Book Review: Born A Crime by Trevor Noah

Front cover of the book

I wouldn’t even dare lie. This is one of the best books that I have ever read! I read it the first time in 2018, and over the past two years, I’ve re-read it another five times or so. Every time, it felt new. Both figuratively and literally, it never gets old!

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah is a memoir that revisits his happy, sad, humorous, and sometimes, heartbreaking memories while growing up in South Africa. This was during an extra-ordinary time when apartheid was thick and his entire existence, for the most part, was a huge misunderstanding for everyone concerned.

Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to jump out of a moving vehicle? A young nine-year-old Trevor didn’t have to think about this question nor did he have a choice in making it. The book begins with a rather horrifying but funny incident. Well, blame Trevor for finding humour in it. One Sunday evening, his mother pushed him out of a speeding minibus before she threw herself after him. This happened after the Zulu driver decided that his mother was one of the infamous Xhosa women known for their promiscuity and needed to be taught a lesson. Understanding apartheid at the time, her decision, though highly suicidal, was not unreasonable. In that instance, breaking their necks while jumping from a moving car held more appeal than the horrors that awaited them at the end of the ride. As it was, apartheid had seen to it that all tribes especially the Zulu and the Xhosa were divided, hated, and warred against each other.

The Zulu driver’s malice could have, perhaps, been lessened if only Trevor had been blacker. Of course, he was black, but nothing about his appearance supported this. He was white, and his conception and birth were an insult and a violation of both the black and white people. For the black people, it meant Trevor’s mother had slept with the enemy who was responsible for their segregation and the destitute living conditions that they had to contend with every day. For the white people, it all boiled down to their perfect racism and twisted beliefs in white supremacy.

There existed the Immorality Act, a law that was passed in 1927 which stated that sexual interactions between natives and the white people as illicit and punishable with imprisonment not exceeding four or five years. Therefore, although his conception was deliberate between his black mother and white father, much of his childhood involved living in the shadows away from the prying eyes of the police. His visits to his father were planned with military-like precision. Also, unlike his cousins, he couldn’t play on the Soweto streets where they lived with his grandmother unless he was whisked away to some orphanage for colored children. Being the only white kid in the native settlement didn’t help his case either.

Born a Crime is not a chronological narrative. Its success lies in its use of flashbacks and flash-forwards. Nevertheless, Trevor goes on ahead to describe the events of his unusual life growing up as white in predominantly black surroundings. Some of those events are just humorous. One day, he decided to shit on the kitchen floor because he feared that the flies in the public toilet would fly up into his bum. The prayer frenzy that ensued to dispense the alleged witchcraft put the fear of God in him and he attempted shitting in the kitchen no more. In another episode, his mother denied him to be her son at a convenience store after he persistently nagged her to buy him a toffee apple. Of course, you can imagine that the cashier believed his mother because what would a colored boy be doing with a black woman. In his young life, Trevor couldn’t tell a time when he was that confused. Not to forget, his mother would also often shout, “Stop thief!” when Trevor outrun her while escaping her disciplinary wrath. This one truly had me in knots!

Other instances are admirable but in retrospect, sad. Being mixed meant that he never fit completely in neither black nor white communities. Even with other colored kids, he was either too black or too white for their liking. As a coping mechanism, he set out to learn several ethnic languages which worked to his advantage. It confirmed his blackness and assured him of a seat among the black people.

Finally, some of the events are downright heartbreaking. One such event was when he received a call from his younger brother that his mother had been shot twice by his step-father whom she had left after being fed up with an abusive marriage. If there was a moment that you broke down as a reader, this was it. Many instances invoke tears, anger, and sympathy, but none could equal this. When I say that my heart ached and tears stung my eyes, I’m not lying.

There is nothing that I disliked about this book. If anything, it had me bending over in laughter. How could I not when I read the entire book in nothing but Trevor’s voice? Thanks to the many years of watching him on The Daily Show. On a scale of 4 stars, I give it 4 shining stars. Moreover, through his personal life, Trevor has achieved to shed light on very critical challenges that plagued South Africans especially the black people during apartheid. As I had mentioned earlier, apartheid thrived on communities hating each other. It went a little further and ‘gifted’ each group a set of its privileges. White people being at the top had every right and privilege, while the coloreds hoped that if only they ‘worked a little harder’, then they might finally become white. Blacks, unfortunately, were at the very bottom of the totem pole. They were denied the right to be human, displaced, and relocated to crowded settlements.

As a result, black people lived in total abject poverty faced with every misery that it subjects. The lack of basic social amenities such as running water and paved roads, racial profiling and criminalization of black boys, sexual and domestic violence, and unequalled crime, were a few of the horrors that they had been accustomed to. Throughout the book, we see Trevor’s mother doing the impossible to liberate her son from the shackles of misery that she had experienced growing up as a black woman during apartheid. Some of her decisions border on insanity, but she is determined to give her ‘illegal’ son every opportunity and choice that life had decided to snatch away from them. I have to confess, I fell in love with Patricia Nombuyiselo. She is independent, fearless, and trusts me, she has got jokes!

It also addresses the doubts, the fear, and the constant emotional turmoil of youth growing up in a system that hates and is rigged against them. It gives a much-needed glimpse into the struggles of many black youths seeking an identity and a sense of belonging. Trevor is no exception.

This book is for all audiences including young adults. It’s as entertaining as it is informative. It’s the kind of book you would want to gift your best friend with whom you never have to explain a joke. Finally, it makes quite an amazing light read. You could finish it in one seating! I truly wish there is a sequel coming. If not, somebody should get Trevor to start working on one immediately!



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Grace Kahinga

Copywriting | I have a teeny-tiny newsletter where I share life lessons in bite-sized letters every Thursday & Sunday. Find it here: thelastlotusflower.substack