Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

 Source of book: Borrowed from the library


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. This book was on my own reading list, so I was glad that it became a selection for the club.


For those unfamiliar with Noah, he is a comedian who hosts The Daily Show, combining political commentary with humor. This book is a collection of stories about his childhood, growing up in South Africa as a mixed-race child. 


Back in 1984, South Africa was still an apartheid state, which Noah notes combines all of the worst elements of segregation, slavery, and the forced removal of native populations. Which the British carefully combined into Apartheid, having studied institutional racism around the world in order to craft the perfect system of racial oppression. 


When Noah was born, it was literally a crime for his parents to have sex. (The book opens with the statute to that effect.) In practice, had they been discovered, the likely result is that his Swiss-German father would have been fined, his mother imprisoned for a few years, and Trevor sent to an orphanage. 


It is easy to see things like this as “in the past.” Except that this was during my lifetime. As Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It's not even past." 


Noah is a skilled storyteller, and he brings his childhood to life. In spite of the fact that horrible things happen, that South Africa even after the end of apartheid remains grossly unequal, and that his life contains violence and suffering and heartbreak, Noah manages to see the humorous side to everything. The book is a lot of fun to read. I hear from other book club members that the audiobook - which he reads - is wonderful as well. 


Trying to recount any of the stories seems futile, because he tells them better than I ever could. Some of his lines are so good that I will quote and comment on them a bit, but seriously, go read the book. 


One of the things I loved is that Noah doesn’t candy-coat racism, but just flat out describes it. His lived experience of not really fitting a category is fascinating, and the deadpanning of his experiences makes the everyday prejudice and systemic disadvantages seem all the more real for being mundane. Within the Xhosa community on his mom’s side, he was considered “white” at least by comparison, which meant he got away with more than his cousins. (Except from his mom, though, who tried to keep him in line.) 


Growing up the way I did, I learned how easy it is for white people to get comfortable with a system that awards them all the perks. I knew my cousins were getting beaten for things that I’d done, but I wasn’t interested in changing my grandmother’s perspective, because that would mean I’d get beaten too. Why would I do that? So that I’d feel better? Being beaten didn’t make me feel better. I had a choice. I could champion racial justice in our home, or I could enjoy granny’s cookies. I went with the cookies.


One reason Noah was able to go between cultures as well as he did was that he, like his mother, learned languages well. He speaks English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, Tsonga, and some German, and used all of them regularly as a child. Our club thought his explanation of the unifying nature of language was great. He was nearly mugged by some Zulu guys who thought he was white, until he spoke in their language. 


They were ready to do me violent harm, until they felt we were part of the same tribe, and they we were cool. That, and so many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people. 

I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. 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. 


On the other hand, switching only gets you so far. As young Trevor found when he changed schools for Jr. High. All of a sudden, groups were formed, and he had to figure out who he was. 


But the real world doesn’t go away. Racism exists. People are getting hurt, and just because it’s not happening to you doesn’t mean it’s not happening. And at some point, you have to choose. Black or white. Pick a side. You can try to hide from it. You can say, “Oh, I don’t pick sides,” but at some point life will force you to pick a side. 


For many of us white folk, Trump was what forced us to pick a side. And it was disappointing how many chose racism. 


Noah also notes that while the missionaries educated the native Africans, the Dutch and later the English shut that down, relegating non-whites to lesser schools without academic rigor. The reason was pretty obvious, just like it was in the American South, when teaching the enslaved to read was forbidden: “A knowledgeable man is a free man, or at least a man who longs for freedom.” 


I should also mention the passage on their pet dogs, including the part about why black people don’t own cats in South Africa. (For one thing, you are considered a witch…) But they had this dog that they thought for years was super dumb. It wasn’t until the dog had to be put down after breaking her back, that they discovered the truth. 


“It must have been strange for your family living with a dog that was deaf,” he said.


“You didn’t know your dog was deaf?”

“No, we thought it was stupid.”


In another incident, they found that the same dog was living a second life with a neighbor. (We have had cats like that…) Noah’s observation is spot on. 


I believed Fufi was my dog, but of course that wasn’t true. Fufi was a dog. I was a boy. We got along well. She happened to live in my house. That experience shaped what I’ve felt about relationships for the rest of my life: you do not own the thing that you love. I was lucky to learn that lesson at such a young age. I have so many friends who still, as adults, wrestle with feelings of betrayal. They’ll come to me angry and crying and talking about how they’ve been cheated on and lied to, and I feel for them. I understand what they’re going through. I sit with them and buy them a drink and I say, “Friend, let me tell you the story of Fufi.” 


This is precisely why I do not worry about my wife “cheating” on me. I do not own her. We have a certain understanding about how our relationship works, but if she decided someday she would rather be with someone else than me, I would be sad and lonely, but I would not consider it a “betrayal.” I do not own her. Full stop. 


Noah’s dad doesn’t come into the book that much. He was actually skeptical about having a child, but was convinced by Noah’s mom. The two of them didn’t entirely have a relationship of that sort, although they were friends. They kept up pretty well until his mom remarried the abusive and controlling Abel, who made it impossible to see each other. They later reconnected when Noah could provide his own transportation. His observations of his dad are fascinating. This one stood out. 


One thing I do know about my dad is that he hates racism and homogeneity more than anything, and not because of any feelings of self-righteousness or moral superiority. He just never understood how white people could be racist in South Africa. “Africa is full of black people,” he would say. “So why would you come all the way to Africa if you hate black people? If you hate black people so much, why did you move into their house?” To him, it was insane. 


His dad actually ran one of the few integrated restaurants in South Africa, before the authorities shut it down. I very much sympathize with him. I too do not consider my anti-racism to be a thing of self-righteousness or moral superiority - it just seems to not make any sense. I love living in a diverse city in a diverse state on a diverse planet. It seems insane that white people would move to the Americas, enslave people and bring them here, and then complain that not everyone is white. If we didn’t like Chicanos, why did we come to their home? I mean, racism is offensive for moral reasons, and is against my religious beliefs. But it also is irrational and stupid. 


Part of the history of South Africa is the intermarriage of the first Dutch colonizers with the Khoisan indigenous people. These eventually became the “colored” category, separate from white and black (and don’t even try to figure out how Indian, Chinese, and Japanese are’s complicated.) Trevor was “colored” by appearance, but he was black by culture, which meant he didn’t fit with any legally defined group entirely. He also notes that within the “colored” category, genetics were...weird. 


Colored people are a hybrid, a complete mix. Some are light and some are dark. Some have Asian features, some have white features, some have black features. It’s not uncommon for a colored man and a colored woman to have a child that looks nothing like either parent. 


I have seen this happen in real life too. Some church friends of ours when I was a teen had an adopted daughter who was mixed race of unknown composition. From appearance, she was part black, but maybe Asian of some sort mixed in. And by “black,” here in America, that means one has white genes too, from all that rape back in the slave days. She then married a Latino man. Their first child looked mostly Asian. Then they had twins, one of which looked black, and the other looked white. And neither looked all that much like either parent. If you saw the three kids together, you would never guess they were siblings. 


Here is another amazing observation on race - and tribe. 


[I]t is easier to be an insider as an outsider than to be an outsider as an insider. If a white guy chooses to immerse himself in hip-hop culture and only hang out with black people, black people will say, “Cool, white guy. Do what you need to do.” If a black guy chooses to button up his blackness to live among white people and play lots of golf, white people will say, “Fine. I like Brian. He’s safe.” But try being a black person who immerses himself in white culture while still living in the black community. Try being a white person who adopts the trappings of black culture while still living in the white community. You will face more hate and ridicule and ostracism than you can even begin to fathom. People are willing to accept you if they see you as an outsider trying to assimilate into their world. But when they see you as a fellow tribe member attempting to disavow the tribe, that is something they will never forgive. 


Man, this has been a lot of my experience in leaving Evangelicalism. It is also the ultimate cause of the breakdown of my relationship with my parents. I had to disavow the culture, and that is unforgivable. 


Also fascinating in this chapter is the description of the process to get “reclassified” within the apartheid system. Unlike in the US, where one could try to “pass” and hope for the best, in South Africa, there was a process to get reclassified. That it was arbitrary and inconsistent was the result of a system that classified humans based on a social fiction (race) in the first place. But, one’s classification determined everything from who you could marry to where you could life - indeed the entire course of your life. 


Another observation really hit home. Noah describes the time his stepfather went all medieval on a bully who beat him. Abel was disproportionately violent, and the young Trevor went from enjoying revenge, to terror that Abel might actually kill the kid. (Abel would later shoot Noah’s mother, putting a bullet through her skull that miraculously missed everything important.) It is Noah’s observation that caught my eye.


Revenge truly is sweet. It takes you to a dark place, but, man, it satisfies a thirst.


There is no doubt that Noah loves his mom - in many ways, the book is a tribute to her. She was pretty feminist, leaving home early to get a job. Razor smart, able to speak multiple languages, well read, and devoted to Trevor and her other children. He describes the way she attempted to teach him about women throughout his childhood, even before he hit puberty. This bit was particularly great. 


“Trevor, remember a man is not determined by how much he earns. You can still be the man of the house and earn less than your woman. Being a man is not what you have, it’s who you are. Being more of a man doesn’t mean your woman has to be less than you.”


Leaving aside the emotional baggage of “man of the house” for those of us who were in the Patriarchy movement, her point is great. Being a man is who you are, not your position of dominance, or your money, or your supposed superiority to women. In fact, in an egalitarian relationship, one can very much be a man - as defined by being that kind of a good person who shows love and caring for one’s partner. 


Here is another one that I loved. 


I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done in life, any choice that I’ve made. But I’m consumed with regret for the things I didn’t do, the choices I didn’t make, the things I didn’t say. We spend so much time being afraid of failure, afraid of rejection. But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to. “What if…” “If only…” “I wonder what would have…” You will never, never know, and it will haunt you for the rest of your days. 


This is true for me. What if I had defied my parents and moved out at eighteen and gotten a normal college education? What if I had put my foot down forcibly the first time my mom said something hostile to my wife? What if I had said something about the flagrant favoritism toward my sister? And perhaps most of all: what if I had walked out of Evangelicalism and organized religion before our children had to experience it? What if. 


Noah also has a great observation about how we teach history, which seems even more relevant now, with white people freaking out about the possibility that history might be taught in a way that makes them feel bad about the past. 


In Germany, no child finishes high school without learning about the Holocaust. Not just the facts of it but the how and the why and the gravity of it - what it means. As a result, Germans grow up appropriately aware and apologetic. British schools treat colonialism the same way, to an extent. Their children are taught the history of the Empire with a kind of disclaimer hanging over the whole thing. “Well, that was shameful, now wasn’t it?” 

In South Africa, the atrocities of apartheid have never been taught that way. We weren’t taught judgement or shame. We were taught history the way it’s taught in America. In America, the history of racism is taught like this: “There was slavery and then there was Jim Crow and then there was Martin Luther King Jr. and now it’s done.” It was the same for us. “Apartheid was bad. Nelson Mandela was freed. Let’s move on.” Facts, but not many, and never the emotional or moral dimension. It was as if the teachers, many of whom were white, had been given a mandate. “Whatever you do, don’t make the kids angry.”


That’s a world class mic drop. That’s exactly what the whole moral panic over “Critical Race Theory” is all about. Don’t make white kids feel bad. Don’t make non-white kids angry. Don’t address the moral and emotional dimensions. 


During high school, Trevor got in the business of pirating music (not even considered immoral in his circles - there is a great discussion of that), then eventually working as a DJ. He started making decent money. 


For the first time in my life, I had money, and it was the most liberating thing in the world. The first thing I learned about having money was that it gives you choices. People don’t want to be rich. They want to be able to choose. The richer you are, the more choices you have. That is the freedom of money.


Again, a mic drop. This is why it is so impossible to explain to people who have never experienced poverty what it means to have to constantly be told no, and to have few meaningful choices. And even some of those who have experienced poverty, but, in part because of their privilege (and the socialism we used to have when my parents came of age), were able to rise out of it. Money means choices, which is why income supplements often result in better employment, better outcomes, better choices. Money means freedom and better choices. 


Perhaps the most hilarious story is the one entitled “Go Hitler!” What happened was, this kid named Hitler was great at dancing, and became part of Noah’s DJ entourage. They would host a block party, Hitler would compete at dancing, and everyone would cheer. “Go Hitler! Go Hitler!” Which was fine, until they played for a Jewish neighborhood…


But first let me go back. Here in the West, the Holocaust is in many ways our most traumatic event. Yet, without in any way minimizing the evil and destruction of the Holocaust, it actually isn’t the greatest atrocity committed by white Europeans. We killed 80% of the indigenous population of two continents - which is arguably the greatest genocide in human history. We killed an estimated 60 million Africans through the various facets of the slave trade. But see, those were brown skinned people so we don’t really count them. As horrific as anti-semitism is, our racism generally is at least as bad. 


Noah explains this well. 


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 Congo could go back in time and kill one person, Belgium’s King Leopold would come up 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 films. And that’s really what it comes down to. Holocaust victims count because Hitler counted them. Six million people killed. We can all look at that number and rightly be horrified. But when you read through 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. 


Of course, one of the reasons we don’t want to see Hitler as just another in a string of evil people who plundered and exterminated other humans is that we don’t want to have to look in the mirror. Germany had to do that. The United States needs to. 


The musing on crime is excellent as well. Throughout the book, he notes that criminalization mostly applies to impoverished people, many of whom are not doing things intrinsically immoral (rape, murder, abuse, and so on) but are “hustling,” doing things that get them a bit more ahead of where they are. Noah felt no guilt doing typical things like pirating music or movies, or reselling stolen property. It wasn’t until a camera got into his hands, with the vacation pictures still on it, that he had a twinge. Because these people had faces, and weren’t just “white people with insurance.” He generalizes it beyond “crime” to how society in general works.


In society, we do horrible things to one another because we don’t see the person it affects. We don’t see their face. We don’t see them as people. Which was the whole reason the hood was built in the first place, to keep the victims of apartheid out of sight and out of mind. Because if white people ever saw black people as human, they would see that slavery is unconscionable. We live in a world where we don’t see the ramifications of what we do to others, because we don’t have to live with them. It would be a whole lot harder for an investment banker to rip off people with subprime mortgages if he actually had to live with the people he was ripping off. If we could see one another’s pain and empathize with one another, it would never be worth it to us to commit the crimes in the first place. 


This is true to a point. I do, unfortunately, know people who have so little empathy that even living with the results of their cruelty wouldn’t melt their hearts. After all, the enslaved lived with their enslavers… This is why I believe that white Evangelical doctrine has been carefully curated to create a pathological lack of empathy, to enable people to be cruel without remorse. 


South African Apartheid “worked” in large part because the whites divided the blacks by tribe, and set them against each other. One example of this was the way that the Tsongas - Abel’s tribe, deeply patriarchal - thought of the Xhosas like Noah’s mother. 


Every other man had some docile girl from the village, and here he’d [Abel] come with this modern woman, a Xhosa woman no less, a culture whose women were thought of as particularly loudmouthed and promiscuous. 


As weird as it sounds, this was the culture shock between my family and my wife. While Amanda’s parents were part of a patriarchal cult too, her grandparents were of New York educated stock, and it was assumed she would go to college, and speak up for herself, and probably have a career. Which meant that she was viewed as “particularly loudmouthed” and, because she refused to wear the patriarchal costume, on the “promiscuous” side. Noah also explains how it is that “traditional” men sometimes end up with feminist women. 


Abel wanted a traditional marriage with a traditional wife. For a long time I wondered why he ever married a woman like my mom in the first place, as she was the opposite of that in every way. If he wanted a woman to bow to him, there were plenty of girls back in Tzaneen being raised solely for that purpose. The way my mother always explained it, 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,” she said. “He only wants a woman who is free because his dream is to put her in a cage.” 


This tends to be true of most abusive men, in my experience. It is sad, but it also illustrates why it is important to teach our children to avoid abusers, narcissists, and sociopaths. And how to recognize them. 


There is so much more in this book, of course. I could have quoted dozens more places. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and highly recommend this book. 



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