Wisdom, love and choices. These are the first words that I think of that properly describe Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime. This autobiography details Trevor’s childhood and early adulthood growing up in South Africa. Noah builds a vivid world for a diverse audience. The paratext contains the Immorality Act issued by the government of South Africa in 1927. This is the law that we defiantly ignored by Trevor Noah’s mom, who consciously made a decision to have a child.
Much of the story centers Trevor and his relationship with his mother, who acts as his guide throughout the story. She imparts wisdom and knowledge not only through her words but the example that she sets for him. A stubborn and independent Xhosa woman who speaks multiple languages, she is star of this story. The love and respect that Trevor has for her is palpable. Beyond her wisdom, one of the most admirable traits she imparted on Trevor was teaching him how to think for himself.
She taught me how to challenge authority and question the system. The only way it backfired on her was that I constantly challenged and questioned her.
This ability is demonstrated throughout the work. Trevor presents an argument and defense of his culture and the choices that he made throughout his life with thorough knowledge and understanding. He admits when his choices are wrong, when they are understandable, and when they are aligned in a philosophy that may be different from the audiences, which in this case is American.
He deftly moves through a world that was designed to segregate tribes and people of color based on languages, skin color, and sometimes even hair. Whiteness was hoped for and desired. Sometimes it would become achievable by someone deemed a “colored person” or what we would call mixed. Trevor learns the importance of language and how it has the ability to build bridges and relatability. He quotes Nelson Mandela stating,
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.
Explicating further how language helps him move between groups he also tells stories of responding to dangerous situations such as his mother being threatened by a Zulu man and being tossed out of a car, dealing with an abusive stepfather, starting a bootlegging business in high school and the “hood,” and having a friend named Hitler.
He deftly turns the ideas of racism and colonization and its unintended impact on its head. He doesn’t shy away from difficult scenarios and conversations, presenting readers of different backgrounds with new ways of viewing things. He unapologetically takes a firm stance in regard to his blackness and nationality and at the same time moves forward in the world with optimism and hope. It becomes apparent by the end of this book that he has acquired his mother’s wisdom and ability to see things for what they are, question it, buck back against it, but navigate its rules to one’s own advantage.
This book for black readers is absolutely beautiful. If one hasn’t traveled to Africa and perhaps has a longing to understand or view it in a different light then this book is great. If one just wants to read a story about a mom and son that navigate the world as each other’s comrade then this is a great read. If one wants to be challenged about their own perspectives about black history or racism, then this is a great read. This book is one of the few that I’ve ever read that I would be happy to read more than once.