10 Reasons Born A Crime Is A Must-read for Everyone in the Multiracial Community
I’m a huge fan of South African comedian Trevor Noah’s stand-up comedy specials—especially “African American”—and enjoy his hosting of “The Daily Show.” I was both eager and reluctant to read his top New York Times bestselling memoir, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. Eager because he’s so witty and funny and reluctant because I have been left unsatisfied by most Mixed-race memoirs so many times that I was reluctant to be let down yet again.
I am pleased to say that Born a Crime is the richest, most complex and satisfying Mixed-race memoir of our times. Noah’s writing is rich, whip-smart and emotionally engaging. His youth was a roller coaster of how the rituals and requirements of identity converge to include race, color, class, education, language, and tribal affiliations. He’s a great writer whose piercing truths reveal insights into how the constructs of identity converge in the journeys of multiracial children struggling against society and government to find and live their truth.
Here are my Top 10 Reasons that Everyone in the Multiracial Community MUST Read Born a Crime
10. Noah shares what it was like being born a crime in Apartheid-era South Africa—growing up with a Black mother and a White father with whom he could rarely even be seen in public. This provides a complex and gripping backdrop for the development of his identity and how he chose to affiliate. “The wrong color kid in the wrong color area, and the government could come in, strip your parents of custody, haul you off to an orphanage.”
9. While some of us in the U.S. have a vague idea of life under Apartheid, few really understood the details and nuances. Noah’s story brings history and politics to life in the body and mind of one manchild learning to navigate harsh laws and racial categories that were rigid, fluid and potentially lethal. “The ultimate goal of apartheid was to make South Africa a white country, with every black person striped of his or her citizenship and relocated to live in … puppet states of the government.”
8. This story helps the reader to interpret racial identity as culture, and all that that entails. In a nation where the three racial categories: Black, White and Colored were often determined by whether a pencil stayed in or fell out of your hair, Noah spent time in each category and emerged not just whole, but triumphant. “As a kid I understood that people were different colors, but I didn’t know any of it had anything to do with ‘race.’ I didn’t know what race was … So when the other kids in Soweto called me ‘white,’ even though I was light brown, I just thought they had their colors mixed up, like they hadn’t learned them properly.”
7. Noah’s recollections are equal parts heartbreaking and heartwarming, and his insights are razor-sharp. “My mother took me places black people never went. She refused to be bound by ridiculous ideas of what people couldn’t or shouldn’t do … she 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.”
6. Most Mixed-race memoirs skate on the surface of racial politics and the evolution of the author’s identity. Noah deep-dives to the bottom and returns with pearls that help us see the Black-White identity binary from new and important angles. “The curse that colored people carry is having no clearly defined heritage to go back to. If they trace their lineage back far enough, at a certain point it splits into white and native and a tangled web of ‘other.’”
5. While South African Apartheid was undeniably tragic, as is any form of systematic and institutionalized oppression designed to perpetuate inequality and turn groups of people against each other for mutually-assured destruction, nothing about Noah’s family or life suggests tragedy. “Where most children are proof of their parents’ love, I was the proof of their criminality. The only time I could be with my father was indoors … I couldn’t walk with my mother either; a light-skinned child with a black woman would raise too many questions.”
4. He breaks down racism from every possible angle. For instance, “In any society built on institutionalized racism, race-mixing doesn’t merely challenge the system as unjust, it reveals the system as unsustainable and incoherent. Race-mixing proves that races can mix—and in a lot of cases, want to mix. Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race-mixing becomes a crime worse than treason.”
3. By presenting an international perspective on racism, Noah helps us to see this nation’s racial dynamics in a clearer light, bringing the striking parallels to life. “In Germany, no child finishes high school without learning about the Holocaust. Not just the facts of it but the how and the why and the gravity of it—what it means … In South Africa, the atrocities of apartheid have never been taught that way … We were taught history the way … the history of racism is taught in America: ‘There was slavery and then there was Jim Crow and then there was Martin Luther King Jr. and now it’s done.’ It was the same for us.”
2. Growing up, Noah experienced grinding poverty, a diverse array of religious experiences, all of the racial and class mazes of his homeland, vastly differing educational environments. multi-lingual identity shifts, youthful mischief, criminal entrepreneurship, young attempts at romance, and a stint in jail. Through it all, he maintains a strong sense of identity based on hope, realism, practicality and wisdom beyond his years. “There were times when we would be in traffic and we had so little money for petrol that I would have to push the car … People would … offer to help. ‘Can we help you?’ ‘Nope.’ ‘Do you need a tow?’ And what do you say? The truth? ‘Thanks, but we’re just so poor my mom makes her kid push the car’?”
1. At its heart, Born a Crime is a love letter to Noah’s force-of-nature mother. While providing deep insights into the talent powerhouse who is a brilliant stand-up comic and witty host of “The Daily Show”—the book reminds us of the power of visionary parenting. “People thought my mom was crazy … Neighbors and relatives used to pester my mom. ‘Why show him the world when he’s never going to leave the ghetto?’ ‘Because,’ she would say, ‘even if he never leaves the ghetto, he will know that the ghetto is not the world.’”