If you want to know more about Daily Show host Trevor Noah, there’s a book you should read. Noah’s memoir and biography Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood is the Rosetta Stone for understanding the man behind Jon Stewart’s former desk (or Jonathan Liebowitz’s former desk, as President-elect Donald Trump would have it).
From mistakenly burning down a family’s home at age seven to an impromptu career of hustling pirated CDs and slinging payday loans in the ‘hood, Noah doesn’t shy away from the good, the bad, and the funny. This candor can take you to some surprisingly visceral, compelling places, sort of like Noah’s recent viral interview with Tomi Lahren.
Born a Crime centers on Noah’s love for his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, and praises her strength in the face of danger, abuse, and poverty. The book also spends a lot of time discussing South Africa’s erstwhile apartheid system of racial segregation and hierarchy that defined his early years.
The Ultimate Prankster
Noah was born to a Swiss father and black South African mother in 1984 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Sex between Europeans and Africans was illegal at the time, punishable by five years in prison. Noah’s birth certificate lied about his parentage to protect him from being taken away by the government and to protect his parents from punishment.
“The wrong color kid in the wrong color area, and the government could come in, strip your parents of custody, haul you off to an orphanage,” Noah explains.
Noah describes his young self as a “fat little kid,” who was also “hyperactive” and “the ultimate prankster.” He recalls times of great strife such as in the chaos that arose after Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and Zulu and Xhosa-aligned political parties (two large ethnic groups in South Africa) struggled for who would take power. He describes seeing a charred body on the roadside that had been “necklaced” (a tire forced around the person and then lighted on fire to burn him to death), and recalls coming home to see entire adjoining neighborhoods on fire. His mother’s response:
She’d tell me not to worry. She always came back to the phrase she lived by:
‘If God is with me, who can be against me?’
She was never scared. Even when she should have been.
He Gets Religion
Noah was raised solely by his mother in a devoutly Christian environment, where he was held up to a strict code of behavior and physically disciplined by her when he stepped out of line. He was the go-to guy at prayer meetings that were often held at his grandparents’ house and attended church weeknights and often multiple times on Sundays.
In one of the book’s most hilarious passages, Noah recounts a theological debate with his mother on one Sunday morning when her second-hand car wouldn’t start. In another exchange he argues with his mom about the Narnia series, because she believes that the lion character Aslan is idolatrous. Noah tries, and ultimately succeeds, in convincing her that Aslan is a Christ figure and thus not sacrilegious.
Anyone who currently watches the Daily Show and thinks “this guy just doesn’t get conservative religious people” will really have to have another think after reading Born a Crime. Even Boyz II Men was strictly off-limits in the Noah household, and most movies weren’t allowed. As Noah writes, “the Bible was my action movie. Samson was my superhero. He was my He-Man.”
Noah straddles the line between poking fun at his religious upbringing while also admitting he gained a lot from it, and faith ultimately plays a pivotal role in the book’s conclusion. He leaves it ambiguous as to what degree he holds any religious beliefs today.
Poverty and Abuse
Noah’s father Robert is presented as a total enigma. They visit on weekends, birthdays, and Christmas, but we’re never told much about Robert, including the depth or length of his relationship with Patricia. Noah and Robert’s history is patchily described at best, and includes years of estrangement, although a love for his dad and vice versa is clearly evident.
Born a Crime is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, but it also brings the reader to rock bottom with stories of devastating poverty and abuse. Noah opens up about living for a year in his new stepfather Abel’s mechanic garage where he had to sleep in the back of cars. For a time the family survived on the cheapest food available: a disgusting type of worm.
Despite all the disorder surrounding him and the beating he first got from Abel starting in grade six, Noah explains his bring-people-together approach to life, which he also discussed in a recent New York Times op-ed. When there are tweets like this coming from the Daily Show on Twitter (it’s unlikely Noah wrote the reprehensible tweet) it’s easy to dismiss “come together” rhetoric from the Left. Yet Born a Crime doesn’t harp on polarizing, flippant rhetoric as often as the Daily Show does.
As Noah grows up he becomes increasingly torn between the black world, white world, and “colored” world (a distinct historically placed racial identity in South Africa different than the context in which Americans may understand the term). Noah’s story arc shows us a young man who didn’t belong in any one racial category. At one point in the book he writes that he encountered situations that made him have to decide his identity decisively:
[A]t 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.
However at other points Noah seems to propose that you don’t have to pick other than being a good person and emphasizes his belief that communication (he speaks six languages) can cut through layers of conflict.
Noah has a rebellious stint in a private Catholic school paid for by a scholarship through his mother’s work (spoiler: at one point before Mass, Noah furtively eats and drinks the Eucharist intended for the Catholic students). Soon after, he enters high school. In high school he embraces being a “nobody” who all the “cool kids” could joke with but never actually worry about whether he’d compete with them to date the pretty girl. In high school Noah also acquires a CD burner as a parting gift from a friend and he goes on to become an enterprising young hustler in the ‘hood after graduation, selling burned CDs, DJing parties, and operating an informal payday loan business.
Born a Crime has several weak points. The book talks about apartheid so often that it becomes repetitive. Clearly it’s a central theme of the book and Noah’s experiences, but even those deeply interested in the subject may find themselves fatigued as complexities and injustices of apartheid are brought up that were already discussed in a past chapter.
Another portion of the book that may raise eyebrows is the chapter “Go Hitler!” about Noah’s black friend Hitler. Hitler was a star dancer in Noah’s dance crew at events he used to DJ. Noah claims that Western historical figures like Hitler aren’t well understood by some black South Africans and are perceived in a more generic sense (i.e. as formidable or noteworthy, but without knowledge of those figures’ policies and beliefs).
In a particularly cringe-worthy passage Noah talks about a DJ gig at a Jewish high school that gets cancelled on the spot after he and his dance crew begin chanting “Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler!” as Hitler dances onstage. Noah and his crew are unaware that they’re causing great offense.
In this chapter of Born a Crime Noah poses questions and provides commentary that will offend many and ruffle some feathers. He muses on how the mass murder of Africans in the Belgian Congo, for example, isn’t seen as equally bad to the Holocaust only because it doesn’t have documentation and didn’t happen to a Western population.
Noah talks about going from seeing the police as basically good to seeing them as an old boy’s club after they repeatedly didn’t respond to his mother’s complaints of physical abuse by Abel. Noah also speaks of his serious run-in with the criminal justice system in a way that makes it clear he regards the system as fundamentally unfair and prone to snap judgments on the basis of things like skin color, language, and a judge’s whims.
‘Wake Up the Next Day and Move On’
Noah’s mother faced domestic abuse for years, and he discusses the paradox that strong women kept communities running during the hardships of apartheid, but were also simultaneously expected to “submit [to] and obey” men. His mother would never be what society demanded she be, however, and did things her own way by building her own life.
This made it all the more upsetting to Noah that she ended up under the shadow of the alternately nice, alternately brutish Abel, whom she’d symbolically spent her life escaping. Noah hints at his support for abortion (or adoption?) when he talks about his mother getting unexpectedly pregnant after having her tubes tied. Noah felt “keeping” baby Isaac was tantamount to re-upping on the contract of abuse with her monstrous husband.
On economics, Noah talks about how obtaining a CD writer while he was in high school catapulted him into economic success. He displays moneymaking zeal in his younger days that would make Ayn Rand proud. Noah also states that while he doesn’t agree with “handouts,” he does believe there’s a lot of lecturing of the poor by the rich instead of giving them tools to succeed. Instead of teach a man to fish, Noah asks, why not teach a man to fish and give him a fishing rod to do it?
Noah’s book ultimately advises an optimistic approach to life that doesn’t dwell too much on the past. Ignore the irony that his book focuses a lot on the injustices and hardships of the past, and this is pretty good advice:
If you think too much about the ass-kicking your mom gave you, or the ass-kicking that life gave you, you’ll stop pushing the boundaries and breaking the rules. It’s better to take it, spend some time crying, then wake up the next day and move on.
Whether conservative, liberal, secular, religious, or anything else, Born a Crime is a compelling journey that will make readers laugh, cry, and ponder some big questions. Now if only the Daily Show could do the same.