I am addicted to three late-night comedy shows — The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and Late Night with Seth Meyers — all of which I record daily on my DVR and watch religiously the next day. They are essential for me to get my daily quota of laughs. While I heartily enjoy all three shows, the one that I invariably watch first is The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. He took it over from Jon Stewart barely a couple of years ago, and Jon Stewart was so good that it was hard to imagine anyone being able to fill in his shoes. But Trevor Noah has taken the show and made it his own, imbuing it with his unique sensibility — he is from South Africa and is biracial, and is therefore able to look at events in the US as well as the world with a perspective that is very different from the traditional American talk show host. He also has such a natural fair for comedy, which, combined with an innate charm, makes him immediately likable.
Born a Crime is a memoir Noah has written recently that is primarily focused on his childhood growing up in South Africa, against the ugly backdrop of apartheid. While this inhumane system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination was ending as he was growing up — thanks to activists like Nelson Mandela — Noah was born at a time when it was still illegal for black and white people to have sexual relations, let alone procreate. Thus, as the child of a white man and a black woman, he was “born a crime,” which explains the title of the book. However, Born a Crime is far from being a dark and depressing read that is focused on the many horrors of apartheid and the fight to end it; instead, it is an account of Noah’s childhood growing up as a “colored” person in South Africa. He was raised primarily by his mother and had more or less a black upbringing, although the tone of his skin did set him apart and made him learn to be like a “chameleon” to fit in with different groups of people. At the same time, it robbed him of the sense of belonging that comes from fitting in squarely in one group.
We see both these seemingly contradictory aspects manifested in so many ways in the anecdotes that Noah shares in this book about his life, from the time he was a little boy being brought up by his mother — with frequent visits to her family where he got a chance to experience the full gamut of relationships including cousins, aunts, uncles, grandmother, and even a great-grandmother — to his adolescent years — by which time his mother had remarried and had two more boys. By the time he was a young adult, he was well on his way to moving out of the house to a place of his own. He had his share of romantic crushes in school, just like any other adolescent, and also had several brushes with the law — mostly involving petty crime — which stopped when he actually ended up spending a few days in jail. Eventually, his natural flair for entertaining people and making them laugh is what led him to doing comedy for a living.
What I enjoyed most about Born a Crime are the stories of Noah’s early childhood, many of which would have been really sad and depressing but for his outlook and the manner in which he narrates them, which makes them funny rather than tragic. For example, the book starts with his mother throwing him out of a moving bus when he was nine years old and then jumping out of the bus herself with his infant step-brother. With an opening like that, how can you not be hooked? There is another story that is laugh-out hilarious, and that is to do with toilets, or rather, the lack of them. In Soweto, the place where Noah grew up, there were only communal toilets, and even those were little more than unceremonious holes into the ground, with flies a constant present. Noah describes how he always had “an all-consuming fear that they were going to fly up and into [Noah’s] bum.” There’s a lot more to this story which I cannot repeat here — it’s worthwhile reading the book for that story alone! — except this priceless observation, “I don’t care who you are, we all shit the same. Beyoncé shits. The pope shits. The Queen of England shits. When we shit we forget our airs and our graces, we forgot how famous or how rich we are. All of that goes away.”
While few people would refer to our bodily functions so crudely, at least in writing, it is so characteristic of Noah to share his observations so bluntly, without any attempt to sugar-coat them. The other stories he narrates are in a similar vein, and I could literally hear his “voice” as I was reading them, with the same tone and manner of speaking that he has on his show — it comes through loud and clear.
What also comes across is his love for his mother, a truly remarkable woman who was extremely tough as well as fiercely independent, who had him when she wanted to have a child but without the traditional marriage to a man in her community and the subservience that goes with it. She left home at a young age, found a secretarial job at a time when this was impossible for black women, found a decent man — who happened to be white — to father a child, and then raised the child on her own. This is how Noah came to be — a biracial kid brought up by his black mother, who couldn’t even be seen with him in public when he was small because it was illegal. His mother did eventually get married to a black man, who turned out to be abusive, but she never stopped being tough and independent, the rock that supported him. Quite simply, he was lucky to be her son.
I enjoyed reading Born a Crime and getting a chance to learn about the back story of someone whose comedy I thoroughly enjoy and who has made it so big in the US. It was also illuminating to hear a first-hand account of someone who has lived though the waning years of apartheid. Over and above all, it’s always fascinating to get a chance to see how people end up doing what they do.
Born a Crime
Author: Trevor Noah
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Publication Date: November 2016
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.