Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah casts his memoir about growing up in South Africa, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (2016), in a casual and light style.  But style shouldn’t lead readers to assume there is no substance.  Loosely following his life from infancy to early adulthood, Noah reveals what it was to grow up as a racially ambiguous boy under apartheid in the early 1980s.  However complex one may consider America’s racial climate, it is not as complex and fraught as South Africa’s.  Yet Noah’s story is not representative, and he makes this an important point: his father was a white-skinned German businessman.  His mother was a black-skinned Xhosa.  She was independent and assertive and despite living in a male-dominated, racist society, and against many odds, she made her own way and struggled to raise her son.  (He did not make it easy for her.  He was, to use a word Noah employs on a number of occasions, a “naughty” boy). Although she was not married to his father (inter-racial marriages were banned), she spent much time with him.  When they walked in public, mother and father would walk on separate sides of the street so no one would suspect they had a relationship.  She had to hide the fact that she had a light-skinned son.  His very existence, under apartheid, was illegal because sex between members of different racial groups was illegal: hence the title of the book. Because of his skin color, Noah could “pass” as white or colored.  Because he grew up in his mother’s Xhosa family, he knew how to “act” black.  Like his mother, he knew how to speak a number of major South African languages. He therefore fit in among black South Africans, once they got over the fact of his light skin. He could also pass as white, and the “colored” segment of South Africa did not exactly know what to make of him. He was as a result able to navigate his way through the last years of apartheid.  This book is a touching and revealing portrait of Noah’s mother (a remarkable woman) and of various members of his family and of his own childhood and adolescence in South Africa.

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