Book of the Week: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Book 24: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
I usually don't read books written by celebrities. It seems like every few years a comedian publishes a book that is part memoir, part humor. I never read them; it might be a bias on my part, but I tend to think of them as light reading. My wife read this book and insisted that I read it. She was right. This book is so much more than the product of Trevor Noah's humor. This book is a first-hand account of life at South Africa at the end of Apartheid.
Noah grew up with his mother, a Xhosa woman in Apartheid South Africa. He wasn't allowed to acknowledge his father in public because his father was a White Swiss man. Trevor, a mixed race kid ("colored" in South African racial terminology), lives a tenuous existence. He's not black like his mom or white like his dad; the colored (mixed-race) are their own race and exist along the black-white stratification of South African society as "more-white" or "almost white", making their relationship with black South Africans especially problematic. Trevor's life is a fascinating story of what it was like to watch South Africa change, to be a part of that change, but also to see how resistant South Africa continues to be to change.
The hero of Trevor's story is his mother. She teaches him how to be a man that respects women in a society that mistreats women. She herself is the victim of domestic abuse, nearly dying at the hands of an ex-husband. From her Trevor learns love, forgiveness, and perseverance.
One of my favorite parts of the book is Trevor's memories of going to church with his mother. Christianity is a confusing subject for Trevor. On the one hand, it is the colonizer's faith and it was misused in order to reinforce Apartheid. On the other hand, it is the faith of his mother. As a child, Trevor's mother took him to church all Sunday long. They would go to three churches: an evangelical mixed-race church, a mainline white church, and a black church. The descriptions of church as Trevor experiences are reminiscent of experiences that you might have here in America.
For me, the most significant experience I had reading this book was my own coming to terms with my childhood ignorance and ambivalence towards Apartheid. I was taught about Apartheid in high school. Nelson Mandela's release, the falling of the Berlin Wall, the Challenger explosion ... these things all kind of blur together to form the background of my childhood. But I don't think I realized how problematic Apartheid was, how deeply ingrained and systematic the racism was, or how much Christianity in South Africa was complicit in Apartheid. And, with the release of Nelson Mandela, I had a simplistic view of the end of Apartheid. Reading Noah's story allows us to see how Apartheid died a slow death and had/has lasting impacts in South African society. If nothing else, that is a lesson that is worth reading this book to learn.