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#reallivesbookclub Book Review of Trevor Noah's Born A Crime

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A favorite quote from Trevor Noah’s book “Born A Crime.”

The consensus of the Real Lives Book Club is an enthusiastic thumbs up for Trevor Noah’s book “Born A Crime.” The story begins at the point where we meet Trevor’s mother Patricia (black), who willingly bucks the laws of Apartheid and enters into a relationship with Robert (white). She chooses to have a child with Robert, and months later Trevor arrives, literally “born a crime” under the laws of the time in South Africa.

We all found Noah’s stories of his childhood to be enlightening as to the culture of Apartheid and its implications for the people and particularly for a child born of mixed race. By way of well-told stories, we share in Noah’s experiences and challenges of growing up “colored,” and his unique struggles even when Apartheid ended.

THE WORKINGS OF  APARTHEID

Throughout the book, Noah features segments between the chapters which primarily explain the workings of Apartheid—how it was designed, and the day-to-day lives of people. I was surprised to learn the insidious manner by which a minority immigrant population of Dutch (white), later called Afrikaners, were able to systemically enforce rules that kept the majority of people (blacks of various communities) pitted against each other. By forcing the separate languages of groups based on race in tandem with geographic isolation and limited education, the system prevailed for more than 50 years.

Noah references the biblical story of the Tower of Babel in which the Babylonians are busy building a great city with a tower that is intended to reach the heavens. As God sees what the Babylonians are up to, he smites them by creating multiple languages so that the people can’t work together. Apartheid was successful in the same way by fostering the divisions of groups that lead to animosity amongst them.

When Apartheid fell with the election of Nelson Mandela, the peaceful transition between whites and blacks was celebrated as a success. However, the residual climate of the divide-and-conquer strategy of Apartheid remained as black political groups vied for power and waged violence against each other.  

The end of Apartheid revealed the underlying realities of how the system had unfairly distributed education and advantage. White flight began, and with it the jobs that paid the slave labor wages. Unemployment rose to more than 50%, and black communities now had to struggle with the limits the old system created in a new paradigm.

Noah explains, “People love to say, ‘Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.’ What they don’t say is, ‘And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.’ That’s the part of the analogy that is missing.”

Noah describes the complexity of his situation—how his color and life experience set him apart, such that he struggled to feel he belonged to any group. However, in that space, he came to understand the power of observation and the use of language. Noah’s multilingual skills and his study of others permitted him to navigate and better understand the world around him. He says, “Language brings with it an identity and a culture, or at least the perception of it. A shared language says, ‘We’re the same.’ A language barrier says, ‘We’re different.’”

Here is an interview Trevor conducts with his grandmother about the days of Apartheid.

 TREVOR’S MOTHER PATRICIA

Throughout the story, we realized, again and again, the deep connection that Trevor shares with Patricia, and for good reason. She demonstrates through her actions and words an extraordinary and unflappable determination and intellect that seems to have derived from her innate nature rather than a nurturing environment.

Patricia is a force with a vision that transcends the bondage of the Apartheid system, her difficult childhood and the poverty in which she lived. That she chooses to have Noah with the full understanding of the implications of bringing a mixed-race child into the world is only one example of many that highlight her unusual stamina.

Patricia manages to tackle several hurdles in her life while raising Noah. In a world where Patricia’s color, poverty, and gender were manipulated to work against her, she exhibited the gumption to envision and create something other than what the culture allowed. Because of her tenacity, Trevor is permitted access to education and the diversity of experiences which shape his understanding of what was possible beyond the confines of Apartheid.

A BOOK OF QUOTABLE INSIGHTS

“Born A Crime” is filled with profound quotes, many of which feature the wisdom of Patricia. One of my favorites speaks to her philosophy regarding the past: “Learn from your past, and be better because of your past, but don’t cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold on to it. Don’t be bitter.”   

In many stories, we find that Patricia and Trevor clash as he pushes toward independence and she remains fervent in her religious beliefs. However, the ongoing thread of their love and devotion is steadfast, even when later Trevor and Patricia realize he must leave the family.

THE THINGS WE CANNOT UNDERSTAND

We all agreed that it is difficult to fathom the atrocities humans willingly commit toward one another, especially when they are rationalized on a national scale, as with Apartheid. It seems to be the human condition to create tribes that bind us to others, only to then separate ourselves from other people based on perceived differences.

Noah says, “We live in a world where we don’t see the ramifications of what we do to others because we don’t 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.”

Many of the RLBC readers felt it was hard to understand Patricia’s choice to marry Abel, and then to remain with him when he proved to be an abuser. There was a lot of discussion regarding the complex nature of relationships especially when the factors of abuse and culture are involved. Even Trevor expresses his frustration with the situation but recognized that Patricia’s options were difficult.

 AND YET THERE IS HOPE

Noah’s book with all its insights and stories teaches powerful lessons about the human condition and our baked-in tendencies to permit our worst inclinations to prevail. However, “Born A Crime” also offers up hope by way of relating Noah’s experiences and his family’s journey. There is a path to healing which does not provide tidy outcomes but is a worthy pursuit, if only because it brings out our better angels in all of us.

 

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