IT'S TREVOR NOAH: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, Adapted for Young Readers, 304 pp, RL: Middle Grade

 

IT'S TREVOR NOAH

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, Adapted for Young Readers

by Trevor Noah

Purchased from Barnes & Noble

"Many schools don't teach what racism looks like, they teach what racism looked like." This quote has been showing up on social media and I cant stop thinking about it, reflecting on how tentatively - and narrowly - racism was discussed and (occasionally) taught at the school where I worked. Reading IT'S TREVOR NOAH: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, I thought: This is the book that will teach what racism looks like. Noah's autobiography, adapted for young readers, is so well written, so vividly clear, immediate, intelligent, hilarious, and shocking that I found myself regularly reading passages to my family each night at the dinner table (then insisting they watch the latest clip from The Daily Show). The day I finished the young readers edition, I went out and bought the adult version (published in 2016) to read what I missed. The most significant difference, and the change in titles should have alerted me to this, is the frank way in which Noah, the son of a Xosha mother and white, Swiss-German father, discusses the law that made his birth a crime - the Immorality Act of 1927 prohibiting, "illicit carnal intercourse between Europeans and natives and other acts in relation thereto." 

It's impossible to talk about Noah without talking about his mother and the tenacious, determined life choices she made and how this shaped the man Noah is today. As Noah said in an interview with Terry Gross, "I thought that I was the hero of my story, [but] in writing it I came to realize over time that my mom was the hero. I was lucky enough to be in the shadow of a giant. My mom's magic dust sprinkled on me and I hope I have enough of it to be as brave as she was and continues to be." Nurture - or, to be exact, strict parenting that included her telling a security guard who called to say that ten-year-old Trevor had been caught shoplifting batteries, "Take him to jail. If he's going to disobey he needs to learn the consequences." - is balanced by Noah's nature. Over and over, Noah's stories show that he is ridiculously intelligent, insightful, clever, industrious and a great story teller. Noah has a talent for framing each experience in a way that gives readers an understanding of a childhood that at turns seems unbelievably alien and at other times loudly echoes the institutionalized racism of America. Noah's skill at the art of the argument (both verbal and written  - in high school they would exchange pleasantly argumentative letters regarding chores) clearly comes from his mother and is the gift that makes him perfectly situated, along with his view as an outsider in a land of people forced to the outer sides of existence, to tell this story. Naturally, Noah, like his mother, is also a polyglot who can speak six of the eleven official languages of South Africa, something which helped him navigate the four racial groups, as assigned under apartheid, none of which he fit into as the son of a Black woman and a white man, and the difficult situations that arose from this. 

Noah ends each chapter with a commentary, putting the story into context in terms of apartheid and educating readers on its history. For the young readers edition, back matter includes six additional pages on the history of apartheid with descriptions of a few of most significant laws put into effect, including the Immorality Act and the Bantu Education Act, which established that black people would receive a lesser education than whites, limited to mostly low-level and job-related skills. Inspired by the principles of Adolf Hitler, the laws of apartheid, designed to keep black people under control, would run more than "three thousand pages and weigh approximately ten pounds" if printed. For me, the chapter "Go Hitler!" crystalized the insanity of apartheid. Graduated from high school, lacking the funds to go to university and unable to get a job because there were none to be had, Noah was an entrepreneur (another long, fantastic story) copying and selling pirated CDs and working as a DJ with a dance crew that included the "best, most beautiful, most graceful dancer in the crew," a young man named Hitler. Apartheid required Black people to have an English or European name, "a name that white people could pronounce, basically," in addition to their traditional one. And, while Black people chose their traditional names with great care, their European name was often chosen at random, with the "West reaping what it had sown" by putting "the black man to work" and not properly educating him. Noah knew a lot of guys named after Mussolini, Napoleon and Hitler, names chosen because, as Noah writes,

White people don't talk to black people. So why would black people know what's going on in the white man's world? Because of that, many black people in South Africa don't really know who Hitler was. .  . There is also this to consider: The name Hitler does not offend the black South African because Hitler is not he 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 (one of the most committed imperialists of the nineteenth century) would come up before Hitler. If people in the Congo could go back in time and kill one person, Belgium's King Leopold would come way before Hitler. If Native Americans could go back in time and kill one person, it would probably be Christopher Columbus or Andrew Jackson.

When Trevor and his dance crew are invited to participate in a cultural diversity day at a school in a wealthy suburb, they are happy to have a paying gig. After the flamenco and Greek dancers and traditional Zulu musicians perform, they go on, getting the crowd of "Jewish kids in yarmulkes" at the King David School ready to rock out. Half way through their set, calling out their star dancer to perform, Trevor and the crew start yelling, "Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Put your hands in the air for Hitler, yo!" and the room goes silent. The confusion and outrage that followed, on both sides, the perception that racist and antisemitic beliefs were fueling the situation, exemplified the apartheid driven ignorance forced on Black people as well as the white people's selective ignorance of the ramifications of apartheid.

While I regret waiting four years to read the original and over a year before reading the young readers edition, I am grateful to have Noah's insight and clarity, along with the perspective his autobiography gave me at a time when Americans are being faced with the legacies of white privilege and institutionalized racism in our own country.


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