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Born a Crime: A Must-Read for This Generation

Trevor Noah’s incredible story from a South African Childhood

By S M Mamunur RahmanPublished about a year ago 8 min read
Trevor Noah. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, (background and color modified)

What if I told you Chinese people are black and Japanese are white? Would you believe me?

When I encountered this information, I was as confused as you are now. How can this be possible? I can see the color of their skin. Both of them are white and shiny to my brown Asian eyes.

You have seen enough black and white stuff out there recently. Maybe you are irritated (or ignited). The clash between the two races often makes you sick. But think about it. In this modern time - when we are so close to land our footprints on Mars - people are still divided inside when it comes to race, creed, and dominance.

In his autobiography Born a Crime, Trevor Noah tells stories - a lot of stories - from his South African childhood to exhibit the weird world of racism that existed in South Africa and still exists in many places, in many forms. And, these stories matter because he grew up during apartheid and he also sees the end of it. He has first-hand experience that we can rely on.

What does apartheid mean?

Trevor said, 'Apartheid was a police state, a system of surveillance and laws designed to keep black people under total control.'

He added, 'apartheid was the perfect racism. In America, you had the forced removal of the native onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of those things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.'

"Apartheid ("apartness" in the language of Afrikaans) was a system of legislation that upheld segregationist policies against non-white citizens of South Africa. After the National Party gained power in South Africa in 1948, its all-white government immediately began enforcing existing policies of racial segregation.

Under apartheid, nonwhite South Africans (a majority of the population) would be forced to live in separate areas from whites and use separate public facilities. Contact between the two groups would be limited. Despite strong and consistent opposition to apartheid within and outside of South Africa, its laws remained in effect for the better part of 50 years.

In 1991, the government of President F.W. de Klerk began to repeal most of the legislation that provided the basis for apartheid. President de Klerk and activist Nelson Mandela would later win the Nobel Peace Prize for their work creating a new constitution for South Africa." -

Non-whites only apartheid bench (political art), Cape Town, Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Who is this mixed guy named Trevor Noah?

Let's begin from the end (not end exactly!).

If you are a fan of stand-up comedy, you already know who he is and what he has been doing in America over the years (by telling jokes about Donald J. Trump) but if not, then here you go.

Trevor Noah is a 36-year-old South African comedian, writer, producer, political commentator, and television host. Born a Crime is his first book published in 2016.

He is the current host of The Daily Show, an American satirical news program on Comedy Central. He succeeded its long-time host Jon Stewart in 2014.

"Trevor, who grew up biracial in apartheid South Africa, has the unique ability to tell truths that bring us together. He is uncannily skilled at holding up a mirror to whatever room he is in. Trevor is always reaching out: across cultures, continents and boundaries. He makes us laugh with each other and brings us that much closer to under­standing one another. " - Lupita Nyong'o

This Primetime Emmy Award winner young South African was named one of 'The 35 Most Powerful People in New York Media' by The Hollywood Reporter in 2017.

Again, in the following year, in 2018, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

But wait…! How a mixed guy coming to America, eventually became one of the most influential people in the world?

I mean, nobody can be that famous by only telling jokes about Donald J. Trump? Right?

That's a long story indeed. And the story is not about just a poor little mixed kid with a black South African mother and a white European father, but it is way more than that.

This is a story of BECOMING; a story of a mother and a mixed child with their struggle to survive and move forward, defeating all odds.

This story indeed is thrilling, funny, and sometimes makes absolutely no sense.

Trevor, in his autobiography Born a Crime, wrote a whole lot of his continuous struggle for identity, rights, and basic minimum. Besides, the people of that community had lots of superstitions and beliefs about many unnatural and uncanny things that Trevor explores with his curiosity.

People were violent. There was always a run-for-life, always happening something, somewhere.

How was Trevor's childhood?

"I grew up in South Africa during apartheid, which was awkward because I was raised in a mixed family, with me being the mixed one in the family."

Trevor's mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, is black whereas his father, Robert, is a white Swiss. During apartheid, one of the worst crimes was having sexual relations with a person of another race. This was like the end of the world. But Trevor's parents committed that crime. Consequently, Trevor was born as a mixed kid who was unwelcome in both the white and black communities. And, his mother had to keep Trevor inside all the time or hide his color to avoid arrest.

Even it was impossible for her to walk side by side with Trevor in the street. There was always the risk of being getting caught by the police.

In that dire and dark situation, Trevor's Xhosa mother did something no woman can even think of. She decided to stay in the town with her kid and rented a flat in Joubert Park, a neighborhood near Hillbrow. She was always, as Trevor said, was the problem child, a tomboy, stubborn, defiant, and religious.

Trevor's parents were also not allowed to go out together in public.

The ultimate goal of apartheid was to make South Africa a white country, with every black person stripped of his or her citizenship and relocated to live in the homelands, the Bantustans, semi-sovereign black territories that were in reality puppet states of the government in Pretoria. But this so-called white country could not function without black labour to produce its wealth, which meant black people had to be allowed to live near white areas in the townships, government-planned ghettos built to house black workers, like Soweto. The township was where you lived, but your status as a labourer was the only thing that permitted you to stay there. If your papers were revoked for any reason, you could be deported back to the homelands. To leave the township for work in the city, or any other reason, you had to carry a pass with your ID number; otherwise, you could be arrested. There was also a curfew: After a certain hour, blacks had to be back home in the township or risk arrest.

- Born a Crime

When Trevor grew up, he was surprised to see that in the black neighborhood he was being treated as white on the contrary, considered black in the white community.

Trevor's mother's tremendous courage and continuous defiance made Trevor's way to the greater world and made Trevor the MAN he is today.

What does 'Born A Crime' offer?

This autobiography begins with a story when Trevor, while sleeping, was thrown into the street from a moving car by his mother, only to save his life. Trevor often recalls it with fun and surprise and to let people know how brutally racism worked in South Africa and to what extent a mother must go to save her child's life.

This book depicts and explores the unknown and intricate world of South African black people who were subjugated in their own land. It revisits the memory of being chased by police, left alone in school, bullied by people, intimidated by own stepfather, and so on.

It's about a young man who one day found her mother get shot in the head but survived because miracle happens.

It's the story of a sensible, funny, thoughtful young man and his stubborn and incredible mother with strong determination.

Well, I am not ruining this book for you. I am telling you that Born a Crime offers a closer look at the apartheid and what it did to the black community of South Africa and, how a young guy came out of it and then, starts raising his voice for the people who suffer the same.

It shows, through tons of thrilling and funny stories, how racism enslaves people and pollutes minds. It is the tale of human suffering and degradation. But Trevor minuses the monotony and sorrow by making the story fun and captivating.

Born a Crime speaks for those who experienced, experience, or will experience racial discrimination that is hard to believe and unimaginable for people who live on the brighter sides of the world.

Okay, Let's finish the Chinese and Japanese thing

Apartheid, for all its power, had fatal flaws baked in, starting with the fact that it never made any sense. Racism is not logical. Consider this: Chinese people were classified as black in South Africa. I don't mean they were running around acting black. They were still Chinese. But, unlike Indians, there weren't enough Chinese people to warrant devising a whole separate classification. Apartheid, despite its intricacies and precision, didn't know what to do with them, so the government said, "Eh, we'll just call 'em black. It's simpler that way."

Interestingly, at the same time, Japanese people were labeled as white. The reason for this was that the South African government wanted to establish good relations with the Japanese in order to import their fancy cars and electronics. So Japanese people were given honorary white status while Chinese people stayed black. I always like to imagine being a South African policeman who likely couldn't tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese but whose job was to make sure that people of the wrong color weren't doing the wrong thing.

If he saw an Asian person sitting on a whites-only bench, what would he say? "Hey, get off that bench, you Chinaman!" 

"Excuse me. I'm Japanese." 

"Oh, I apologize, sir. I didn't mean to be racist. Have a lovely afternoon."

- Born a Crime


To understand people of the world and to know more about life and diversity, power and dominance, struggle and freedom, Born a Crime is a must-read for this generation and the generations to come.

Happy Reading!


* The story was previously published on Medium (link)


About the Creator

S M Mamunur Rahman

Freelance Writer | Blogger | Editor of The Masterpiece

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