Book Review: Born a Crime

From comedian and talk-show host Trevor Noah, Born a Crime is a delightful look into the formative years of one of America’s favorite comedic expats. This was yet another book on my reading list that I will honestly admit I didn’t buy until the most recent explosion of racial tension in America occurred earlier this summer. Although the book doesn’t much address America’s systemic racism, the book did pop up on many suggested reading lists as a way for any human to unpack skin color prejudices from someone who lived in the shadow of legal racism.

Born a Crime was very interesting to read as a white American female who is currently trying to learn as I sort out my privilege, convictions and responsibilities. Other than watching the 2009 film Invictus (featuring the amazingly talented Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon), I really had very little understanding of apartheid. Noah’s book was a great introduction. While he grew up in a primarily post-apartheid country, Noah is the son of a Xhosa woman and a Swiss immigrant whose passionate romance was illegal at the time and his mixed ethnicity cause social problems for him throughout his adolescence (not to mention his own proclivity for committing acts of petty arson and larceny). Racism is certainly no laughing matter, but Noah’s levity made the life lessons accessible.

A prominent theme in Born a Crime is the importance of developing a sense of belonging. While apartheid forced people groups to connect uniquely with people of the same skin color, the South Africa that Noah grew up in allowed him to pick and choose who he wanted to be associated with based more on personality, common language, and shared hobbies than ethnic backgrounds. Given that he was born with less melanin in his skin, people had a hard time putting Noah in any specific category. More than born a crime, he was born a chameleon – which gave him unique power to choose his own destiny rather than be pigeon-holed into a life dictated by his skin.

“We live in a world where we don’t see the ramifications of what we do to others, because we don’t live with them. It would be a whole lot harder for an investment banker to rip off people with subprime mortgages if he actually had to live with the people he was ripping off. If we could see one another’s pain and empathize with one another, it would never be worth it to us to commit the crimes in the first place.”

Born a Crime (Spiegel & Grau, New York | 2016)

Beyond addressing racism and other systemic injustices, Born a Crime is about the powerful bond of family, or at least the power that family has to create bonds. It’s obvious from the very beginning of the book that Noah has a fierce love and respect for his mother (even if he doesn’t always share the same religious piety that she does). It was really wonderful to read about the bond between a mother and son, especially one that is so close. I’m not sure the last time that I read a book in which the adult son spoke with reverence of his mother. Well, occasionally Noah was a bit irreverent about the specifics of his relationship, but his overarching tone was one of love.

While the stories were very captivating, one aspect of the book that I didn’t care for was the inconsistent passage of time and the pace of the narrative. I felt like I was reading several essays strung together, rather than a unified book. Perhaps that’s why the subtitle is Stories from a South African Childhood. Noah constantly jumped back and forth through childhood, teenage years, and young adulthood and reintroduced characters and settings multiple times. The most irksome was that the climax of the book happened so late that there wasn’t any time for resolution. I haven’t read any other reviews or even Noah’s own explanation of the book. Perhaps the choppy pacing was intentional.

This book may be for you if you also like: if you like books unlike anything else I’ve read before; The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (tv show); South Africa; Invictus (film 2009); cultural exploration. I don’t actually know how to recommend it other than to say, it was good!


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