by Trevor Noah, 2016
I must admit that I know embarrassingly little on the subject of apartheid. I was fairly young when Nelson Mandela was freed and I was so far removed from that side of the world that it meant little to me. It wasn’t until I read J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace that I took it upon myself to learn something about South Africa and its turbulent history. I still feel woefully unequipped to comprehend, let alone discuss, the ramifications of apartheid, so it was with open, knowledge-hungry arms that I grabbed Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s memoir of growing up as a half-black, half-white citizen in South Africa during and after apartheid.
The title is literal: during apartheid, it was illegal for a black person to have sexual relations with a white person. As such, Noah was treated differently than the other children he grew up around. He was kept indoors, so that others wouldn’t see a light-skinned child running about. When he went for walks with his mother, she walked behind him and a colored neighbor whose skin more closely resembled his. His grandmother wouldn’t punish him like the others because his skin showed bruises, and his grandfather called him “Mastah,” though Noah didn’t know what that meant at the age of five.
What is so interesting to me, as a fellow half-black person, is how different the mixing of races can be perceived depending on location and political environment. While I’ve certainly had to answer my fair share of “What are you?” questions, I’ve never felt the intense divide that plagues Noah throughout his life. I’ve had the luxury of refusing to choose a side, but Noah did not – at times it was literally a matter of life and death for him. Yet, owing to his dual ethnicity, he is privy to the machinations of a society that works to oppress those with darker skin. He can see how arbitrary these ethnic classifications are and how striving for whiteness only furthers animosity between these groups. I was gobsmacked by the idea that individuals could promoted to white: “Your hair might become straight enough, your skin might become light enough, your accent might become polished enough – and you’d be reclassified as white. All you had to do was denounce your people, denounce your history, and leave your darker-skinned friends and family behind.” Although I am familiar with “passing” (that is, being light-skinned enough to pass for white), I am not aware of any such promotional system ever existing in the US. But in a way this still hits a bit of truth for me, for this is the plight of many mixed race people – society forces you to choose a side and deny a part of who you are.
For all of the brilliant edification Noah gives us on living in and after apartheid, rest assured that he also includes a fair bit of self-deprecating humor in these pages. His pawn-shop hustle is impressive, though ultimately self-defeating, and I’ve rarely felt so embarrassed for a person as I did when he talks of a major social blunder during his days as a DJ doing dance battles (I won’t spoil it, but it’s a good one). But even within the humor, Noah manages to excavate a lesson in humanity in every story. He is admittedly not smooth with the ladies in high school, and even though he managed to get the most beautiful girl he and his friends had ever seen to go to prom with him, he couldn’t convince her to get out of the car because he never bothered to find out that they didn’t speak the same language. It’s a fitting metaphor for the environment in which he grew up.
This is a story about politics and social strife, but ultimately it is one about family. For all his bad behavior as a child, Noah is always in awe of his mother’s strength, and never more so than when he talks about the period of their lives where they suffered at the hands of his abusive stepfather. The story he tells will chill you, and though it should not be surprising that a society still living in segregation would also work to subjugate its women, I could not help but be appalled by the events he chronicles. And then I was saddened, because I know that this continues to go on today and I know this is happening here, just as much as it is happening there, and we are still so far from finding a way to fix it. Noah isn’t so bold as to suggest a cure for the patriarchy any more than he is to suggest a cure for systemic racial oppression, but in talking about his mother’s abuse so openly, so plainly, he gives voice to those who cannot be heard. He is doing for others what his mother did for him:
My mom raised raised me as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do. When I look back I realize she raised me like a white kid—not white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was my oyster, that I should speak up for myself, that my ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered… the highest rung of what’s possible is far beyond the world you can see. My mother showed me what was possible. The thing that always amazed me about her life was that no one showed her. No one chose her. She did it on her own. She found her way through sheer force of will.
Many of you already know Noah from his assumption to The Daily Show’s throne and you may have already formed certain opinions of him. I encourage you put aside whatever feelings you have about his work to read this informative, heartbreaking, and inspiring book.
(Note: I was able to snag a free copy of the audio during an Audible promotion and listened to it while reading along. I highly recommend it, as Noah’s voice adds to so much his own story. It was also great to hear his pronunciation of names and words I wouldn’t even begin to know how to say.)
[Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: read a book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location.]