Born a Crime by Trevor Noah


It is hard to connect the comedian we know from The Daily Show to the story of the person born in 1984 who is the subject of this autobiography.

Noah’s mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah was always an independent person. She learned secretarial skills, although those jobs were not available to black women. She lived in the city of Johannesburg, though black women were forbidden to live there. She managed that by befriending prostitutes who knew places to live illegally and by navigating the city wearing the coveralls of maids who were allowed to be in the city at night. She became involved with a Swiss-German man who ran a restaurant in the city and asked him to father a child. Eventually he agreed, and though their arrangement was that he was not to be involved in Trevor’s life, he was around in the early years. The three of them could not be seen together on the street and when they went out together, the father walked on the other side of the street.

For a time Trevor and his mother lived in Soweto with his grandmother and others in a two-room house. His grandmother tried to keep him inside the house so that he would not be taken away by police. A mixed race person stood out in the township. Trevor turned out to be good at languages and this facility helped him navigate the post-apartheid violence there. Along with English that his mother taught him from the beginning, he could speak Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana, and other languages.

His mother was a religious woman and she took Trevor to three church services on Sundays and the occasional weekday service. Her strong will was imposed on Trevor by beatings which he saw as efforts to change his “naughty” behavior. He writes movingly about domestic violence which he came to understand when his mother married a charming man who became a raging alcoholic. His mother miraculously survived being shot by the man and still lives in Johannesburg. This book is a tribute to her.

He did a great job of conveying what his childhood and teenager years were like under apartheid and its aftermath. Of course he as a performer was great fun as the reader of the book. His mimicry of the great variety of voices in the book–his mother, Afrikaners, his friends, himself as a child–is impressive.

Trevor Noah, Born a Crime, Spiegel & Grau, 2016, 288 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon.

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