By Chet Yarbrough
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
Written by: Trevor Noah
Narrated by: Trevor Noah
Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime” is no joke.
Remembering when Trevor Noah took over the “Daily Show”, thoughts of a South African replacing an American, places one in two minds. One mind thinks how could a person not born in America understand the politics and culture of a country satirized by a TV show? Another mind thinks the “Daily Show” will become more culturally relevant with a commentator that satirizes more than just American culture. The answer to the first mind’s question is answered by the second mind’s conclusion. Personally, it is sad to have witnessed the loss of John Stewart’s insightful American commentary. However, Noah offers a perspective that is equally insightful; admittedly cringe worthy at times, but more universal. “Born a Crime” is testament to Noah’s cultural diversity and universal insight.
When Noah is born, he is “Born a Crime” because South African Apartheid made mixed conjugal relations a criminal offence. Noah’s father is a white Swiss entrepreneur and his mother is a black South African. They choose to have a son, though they never marry. Noah’s mother names her son Trevor because the name gives him the distinction of being neither African black, nor white but a citizen of the world.
Noah’s story is a tribute to his mother. She inspires a listener to understand the importance of family, respect, love, and faith. Noah is a challenging son. He shows himself to be a hyperactive, non-violent, trouble-maker in his youth. He is born into poverty but raised by a mother who believes in a moral code of unshakable faith. In his youth, Noah defies most of his mother’s inner direction and strict, sometimes physically punishing, discipline. Retrospectively, Noah acknowledges how much his mother loved him, and how her fortitude presumably made him mentally tough, independent, and irreverently objective.
As a youth, Noah steals, becomes a black-market maven, and juvenile delinquent. His intelligence is used to organize a group of delinquents to make a living in a South African ghetto. He rationalizes his thievery as a game to outwit the local police and fellow miscreants in a dysfunctional culture born of the remnants of apartheid. He broadens rationalization of criminality by believing there is no harm; no foul for theft because of insurance company reimbursement of societies’ wealthy, the unfairness of Apartheid, and the reality of poverty and hunger.
Noah explains how black-markets develop and how it is difficult for poor people to escape its allure. It is the same circumstance that feeds drug cartels. Theft, like drugs, is a way of making a living in the ghetto. Both industries recruit the unemployed by offering jobs, potential wealth, and identity. Noah notes that ghetto gangs are more in touch, supportive, and caring of the poor than the government. Gangs take care of their neighborhoods by being more involved, more considerate, and helpful when it comes to the needs of the poor. However, Noah fails to fully assess how the poor are victimized by gangs that prey on the same people they purportedly help. It is a blindness repeated in a vignette about a boy named Hitler.
An example of a “cringe worthy” observation by Noah is his explanation of his lead dancer in one of his schemes to make money in the ghetto. His little group of non-violent delinquents are hired to provide entertainment at a Jewish school in South Africa. Noah is the disc jockey. His star dance performer is a young black African named Hitler.
Noah implies that he is ignorant of Hitler’s atrocities in WWII. This is somewhat incredulous considering Noah’s intelligence. In any case, Noah’s music heightens the excitement of his audience and he calls on Hitler to dance to the music; with a dance that includes a Hitlerian salute. Naturally, the room goes silent.
Noah gets into an argument with the person who hired his group. Noah suggests his ignorance led to a misunderstanding. He writes that when one considers the millions of black people murdered through Apartheid and slavery, Hitler is just a name given to the dancer by his mother. Black genocide and slavery is an ugly “cringe-worthy” excuse to justify Hitler’s murderous antisemitism. Putting the Hitler vignette aside, Noah’s story is a condemnation of discrimination in all forms.
Noah returns to the subject of his mother’s life with an explanation of her marriage to a black South African (Abel Shingange) who Noah describes as unconventionally handsome with a penchant for violence. He marries Noah’s mother and they have two children together. Noah is in grade school. Their life as a family lasts for over 17 tumultuous years.
The story of Noah’s mother reflects on global discrimination against women. His stepfather is shown to have been raised in a patriarchal family that emphasizes the superiority of men over women. Women, in his stepfather’s house, are expected to bear children, be silent, cook and clean house, be dependent on their husbands, and respect males in all circumstances of life. Noah’s stepfather insists on that relationship in his newly formed family.
Noah’s mother comes from a completely different perspective. She is an independent soul who chose to have a child “Born a Crime” and who believed the only God is God and not man. Noah’s stepfather interprets her opinion and attitude as disrespect for his role as husband.
Noah’s mother is shot three times by his stepfather. Noah’s stepfather fired a bullet in her buttocks, her leg, and the back of her head. The government, presumably run by men, decides that the needs of two boys who remain in the home need the support of their father. Ironically, Noah notes that his stepfather rarely supported the children or family, and drank the profits of his labor. His mother had been the primary financial support of the family.
Noah’s stepfather is walking the streets of South Africa as a free man today. Surprisingly, Noah’s mother is alive. Through a miracle of circumstance or God, the bullet to the back of her head missed her brain.
Noah knows what it is to be poor. Undoubtedly, Noah now knows what is like to be rich. More importantly, it seems Noah has adopted his mother’s independence and, from his life experience, a superior perception of reality. “Born a Crime” is no joke.
Sadly, we no longer get the “Comedy Central” channel but Noah is certainly a worthy replacement for John Stewart.