Born a Crime - by Trevor Noah
It’s a great book with the audiobook version read by Trevor Noah. Racism is bad, and I learned much about how bad it could be from this book. The worst thing about racism is that those disadvantaged people internalize the lack of rights. I laughed through the joy and sorrow. More than once, I was touched by the optimism of his mom.
Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:
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.”
“Learn from your past and be better because of your past,” she would say, “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.” And she never was. The deprivations of her youth, the betrayals of her parents, she never complained about any of it. Just as she let the past go, she was determined not to repeat it:
When it was time to pick my name, she chose Trevor, a name with no meaning whatsoever in South Africa, no precedent in my family. It’s not even a Biblical name. It’s just a name. My mother wanted her child beholden to no fate. She wanted me to be free to go anywhere, do anything, be anyone.
If my mother had one goal, it was to free my mind. My mother spoke to me like an adult, which was unusual. In South Africa, kids play with kids and adults talk to adults. The adults supervise you, but they don’t get down on your level and talk to you. My mom did. All the time. I was like her best friend. She was always telling me stories, giving me lessons, Bible lessons especially. She was big into Psalms. I had to read Psalms every day. She would quiz me on it. “What does the passage mean? What does it mean to you? How do you apply it to your life?” That was every day of my life. My mom did what school didn’t. She taught me how to think.
My mother took me places black people never went. She refused to be bound by ridiculous ideas of what black people couldn’t or shouldn’t do.
My mom raised me as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do. When I look back I realize she raised me like a white kid—not white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was my oyster,
I should speak up for myself, that my ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered. We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited. Growing up in Soweto, our dream was to put another room on our house. Maybe have a driveway. Maybe, someday, a cast-iron gate at the end of the driveway. Because that is all we knew. But the highest rung of what’s possible is far beyond the world you can see. My mother showed me what was possible. The thing that always amazed me about her life was that no one showed her. No one chose her. She did it on her own. She found her way through sheer force of will.
So many black people had internalized the logic of apartheid and made it their own. Why teach a black child white things? Neighbors and relatives used to pester my mom.
They called me the rubbish bin of the family. I ate and ate and ate.
“No. If you want to reply, you have to write a letter.”
One thing I respected about my mom was that she never left me in any doubt as to why I was receiving the hiding. It wasn’t rage or anger. It was discipline from a place of love. My mom was on her own with a crazy child. I destroyed pianos. I shat on floors. I would screw up, she’d beat the shit out of me and give me time to cry, and then she’d pop back into my room with a big smile and go, “Are you ready for dinner? We need to hurry and eat if we want to watch Rescue 911. Are you coming?” “What? What kind of psychopath are you? You just beat me!” “Yes. Because you did something wrong. It doesn’t mean I don’t love you anymore.” “What?” “Look, did you or did you not do something wrong?” “I did.” “And then? I hit you. And now that’s over. So why sit there and cry? It’s time for Rescue 911. William Shatner is waiting. Are you coming or not?”
That was the weird and kind of amazing thing about my mom. If she agreed with me that a rule was stupid, she wouldn’t punish me for breaking it. Both she and the psychologists agreed that the school was the one with the problem, not me. Catholic school is not the place to be creative and independent. Catholic school is similar to apartheid in that it’s ruthlessly authoritarian, and its authority rests on a bunch of rules that don’t make any sense. My mother grew up with these rules and she questioned them. When they didn’t hold up, she simply went around them. The only authority my mother recognized was God’s. God is love and the Bible is truth—everything else was up for debate. She taught me to challenge authority and question the system. The only way it backfired on her was that I constantly challenged and questioned her.
My cousin Mlungisi, to this day, cannot comprehend how I survived being as naughty as I was for as long as I did, how I withstood the number of hidings that I got. Why did I keep misbehaving? How did I never learn my lesson? Both of my cousins were supergood kids. Mlungisi got maybe one hiding in his life. After that he said he never wanted to experience anything like it ever again, and from that day he always followed the rules. But I was blessed with another trait I inherited from my mother: her ability to forget the pain in life. I remember the thing that caused the trauma, but I don’t hold on to the trauma. I never let the memory of something painful prevent me from trying something new. 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
dog. I was a boy. We got along well. She happened to live in my house. That experience shaped what I’ve felt about relationships for the rest of my life: You do not own the thing that you love. I was lucky to learn that lesson at such a young age. I have so many friends who still, as adults, wrestle with feelings of betrayal. They’ll come to me angry and crying and talking about how they’ve been cheated on and lied to, and I feel for them. I understand what they’re going through. I sit with them and buy them a drink and I say, “Friend, let me tell you the story of Fufi.”
My one saving grace was that my mom never spoke ill of him. She would always compliment him. “You’re good with your money. You get that from your dad.” “You have your dad’s smile.” “You’re clean and tidy like your father.” I never turned to bitterness, because she made sure I knew his absence was because of circumstance and not a lack of love. She always told me the story of her coming home from the hospital and my dad saying, “Where’s my kid? I want that kid in my life.” She’d say to me, “Don’t ever forget: He chose you.” And, ultimately, when I turned twenty-four, it was my mom who made me track him down.
While I was eating he got up and went and picked up this book, an oversized photo album, and brought it back to the table. “I’ve been following you,” he said, and he opened it up. It was a scrapbook of everything I had ever done, every time my name was mentioned in a newspaper, everything from magazine covers to the tiniest club listings, from the beginning of my career all the way through to that week. He was smiling so big as he took me through it, looking at the headlines. “Trevor Noah Appearing This Saturday at the Blues Room.” “Trevor Noah Hosting New TV Show.” I felt a flood of emotions rushing through me. It was everything I could do not to start crying. It felt like this ten-year gap in my life closed right up in an instant, like only a day had passed since I’d last seen him. For years I’d had so many questions. Is he thinking about me? Does he know what I’m doing? Is he proud of me? But he’d been with me the whole time. He’d always been proud of me. Circumstance had pulled us apart, but he was never not my father. I walked out of his house that day an inch taller. Seeing him had reaffirmed his choosing of me. He chose to have me in his life. He chose to answer my letter. I was wanted. Being chosen is the greatest gift you can give to another human being.
I’d found my niche. Since I belonged to no group I learned to move seamlessly between groups. I floated. I was a chameleon, still, a cultural chameleon. I learned how to blend. I could play sports with the jocks. I could talk computers with the nerds. I could jump in the circle and dance with the township kids. I popped around to everyone, working, chatting, telling jokes, making deliveries. I was like a weed dealer, but of food. The weed guy is always welcome at the party. He’s not a part of the circle, but he’s invited into the circle temporarily because of what he can offer. That’s who I was. Always an outsider. As the outsider, you can retreat into a shell, be anonymous, be invisible. Or you can go the other way. You protect yourself by opening up. You don’t ask to be accepted for everything you are, just the one part of yourself that you’re willing to share. For me it was humor. I learned that even though I didn’t belong to one group, I could be a part of any group that was laughing. I’d drop in, pass out the snacks, tell a few jokes. I’d perform for them. I’d catch a bit of their conversation, learn more about their group, and then leave. I never overstayed my welcome. I wasn’t popular, but I wasn’t an outcast. I was everywhere with everybody, and at the same time I was all by myself.
I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done in life, any choice that I’ve made. But I’m consumed with regret for the things I didn’t do, the choices I didn’t make, the things I didn’t say. We spend so much time being afraid of failure, afraid of rejection. But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to. “What if…” “If only…” “I wonder what would have…” You will never, never know, and it will haunt you for the rest of your days.
In Germany, no child finishes high school without learning about the Holocaust. Not just the facts of it but the how and the why and the gravity of it—what it means. As a result, Germans grow up appropriately aware and apologetic. British schools treat colonialism the same way, to an extent. Their children are taught the history of the Empire with a kind of disclaimer hanging over the whole thing. “Well, that was shameful, now wasn’t it?” In South Africa, the atrocities of apartheid have never been taught that way. We weren’t taught judgment or shame. We were taught history the way it’s taught in America. In America, the history of racism is taught like this: “There was slavery and then there was Jim Crow and then there was Martin Luther King Jr. and now it’s done.” It was the same for us. “Apartheid was bad. Nelson Mandela was freed. Let’s move on.” Facts, but not many, and never the emotional or moral dimension. It was as if the teachers, many of whom were white, had been given a mandate. “Whatever you do, don’t make the kids angry.”
When I first went into Alex, I was drawn by the electricity and the excitement of it, but more important, I was accepted there, more so than I’d been in high school or anywhere else. When I first showed up, a couple of people raised an eyebrow. “Who’s this colored kid?” But the hood doesn’t judge. If you want to be there, you can be there. Because I didn’t live in the hood I was technically an outsider in the hood, but for the first time in my life I didn’t feel like one.
The hood is also a low-stress, comfortable life. All your mental energy goes into getting by, so you don’t have to ask yourself any of the big questions. Who am I? Who am I supposed to be? Am I doing enough? In the hood you can be a forty-year-old man living in your mom’s house asking people for money and it’s not looked down on. You never feel like a failure in the hood, because someone’s always worse off than you, and you don’t feel like you need to do more, because the biggest success isn’t that much higher than you, either. It allows you to exist in a state of suspended animation.
You spread it around. Everyone must know that your success benefits the community in one way or another, or you become a target.
As much as we needed the money, I never sold the camera. I felt too guilty, like it would be bad karma, which I know sounds stupid and it didn’t get the family their camera back, but I just couldn’t do it. That camera made me confront the fact that there were people on the other end of this thing I was doing, and what I was doing was wrong.
Anytime I got in trouble it was tough love, lectures, punishment, and hidings. Every time. For every infraction. You get that with a lot of black parents. They’re trying to discipline you before the system does. “I need to do this to you before the police do it to you.” Because that’s all black parents are thinking from the day you’re old enough to walk out into the street, where the law is waiting.
She said the thing she hated most about the hood was that it didn’t pressure me to become better. She wanted me to hang out with my cousin at his university. “What’s the difference if I’m at university or I’m in the hood?” I’d say. “It’s not like I’m going to university.” “Yes, but the pressure of the university is going to get you. I know you. You won’t sit by and watch these guys become better than you. If you’re in an environment that is positive and progressive, you too will become that. I keep telling you to change your life, and you don’t. One day you’re going to get arrested, and when you do, don’t call me. I’ll tell the police to lock you up just to teach you a lesson.” Because there were some black parents who’d actually do that, not pay their kid’s bail, not hire their kid a lawyer—the ultimate tough love. But it doesn’t always work, because you’re giving the kid tough love when maybe he just needs love. You’re trying to teach him a lesson, and now that lesson is the rest of his life.
And round and round we went. At a certain point it occurred to me that every single person in that cell might be faking it. We were all decent guys from nice neighborhoods and good families, picked up for unpaid parking tickets and other infractions. We could have been having a great time sharing meals, playing cards, and talking about women and soccer. But that didn’t happen, because everyone had adopted this dangerous pose and nobody talked because everyone was afraid of who the other guys were pretending to be. Now those guys were going to get out and go home to their families and say, “Oh, honey, that was rough. Those were some real criminals in there. There was this one colored guy. Man, he was a killer.”
Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, “I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.”
But I still had to pick. Because racism exists, and you have to pick a side. You can say that you don’t pick sides, but eventually life will force you to pick a side. That day I picked white. They just didn’t look like they could hurt me.
“One day, I’m going to catch you.” It wasn’t anger or disapproval. It was disappointment. She was hurt.
She said, “Boy, who do you think paid your bail? Hmm? Who do you think paid your lawyer? Do you think I’m an idiot? Did you think no one would tell me?”
She’d given my friend the money to pay the lawyer. She’d given my cousin the money to pay my bail. I’d spent the whole week in jail thinking I was so slick. But she’d known everything the whole time. “I know you see me as some crazy old bitch nagging at you,” she said, “but you forget the reason I ride you so hard and give you so much shit is because I love you. Everything I have ever done I’ve done from a place of love. If I don’t punish you, the world will punish you even worse. The world doesn’t love you. If the police get you, the police don’t love you. When I beat you, I’m trying to save you. When they beat you, they’re trying to kill you.”
“Now who’s the best-looking person in the family, eh? I hope you enjoyed your week of being the pretty one, ’cause the queen is back, baby.
“He only wants a woman who is free because his dream is to put her in a cage.”
Oh, please! Earn your respect! You want me to respect you as a man, then act like a man! Drinking your money in the streets, and where are your child’s diapers?! Respect?! Earn your respect—”
Because I knew, as the receiver of many beatings, the one thing that doesn’t help is talking back. But she wouldn’t stay quiet.
grew up in a world of violence, but I myself was never violent at all. Yes, I played pranks and set fires and broke windows, but I never attacked people. I never hit anyone. I was never angry. I just didn’t see myself that way. My mother had exposed me to a different world than the one she grew up in. She bought me the books she never got to read. She took me to the schools that she never got to go to. I immersed myself in those worlds and I came back looking at the world a different way. I saw that not all families are violent. I saw the futility of violence, the cycle that just repeats itself, the damage that’s inflicted on people that they in turn inflict on others.
I saw, more than anything, that relationships are not sustained by violence but by love. Love is a creative act. When you love someone you create a new world for them. My mother did that for me, and with the progress I made and the things I learned, I came back and created a new world and a new understanding for her. After that, she never raised her hand to her children again. Unfortunately, by the time she stopped, Abel had started.
“Pray for Abel,” she’d say. “Because he doesn’t hate us. He hates himself.”
When he said that, my body just let go. I remember the exact traffic light I was at. For a moment there was a complete vacuum of sound, and then I cried tears like I had never cried before. I collapsed in heaving sobs and moans. I cried as if every other thing I’d cried for in my life had been a waste of crying. I cried so hard that if my present crying self could go back in time and see my other crying selves, it would slap them and say, “That shit’s not worth crying for.” My cry was not a cry of sadness. It was not catharsis. It wasn’t me feeling sorry for myself. It was an expression of raw pain that came from an inability of my body to express that pain in any other way, shape, or form. She was my mom. She was my teammate. It had always been me and her together, me and her against the world. When Andrew said, “shot her in the head,” I broke in two.
“Shhhhhh. I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine. Go to your brother. Your brother needs you.”
For all the pain I felt that day, in hindsight, I have to imagine that Andrew’s pain was far greater than mine. My mom had been shot by a man I despised. If anything, I felt vindicated; I’d been right about Abel all along. I could direct my anger and hatred toward him with no shame or guilt whatsoever. But Andrew’s mother had been shot by Andrew’s father, a father he loved. How does he reconcile his love with that situation? How does he carry on loving both sides? Both sides of himself?
I’m not going to lie to you: I paused. I paused hard. In that moment, what I heard the nurse saying was, “All of your money will be gone,” and then I started to think, Well…what is she, fifty? That’s pretty good, right? She’s lived a good life. I genuinely did not know what to do. I stared at the nurse as the shock of what she’d said sunk in. My mind raced through a dozen different scenarios. What if I spend that money and then she dies anyway? Do I get a refund? I actually imagined my mother, as frugal as she was, waking up from a coma and saying, “You spent how much? You idiot. You should have saved that money to look after your brothers.” And what about my brothers? They would be my responsibility now. I would have to raise the family, which I couldn’t do if I was millions in debt, and it was always my mother’s solemn vow that raising my brothers was the one thing I would never have to do. Even as my career took off, she’d refused any help I offered. “I don’t want you paying for your mother the same way I had to pay for mine,” she’d say. “I don’t want you raising your brothers the same way Abel had to raise his.”