Born A Crime by Trevor Noah

In Born A Crime, Trevor Noah, host of the popular late night program, The Daily Show, compiles stories from his childhood in South Africa.

Trevor was born in 1984 to a Black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss-German father; a union that was considered illegal under apartheid. 


Trevor writes about the system of oppression in South Africa and how the structure was carefully studied and carried out. Examples of how to oppress people were deliberately taken from other countries, including the U.S.

By the time South Africa became a democracy, racism and white supremacy were already deeply institutionalized. Even after Nelson Mandela was elected president and the African National Congress came into power, Black people still lacked opportunities and adequate resources to lift their families out of the circumstances that apartheid manufactured. Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, and books by other South African writers, journalists, and scholars provide a rich account of apartheid and the legacy of the racist regime.


Born a crime is not a linear story. The book is a set of vignettes about Trevor’s life. Many stories will make you laugh out loud, and others will leave you gasping. These stories highlight important themes from the impact of colonialism in South Africa to the privileges that come with being presumed to be white. Born a crime also explores Christianity, language, gender, and violence.

One of my favorite stories in the book centers on Trevor and his friend “Hitler” (yes, I know. Trevor’s point exactly), a star dancer in Trevor’s crew. In this scene, Hitler is dancing at a Jewish gathering where Trevor is DJing and cheering “Go Hitler! Go Hitler! Go Hitler!” They eventually get kicked out.

Trevor shares this story to describe the impact of colonialism on name preferences in South Africa. During apartheid, Black South Africans were forced to give their children names “that white people could pronounce.” As a result, many Black South Africans named their children Hitler because they were missing the context of historical events.

Trevor notes that the South African education system inadequately teaches students about history. In many instances, the experiences of oppressed groups are glaringly missing as if history is a one-sided phenomenon. Although names are often selected from the Bible, according to Trevor, the parents that named their children Hitler were probably unaware that apartheid was modeled after Hitler’s racist policies. Trevor’s accounts are like the history textbooks in the U.S. that misrepresent slavery or leave it out completely.


Trevor Noah is a brilliant storyteller. In Born A Crime, he weaves serious discussions of social inequities in South Africa to hilarious anecdotes about his upbringing, childhood mischief, and experiences with his friends and family.

Born A Crime was very much about Trevor as it was about his mom, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, a woman who resolved to ensure that Trevor experienced life on his own terms.

The book was a quick read. I tried to read it slowly, so I had something to look forward to but ended up finishing it in one weekend. The book will be adapted to a movie and Lupita Nyong’o will play Trevor’s mother

I’m looking forward to watching these stories play out in the film. 

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What Is Left When the Thing That Links Us to Our Heritage Is Lost?

Zinzi Clemmons’ What We Lose provides a striking account of life after loss. “What We Lose: A Support Guide” is the title of the pamphlet that the narrator, Thandie, receives after her mother’s death from cancer.

In What We Lose Clemmons tackles race, sexuality, friendship, loss, grief and, to some extent, migration. The book is carefully compiled with graphs, pictures, song lyrics, and blog posts to provide a rich account of the narrator’s struggles, realizations, and growth. When she proclaims that Black people are more likely to die of cancer compared to their White counterparts, she presents statistics to support this claim. She goes on to suggest that though Black women are more likely to die from cancer, their experiences are not the focus of dominant narratives and campaigns.

Despite Clemmons’ creative use of vignettes, however, What We Lose is at times jerky, and some thoughts are surprisingly incomplete. I wonder if these asides were done to support the primary narrative of loss and grief or if they were intended to stand alone. I am not sure.

Thandie’s take on South Africa, Oscar Pistorius (the South African Olympian who’s trial made international headlines because he murdered his girlfriend…thinking she was an intruder), and Winnie Mandela offered an interesting picture of post-Apartheid South Africa. One particular section that stands out is her musing on her racial identity.

“To my [South African] cousins and me, American blacks were the epitome of American cool. Blacks were the stars of rap videos, big-name comedians, and actors with their own television shows and world tours…

We worshipped them, and my cousins, especially, looked to the freedom that these stars represented as aspirational. It was a freedom synonymous with democracy, with political freedom—with America itself. It was rarefied, powerful.

But when I called myself black, my cousins looked at me askance.

They are what is called coloured in South Africa—mixed race—and my father is light-skinned black. I looked just like my relatives, but calling myself black was wrong to them.

Though American blacks were cool, South African blacks were ordinary, yet dangerous. It was something they didn’t want to be.”

Although Clemmons explored her mixed race and national identities, I wanted more. The death of her mother signified a loss of the very thing that connected her to her South African roots. The desire for belonging and her need to be tethered to something — from which an identity can be formulated — deserved a more in-depth exploration.

Hence the question, what is left when the thing that links us to our heritage is lost?

I believe this “thing” can be forgetting to speak a language, or forgetting cultural practices (dances, poems, etc.). What We Lose is an appropriate title as it can refer to the loss of something physical (a death) or a loss of a former home (migration). Still, some losses cannot be quantified or touched, only felt.

What We Lose is a fictional memoir at best. I have read very few books like it and celebrate its unique style.

I am looking forward to many more novels by this author.

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