Born a Crime

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Born a Crime
304 pages; Spiegel & Grau
You'd be hard-pressed to find a comic’s origin story better than the one Trevor Noah serves up in Born a Crime. Noah, his little brother, and their mother are on the way home from church. After a dispute with their bus driver, Noah’s mother hurls herself and her boys out of the moving vehicle. Bruised and bloodied, they flee to safety, and Noah, then just 9, observes, “I know you love Jesus, but maybe next week you could ask him to meet us at our house.”

Noah, who took the helm at The Daily Show after Jon Stewart’s 2015 exit, developed his aptitude for witty truth telling as the child of a willful South African Xhosa mother, Patricia, and a quietly irreverent Swiss German father, Robert. Until apartheid began to crumble, his parents’ mixed-race coupling was a criminal offense evidenced by their children’s very existence. That central fact colors every page of Born a Crime; as Noah grows from a boy to a young man (raised mostly by his mother), his tale wends through the towns, schools, and homes of South Africa, illuminating a nation awash in excitement at its rebirth but scourged by complex codes of racism. In one story, Noah recounts narrowly escaping a cadre of mall cops after stealing chocolates because surveillance footage made him appear white. His accomplice, a darker-skinned child, was caught at the scene. Later, Noah writes, white authorities “had been so fucked by their own construct of race that they could not see that the white person they were looking for was sitting right in front of them.”

Every hardscrabble memory of helping his mother scrape together money for food, gas, school fees, and rent, or barely surviving the temper of his stepfather, Abel, reveals the anxious wellsprings of the comedian’s ambition and success. If there is harvest in spite of blight, the saying goes, one does not credit the blight—but Noah does manage to wring brilliant comedy from it.
— Agunda Okeyo