A Review of Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime
Born a Crime, an autobiography by Trevor Noah speaks about the life of a child predicated on a Crime. That is the crime of a native woman (his mother, Patricia) having illicit sexual intercourse with a European man (his father, Robert). Offenders were, in fact, liable to either of four to five years of imprisonment (Immorality Act, 1927). But guess who got lucky?
The events that followed his birth, are episodes of hiding, and being hidden. The book centres around the happenings of the apartheid regime, the pointless confusion that colour segmentation (Black, white, coloured) left in its wake and the false sense of democracy that followed the release of Nelson Mandela from incarceration.
Trevor’s sense of humour is evident from the first chapter “Run”. It was an uneventful Sunday, and Trevoh Noah had just been thrown out of a moving bus by his mother and asked to run for his life. Upon getting home, sore, confused and angry at his mother for failing to heed the signs from the universe that Sunday morning, he said: “Look, mom. I know you love Jesus, but maybe next week you could ask him to meet us at our house. Because this really wasn’t a fun night.”
I could not drop the book from then.
The Typical African Woman
Born a Crime describes the typical African woman so colourfully. In describing his mum, and the role she played in making him so much of who he is today, Trevor unveils these qualities:
- Courageous: Patricia was courageous. Trevor says of her: “she was never scared. Even when she should have been.” When the African woman finds a reason, she finds herself in all her hidden corners.
- Passionate: Trevor describes his Patricia as passionate in her loving as she was in her chastising. They call it tough love. That thing our mothers do when it looks as though they hate us, when in fact it’s all just love. She had once told Trevor that if he ever got arrested, she would not make his bail because a child who would disobey must learn the consequences of disobedience. The first time he got jailed, guess who paid the bail?
- Believing: Trevor’s mum was a believer and prayer warrior. She prayed everything away. From the fresh shit she found nicely wrapped in the waste bin, to Trevor’s sickness. And even to the bullets fired by Abel, her ex, that should have killed her. She found God in corners that little minds could not conceive, and God found her too.
- Responsible: Patricia made no excuses. She owned her mistakes, cleaned up her mess and took charge of her child’s welfare. He was her responsibility and she saw to it that she poured herself into him. No attempting to be mediocre because of the kind of life she lived growing up. She looked ahead and made things possible. She would say: “you cannot blame anyone else for what you do. You cannot blame your past for who you are. After all, you are responsible for you. You make your own choices.” She lived by these words in excellent ways.
Emotional Blackmail and the sickening selfishness of Patriarchy
No matter how much Patricia fought against the odds, the mentality of being enslaved to public opinion and the emotional blackmail that followed was evident. Once, after she married Abel and started suffering domestic violence, and moved to her parents’ in Soweto, her mother pleaded with her to go back. Because it is what men do. Because her father had hit her mother too. She had reported to several policemen on countless occasions and each one dismissed her, asking her to “go home, and work things out with your husband”. And after this, they shook hands with the woman beater and asked him to “take care”.
Yet, she couldn’t just up and leave. There were questions like: “where does a woman go in a society where that is the norm? When the police won’t help her? When her family won’t help her? Where does a woman go when she leaves one man who hits her and is just as likely to wind up with another man who hits her. Maybe even worse than the first? Where she’s seen as a whore for doing that?
Her husband would spend all his money on booze and she would work hard to keep the family’s welfare and business together, but she still wasn’t enough. Because she refused to be subjugated by him. Because she appeared to be running the family and that was bad for a man’s face and ego. Patricia explained this aptly: “the traditional man wants a woman to be subservient, but he never falls in love with subservient women. He’s attracted to independent women. He’s like an exotic bird collector, he only wants a woman who is free because his dream is to put her in a cage”.
The book is not perfect!
For all the brilliance in this great book, there were times I almost felt lost. He was seven in the previous chapter, and in the next chapter he is five, in the one after that, he is sixteen; then next chapter, he is two again. I say “almost”, because the story was compelling, nonetheless. Trevor Noah carried me along. It reminded me of how I tell stories of how my day went to my sister, mum or boyfriend. Typically, I start with how the day ended, flip to how it began, flip to lunch time, then back to what side of the bed I woke up on.
But it is heartfelt and for this, it’s a win!
I am not a fan of re-reading books, but I would read Trevor’s memoir repeatedly, and still feel like I am reading it for the first time. This is because it teaches me a new lesson every time I pick it up.