Stories from a South African Childhood
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Trevor Noah’s Perspective
Trevor Noah is the most successful comedian in Africa. He is currently the host of the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning The Daily Show on Comedy Central. The Daily Show has been nominated for three Emmys, including Outstanding Variety Talk Series. Trevor joined The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in 2014 as a contributor. He was nominated for “Personality of the Year” at the 2014 and 2015 MTV Africa Music Awards and won the award in 2015.
Born a Crime is a 2016 memoir of Trevor Noah’s life. He recalls his difficult childhood in apartheid South Africa. The book title is inspired by interracial relationships being illegal when his interracial parents fell in love. Noah’s birth was literally a crime. Born a Crime is a lighthearted recollection of growing up during the first years of democratic rule by South Africa’s black majority. It also covers how Trevor Noah developed towards a comedy career that flourished after high school.
Trevor Noah’s Birth Was a Crime
Noah was born into apartheid South Africa. The apartheid system was racial segregation, enforced by the government, between 1948 and 1991. This apartheid system also has a historical basis. The system dates back to the 1600s when Dutch traders enslaved the indigenous peoples of South Africa. The British then took control of South Africa in the mid-1800s. The Dutch settlers, known as Afrikaners, moved inland and developed their own culture. But, once the British finally left, the Afrikaners took over the rest of South Africa and developed their own divisive laws. One of these laws banned interracial sex.
Interracial sex was banned as it didn’t align with the apartheid’s racist ideal of separating races for purity reasons. Interracial sex undermined racism. The punishment for individuals found engaging in interracial sex was imprisonment for between four and five years. In reality, it was far longer than this. Black men were generally imprisoned for rape if they had consensual sex with a white woman. Specialist police units were created to spy through people’s windows to ensure people were not having interracial sex.
Trevor’s parents decided to challenge this law by having Trevor in 1984. Trevor’s mother was black, and his father was white. Noah was evidence of their crimes, but they raised him with pride.
Trevor’s Parents Were Very Different People
Trevor’s dad was a very quiet man who never understood the racism in South Africa. His descent was Swiss-German, countries where racism had been actively tackled after Nazi Germany. Robert was one of the first individuals to open a mixed-race restaurant in Johannesburg. Robert was incredibly proud of his son, and Trevor later learned his father had created a large scrapbook with newspaper clippings about Trevor’s career. Despite his love for Trevor, he could not see his son often during his upbringing. Apartheid South Africa meant that Trevor could rarely visit his Dad, and they lost contact by the time Trevor was 13.
Trevor’s mother, Patricia, was the complete opposite of Robert. She was ambitious and outgoing. Patricia had grown up extremely poor as she was an unwanted child who was dumped with her aunt. She grew up in a single hut with 14 other relatives. Trevor explains that his mother recalls having to steal food from troughs to survive starvation.
Patricia was able to succeed through determination and a bit of luck. Her luck was being taught English by a white missionary. Learning English allowed her to obtain a job at a local sewing factory. This was not the easiest job, and she still struggled to survive. But, it provided her with a stepping stone. When she turned 21, she took a job as a corporate secretary. She worked this job for a year, then moved to Johannesburg. This move was a risky decision as it was illegal for blacks to live there. She learned to navigate the city in a way that kept her hidden. For example, she would hide and sleep in public toilets with the help of local prostitutes.
Trevor Was a Naughty Child
Trevor explains that his mother had a hard time raising him. He had an obsession with knives and fire as a child. He once even burned down a house. His mother met these behaviors with spanking. Although painful, Trevor admits these spankings came from a place of love. Patricia merely wanted Trevor to do everything in his power to overcome society’s obstacles. She understood that they would experience specific pressures due to systemic racism.
Patricia also didn’t want Trevor to continually live in poverty as part of what she called the Black Tax. She did not want Trevor to struggle by having to pay off her poverty. From a young age, Trevor had experienced some of this poverty. They had little food and occasionally could only pull together a soup made from boiled bones. Trevor also grew up in a managed ghetto created in a township of Johannesburg as part of the apartheid regime. Governments would consistently risk bombing the township if it became too dangerous, so Trevor grew up in fear.
Patricia did everything she could to help Trevor overcome this Black Tax. She went out of her way to educate Trevor by using any excess money on ‘how-to’ books and encyclopedia volumes. Patricia would encourage Trevor to read these and would then quiz him. She hoped that Trevor would start to understand life outside the ghetto and the opportunities this knowledge could bring.
The End of Apartheid Was Also Challenging
Trevor was only seven years old when South African apartheid ended. He remembers Nelson Mandela being freed from his life sentence in 1990. That said, he also remembers the problems that remained after Mandela ended apartheid a year later. It was unclear who held power in South Africa, and thousands of people died fighting over this power. Specifically, fighting between the Zulus and Xhosas.
This violence spread to the broader public, though. Trevor recalls traveling on a public minibus to the church with his mother and half-brother. Although this might sound relatively safe, buses were unregulated at this time. So, they had become extremely dangerous. Drivers and operators would often fight over different routes. Trevor remembers a Zulu driver getting into an argument with Trevor’s mother. The driver then threatened her by speeding up, so she couldn’t get off. Despite this, Patricia showed her resilience and strength. As soon as the bus slowed at an intersection, she forced open the doors with her hands and jumped out with Trevor and Andrew. They then ran home until they were safe.
Trevor was also very resilient and adapted to post-apartheid South Africa. For example, he sought to learn as many of the official languages of South Africa, so he could remain safe. Then, there were eleven official languages. Trevor provided an example of when his language skills helped him out of danger. He once overheard a gang of Zulus discussing their plan to mug him. They thought he was white and didn’t believe he would understand the Zulu language. But, before they could ambush him, Trevor told them in Zulu that they should mug somebody else. The gang was shocked that he spoke their language and was willing to leave him alone.
Trevor Proudly Identified as Black
During the apartheid, colored was an official classification used by the government. Being colored meant you had neither entirely black nor fully white ancestry. This classification meant that many individuals struggled to understand where they belonged. Trevor was not one of those people. Although Trevor and other colored people were offered the option to ‘become’ white during the apartheid, he never accepted this offer. Trevor was never in any doubt that he was black.
Although Trevor was proudly black, he could also slip between groups of black and white children. He was known at school as the ‘tuckshop guy.’ He would draw long queues to buy candies after the school assemblies. This experience was crucial for his development as he learned how to appeal to people from different backgrounds. Additionally, he learned how to make people laugh.
Trevor Tries His Luck as a DJ
Trevor was business-oriented throughout his school years. As well as taking a commission on the candy sold, he also sold CDs filled with tracks he had downloaded from the internet. Trevor and his family were too poor to own a CD writer. But, he benefited from being able to appeal to wealthier children. He was given a CD writer by an older and richer white school friend.
Building from this, at the age of 16, Trevor decided to move on from pirating CDs and started DJing at parties. His pirated CDs did come in handy here, though. They meant he could play for much longer than the DJs using vinyl. At one point, he became so successful that he had his own dancers for his DJ acts.
Trevor Got Involved in Some Crime
Trevor’s Credit-and-Loan Business
Trevor managed to earn a good amount of money from his DJ jobs. That said, employment was hard to come by for blacks, even post-apartheid. Supposedly, there was an emphasis on equal work opportunities. This was not the reality. Several well-educated and qualified blacks struggled to get a job due to systemic racism.
Due to this racism, many blacks had to resort to crime to earn money. Trevor was one of these individuals. He and his friends used his money from DJing and selling CDs to finance a credit-and-loan business in the township of Alexandra. Alexandra was a black ghetto in Johannesburg. This type of business was illegal, and the police soon found out about it. Subsequently, a police officer shot Trevor’s computer, destroying Trevor’s hard drive in the process. The foundation of the new illegal business was destroyed, and so were his tools for DJing.
Trevor Is Arrested for Car Theft
This was not Trevor’s only experience with the police, though. Trevor also took his stepfather’s car for a joyride. He did so without realizing that his stepfather had actually stolen this car. Its plates were registered to a different vehicle, and the police spotted this while Trevor was driving. He was taken to a police station on suspicion of car theft. Trevor spent a week in jail before being set bail due to his insufficient previous convictions. Luckily, his mother managed to pay for a lawyer and post his bail.
Although Trevor only spent a week in prison, it had a significant effect on him. He came to realize that the system was stacked against certain people. Although Trevor had a difficult upbringing, his mother allowed him to learn. She was also able to pay for him to have a lawyer and paid his bail. In contrast, Trevor met a black man in prison who had shoplifted PlayStation games. Although a minor crime, Trevor understood that this black man not being able to speak English would work against him. He would likely end up stuck in the prison system despite being no danger to others.
Trevor’s Mother Was Almost Killed
Physical Abuse by Abel
Finally, Trevor speaks about a traumatic experience he and his mother had to endure. Trevor’s stepfather, Abel, was a car mechanic who had been with Patricia since Trevor was six. The two married and had two children together. That said, this was not a happy marriage. Abel was an alcoholic who would become physically abusive.
One night, when Trevor’s half-brother Andrew was still a baby, Abel beat up Patricia. She went straight to the police to press charges. But, the police officers refused to do anything. They suggested she shouldn’t have enraged her husband in the first place. Patricia now feared Abel might kill her if she tried to leave him, as she wouldn’t have any legal support. Trevor could not deal with this trauma. Subsequently, he started distancing himself from his family and moved out once he finished school.
Patricia Is Almost Murdered
Luckily, Patricia was able to eventually break free of her abusive marriage with Abel. She happily remarried, but not without more traumatic experiences. After hearing about Patricia’s new family, Abel confronted Patricia and shot her twice. Once in the buttock and once in the back of the head. Strong as usual, Patricia was able to survive and thrive. The first bullet narrowly missed her vital organs, and the bullet to her head exited through her left nostril. She was back to work within the week.
Final Summary and Review of Born A Crime
Born a Crime offers insight into Noah’s experience as a mixed race boy and young man in South Africa. The memoir highlights how his race had an impact from the very start of his life, as his parents committed a crime by having interracial sex. Despite apartheid being officially removed while Noah was growing up, Noah would continue to experience systemic racism. He now understands that he was extremely lucky to succeed in spite of this racism, having seen his loved ones and people in jail being held back by racism.
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