Born a Crime
By Miriam R. Kramer
South African comedian and commentator Trevor Noah captured the national spotlight when he was appointed as the host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central in 2015, replacing the iconic Jon Stewart. When he started, Noah aptly said “I can only assume this is as strange for you as it is for me.” The studio executives who picked an astute, biracial unknown over a bog-standard witty white guy were considered daring at the time. Noah’s outsider’s take on American and international culture and events worked in his favor, gaining him a devout following until he gave up the show in 2022. While on the air, he also wrote Born A Crime, a number-one New York Times bestselling memoir about growing up in the South African-defined category of “coloured” (South African spelling) during apartheid, and how that shaped him as a man and as a comedian.
In his memoir, Noah talks about identity in South Africa, how his parents’ different identities shaped his own through their presence and absence, and what it meant to belong to a rigidly defined caste. His mother proved the defining influence on his young life. Trevor describes her as someone extraordinary, fearless, unaccepting of the limits placed on her life as a black woman through the apartheid. One of those strictures was the South African law preventing black and white people from having a child, or indeed the member of any prescribed race from having a child with someone from another race.
As a young woman, his mother, having mostly brought herself up, was an independent thinker as well. Forbidden from living in designated white areas by the government, she slept in restrooms at night to avoid going back to Soweto, the black township where she was prescribed to live with her mother. Having acquired a low-level white-collar job through some minor governmental reforms, she saved up money and learned how to illegally find an apartment in white Johannesburg.
Vivacious and attractive, she attended under-the-radar, cosmopolitan parties and clubs, and started spending time with a Swiss-German white man twice her age down the hall. Telling him she wanted a child, she informed him that he would bear no responsibility for it. She just wanted someone of her own to love and bring up. As usual, she did not take the easy route, which would have been having a child with someone the government would approve.
Ergo the name of Noah’s book, Born a Crime. If miscegenation was a crime, he was the proof of it. South Africa was a white-ruled nation that under apartheid divided races up as white, black, coloured, and Indian; while supporting division between multiple South African black tribes.
In American terms, coloured is an outdated term that means African-American. In South Africa, it takes on other nuances. As a child Americans might call biracial, Noah was considered coloured, an in-between category, a second-class rather than a third-class black citizen. He was placed in the position of being aspirational without any real ability to ascend to the ruling white status. At the same time he was categorized as superior to black South Africans. In the desperate search for a higher status and more freedoms coloured South Africans sometimes considered themselves superior to black South Africans, who sometimes resented them. They were also forbidden to mix. Noah devotes segments of his book to the malicious brilliance of apartheid in separating people from one another and lessening their power as they collided while hunted for scraps from the same white table. To add to the mix, conflicts encouraged between multiple South African tribes increased the difficulties of black people uniting to gain agency.
Since he was both black and white, Noah was put in an untenable position. He was not supposed to be seen in his grandmother’s residence in black Soweto, so he had to hide behind the walls of her yard while there. He was not supposed to be seen in his white father’s company as his official child. Since walking with his mother would raise too many questions about the difference between her colour and his, she had to maneuver a way to go out with him. While it was illegal for her to have a child with a white man, it was not illegal for two coloured people to have a child together. So she found a coloured woman who could walk with Noah while she trailed along as if she was the maid. When Trevor’s mother became involved with a black man, his white father was squeezed out of the picture, eventually disappearing altogether for many years.
She brought him up with the excessive doses of religion that gave her courage to combat any and all of the difficulties she faced, and she spared him none of her love or strict parenting. Her goal was to make sure he did not grow up feeling entitled to the point of running afoul of the law, but also that he grew up believing that he could be who he wanted to be, despite all evidence in his life to the contrary. In contrast, his father was defined by his absence during Noah’s earlier adulthood, an absence that might not have happened had the rules been less punitive and his father less passive.
Noah learned how to navigate his in-between status in part through learning languages. As he says, “I became a chameleon. My colour didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my colour. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.” His hardships became his super power: they honed his talents for objective observation and the ability to speak about it, which every comedian who parses society and the human condition needs.
Born a Crime is as brilliant and clearly written as it is multifaceted. A memoir of a particular son, man, and comedian, it is a revelation to an audience born outside of South Africa. Noah breaks down the apartheid he experienced in his childhood before it actually broke apart in 1994, explaining an extremely complex and nuanced subject to non-South Africans in comprehensible terms. Americans can view for themselves how it compared to the racism in the United States in the twentieth century and as it continues today, no easy subject for us ourselves to dissect. He shows the recent history of apartheid as not just cruel and evil, but also a codification of craziness, a system that made no sense and yet endured for decades in fact and longer in practice.
I recently attended the first Africa Summit ever held by Sister Cities International in its over sixty years of existence, which was held in Cape Town, South Africa. I went searching for a South African Sister City to add to my Sister City organization’s network. As a speed reader who falls asleep with a book in my hand every night, I read Noah’s short work over three nights in Cape Town.
On the second day, I talked to conference participants at lunch, advising them to run out and buy it. I finished it the last night of the conference, and planned a short trip up beautiful Table Mountain, the landmark of Cape Town, the next day with a South African guide. I spoke to her about the book too, since pretty much everyone in South Africa knows Noah.
As we were crowding into the cable car to descend, my guide turned to me and said “Miriam. There’s Trevor Noah!” Shocked, I looked at him and said “But I just finished your book! Last night! You explained apartheid to me! It was a wonderful piece of writing!” This event has to be the most bizarre and serendipitous of my literary life.
We took a picture together and then my guide remarked, “She’s here for Sister Cities.” He looked at me, puzzled, and I was able to explain to him briefly that I was the president of a member of Sister Cities International: an organization devised by Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 to connect cities worldwide through citizen diplomacy in an attempt to prevent future wars and promote friendship between people in different countries. It was wonderful to be able to tell him about a cause I find so deeply meaningful that I devised a way to attend the Africa Summit, when he had helped explain and connect me with this African country he calls home.
Read Born a Crime if you want to know more about Trevor Noah and South African history, or simply absorb an excellent, fast-paced Bildungsroman, another person’s precious and peculiar experience of becoming an adult in an endlessly challenging world.