As a kid I understood that people were different colors, but in my head white and black and brown were like types of chocolate. Dad was the white chocolate, mom was the dark chocolate, and I was the milk chocolate. But we were all just chocolate.
This is the life story of comedian Trevor Noah as he looks back on his childhood growing up as a mix-race child in Apartheid- South Africa. He looks back at the most important person in his life, his mother, and how he shaped his life, his future, his true being despite her circumstances as a single mother living in a very traditional country and then as a victim of spousal domestic abuse that ends with a gunshot.
Zulu women were well-behaved and dutiful. Xhosa women were promiscuous and unfaithful. And here was my mother, his tribal enemy, a Xhosa woman alone with two small children—one of them a mixed child, no less. Not just a whore but a whore who sleeps with white men. “Oh, you’re a Xhosa, ” he said. “That explains it. Climbing into strange men’s cars. Disgusting woman.”
The story was compelling and it drew me in from the first few pages.
Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents’ indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the earliest years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, steal him away. Finally liberated by the end of South Africa’s tyrannical white rule, Trevor and his mother set forth on a grand adventure, living openly and freely and embracing the opportunities won by a centuries-long struggle.
The difference between British racism and Afrikaner racism was that at least the British gave the natives something to aspire to. If they could learn to speak correct English and dress in proper clothes, if they could Anglicize and civilize themselves, one day they might be welcome in society. The Afrikaners never gave us that option. British racism said, “If the monkey can walk like a man and talk like a man, then perhaps he is a man.” Afrikaner racism said, “Why give a book to a monkey?”
The book covers his education and the rules of parenting applied by a black mother to a white-ish looking son. She would take him for walks with a different coloured woman and let that woman pretend to be Trevor’s mom. She would always walk a few paces behind and when any pictures were taken, the fake mom would be in the foreground while the real mom would look like a photo-bombing person in the background. She carried her pregnancy in secret and when she moved to an all-black neighbourhood to be closer to her family, Trevor became an instant celebrity. People would be given direction and the “light skinned boy” would be a reference point. The other children wouldn’t play with him ’cause he was too white for them and he never felt like he fitted in anywhere else.
His grandma never hit him but his mother put church and fear of the rod as the two tools a woman can use to educate her son.
“Because I don’t know how to hit a white child,” she said. “A black child, I understand. A black child, you hit them and they stay black. Trevor, when you hit him he turns blue and green and yellow and red. I’ve never seen those colors before. I’m scared I’m going to break him. I don’t want to kill a white person. I’m so afraid. I’m not going to touch him.” And she never did.
As a child growing up, he never understood why his mom had to denounce him when going out in public together or why blacks were treated as inferior beings to white people.
Apartheid was a police state, a system of surveillance and laws designed to keep black people under total control. A full compendium of those laws would run more than three thousand pages and weigh approximately ten pounds, but the general thrust of it should be easy happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.
Besides the combinations of different African languages being spoken, black people also had to contend with being extremely poor. Their life dreams usually never went further than adding an additional room to their house or a bathroom or paying off debts that their family incurred. Gang members were everywhere. People were not driven to succeed much like Trevor’s mom was. Her ambition was the thing that gave her son a future.
So many black families spend all of their time trying to fix the problems of the past. That is the curse of being black and poor, and it is a curse that follows you from generation to generation. My mother calls it “the black tax.” Because the generations who came before you have been pillaged, rather than being free to use your skills and education to move forward, you lose everything just trying to bring everyone behind you back up to zero.
When there’s so much poverty and murders going on, it kind of make sense why some women would name their kids Hitler. It’s forbidden in Germany as German kids are brought up knowing all there was to know about Holocaust and the people it took with it. In South Africa, that name didn’t mean that. For South Africans, Hitler was just another person who did something at one time in history, invaded another country at another point and so on.
The name Hitler does not offend a black South African because Hitler is not the worst thing a black South African can imagine. Every country thinks their history is the most important, and that’s especially true in the West. But if black South Africans could go back in time and kill one person, Cecil Rhodes would come up before Hitler. If people in the Congo could go back in time and kill one person, Belgium’s King Leopold would come way before Hitler. If Native Americans could go back in time and kill one person, it would probably be Christopher Columbus or Andrew Jackson. I often meet people in the West who insist that the Holocaust was the worst atrocity in human history, without question. Yes, it was horrific. But I often wonder, with African atrocities like in the Congo, how horrific were they? The thing Africans don’t have that Jewish people do have is documentation. The Nazis kept meticulous records, took pictures, made the history of atrocities against Africans, there are no numbers, only guesses. It’s harder to be horrified by a guess. When Portugal and Belgium were plundering Angola and the Congo, they weren’t counting the black people they slaughtered. How many black people died harvesting rubber in the Congo? In the gold and diamond mines of the Transvaal? So in Europe and America, yes, Hitler is the Greatest Madman in History. In Africa he’s just another strongman from the history books. In all my time hanging out with Hitler, I never once asked myself, “ Why is his name Hitler?” His name was Hitler because his mom named him Hitler.
Born A Crime is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. It is also the story of that young man’s relationship with his fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother—his teammate, a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that would ultimately threaten her own life.
The stories collected here are by turns hilarious, dramatic, and deeply affecting. Whether subsisting on caterpillars for dinner during hard times, being thrown from a moving car during an attempted kidnapping, or just trying to survive the life-and-death pitfalls of dating in high school, Trevor illuminates his curious world with an incisive wit and unflinching honesty. His stories weave together to form a moving and searingly funny portrait of a boy making his way through a damaged world in a dangerous time, armed only with a keen sense of humor and a mother’s unconventional, unconditional love.