yourself!’ But with what raw materials are the poor to make something of themselves?
“People love to say, ‘Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for A lifetime.’ What they don’t say is, ‘And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.”
“…Working with Andrew was the first time in my life I realized you need someone from the privileged world to come to you and say, ‘Okay here’s what you need, and here’s how it works.’
…I still have to work to profit by it. But I don’t stand a chance without it.”

BORN A CRIME | CHAPTER 15

Many people get hung up on helping the poor because they don’t want to give up what they’ve worked hard for. That’s understandable! However, Trevor makes a good point here.

If you never had any resources, how would you have gotten to where you are? Resources can be money, privilege, or something as simple as knowledge. The know how.

Perhaps we should each work to pay it forward. Teach someone something. Share your knowledge so that more people can break out of poverty’s bondage and succeed.


Bridging the Divide Between
Races and Cultures

As the only “white” kid in a neighborhood that was all black, he stood out.

“I was so unique people who give directions used me as a landmark. ‘The house on Makhalima Street. At the corner you’ll see a light-skinned boy. Take a right there.”
BORN A CRIME | CHAPTER 04

Limited by law to only interact with black people, most of the people in his village had never seen a white person let alone a mixed person. In their eyes, this light-skinned boy was white.

He was seen as different, an outsider, a celebrity even.

That’s when Trevor realized the tool he could use to connect with those in the township was language. The township, Soweto, was “a melting pot: families of different tribes and homelands.” Because of that, everyone spoke their natives tongues.

Trevor’s mother made sure he learned multiple languages.

In America, you speak English. For most people, that’s it. Speaking a second language is like being a unicorn. Around the world that isn’t the case. Speaking another language is the leg up you need in society.

Trevor realized this early on. He gained a knack and a love for languages. It was a weapon he used to keep himself safe and a tool to allow him to blend.

“I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.”
BORN A CRIME | CHAPTER 04

This isn’t the most revolutionary discovery but it is something to think about. If we want to bridge the gaps, we need to meet in the middle.

As the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

Learning to appreciate and adopt cultures rather than appropriating them – like Trevor did with language – could be exactly what the world needs.

White Privilege and How Systematic Racism Prevails

In American society, we call people who have parents of two different races, “mixed.” Such a term did not exist in apartheid South Africa.

Therefore, Black people within his township just thought of Trevor as white. This behavior extended to Trevor’s own family.

His grandmother wouldn’t hit him if he misbehaved because she’d never seen a child turn different colors before and she was scared she would break him.

“I don’t want to kill a white person,” she said, “I’m so afraid. I’m not going to touch him.”

His grandfather was even more extreme. He would refer to Trevor as “Mastah” and would only drive him as if he were his chauffeur.

It was during his upbringing as a “white” kid in a black family that Trevor was able to understand white privilege.

“Growing up the way I did, I learned how easy it is for white people to get comfortable with a system that awards them all perks. I knew my cousins were beaten for things I’d done, but I wasn’t interested in changing my grandmother’s perspective, because that would mean I’d get beaten, too.

Why would I do that? So that I’d feel better? Being beaten didn’t make me feel better.

I had a choice. I could champion racial injustice in our home, or I could enjoy granny’s cookies. I went with the cookies.

BORN A CRIME | CHAPTER 04

It makes since doesn’t it? It’s what people of color have been saying all along.

It’s not that those in power do not see the injustices, it’s that it’s easier to let the injustices slide. It’s that, in speaking up for those who are harmed, you will more than likely face harm yourself.

The desires to be comfortable, safe, and accepted keep people from speaking out against the status quo.

That’s what’s keep systematic racism going. That’s why many have issues relinquishing their privilege for equity.


See the rise of an underdog in this first-person view of a dark part of our world’s history.

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