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Born a Crime, Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

16 June, 2020 - 29 min read


I. Brief Summary

  • Trevor Noah shares fascinating tales from his youth, specifically sharing his struggles as a young colored (white and black mix) kid. He shares hilarious stories on being parented by his mother who he dearly loved. While this is Trevor's story, but it very much a loving tribute to her mom. The book also offers humorous and thought provoking perspective on racism and poverty. A must-read autobiography which is hilarious, heartbreaking and told through a sympathetic lens. Two lessons that I walked away from this book were, ”I soon learned that the quickest way to bridge the race gap was through language.” And, ”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.“

II. Big Ideas

  • The books deals with the horrors of both pre & post-apartheid (a systematic policy of segregation/discrimination on grounds of race) in South Africa. Natives in South Africa were structurally divided based on languages and region to give rise to racism. Zulu and Xhosa are widely spoken languages in South Africa. The Zulu went to war with the white man. The Xhosa played chess with the white man. For a long time neither was particularly successful, and each blamed the other for a problem neither had created. Bitterness festered. For decades those feelings were held in check by a common enemy. Then apartheid fell, Mandela walked free, and black South Africa went to war with itself.

Apartheid in South Africa

  • Apartheid: The triumph of democracy over apartheid is sometimes called the Bloodless Revolution. It is called that because very little white blood was spilled. Black blood ran in the streets. Under apartheid the government provided no public transportation for blacks, but white people still needed us to show up to mop their floors and clean their bathrooms. In America you had the forced removal of the native onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of those things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid. The white man was quite stern with the native. “You need to pray to Jesus,” he said. “Jesus will save you.” To which the native replied, “Well, we do need to be saved—saved from you, but that’s beside the point. So let’s give this Jesus thing a shot.”
  • History of Apartheid: it was perfect racism. It took centuries to develop, starting all the way back in 1652 when the Dutch East India Company landed at the Cape of Good Hope and established a trading colony, Kaapstad, later known as Cape Town, a rest stop for ships traveling between Europe and India. To impose white rule, the Dutch colonists went to war with the natives, ultimately developing a set of laws to subjugate and enslave them. When the British took over the Cape Colony, the descendants of the original Dutch settlers trekked inland and developed their own language, culture, and customs, eventually becoming their own people, the Afrikaners—the white tribe of Africa. Government realized they needed a newer and more robust set of tools. They set up a formal commission to go out and study institutionalized racism all over the world. They went to Australia. They went to the Netherlands. They went to America. They saw what worked, what didn’t. Then they came back and published a report, and the government used that knowledge to build the most advanced system of racial oppression known to man.
  • Language & skin tone: it 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.” However, if the person who doesn’t look like you speaks like you, your brain short-circuits because your racism program has none of those instructions in the code. “Wait, wait,” your mind says, “the racism code says if he doesn’t look like me he isn’t like me, but the language code says if he speaks like me he is like me? Something is off here. I can’t figure this out.” My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.
  • Black tax: But the real world doesn’t go away. Racism exists. People are getting hurt, and just because it’s not happening to you doesn’t mean it’s not happening. And at 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. So many black families spend all of their time trying to fix the problems of the past. That is the curse of being black and poor, and it is a curse that follows you from generation to generation. My mother calls it “the black tax.” Because the generations who came before you have been pillaged, rather than being free to use your skills and education to move forward.
  • Racism being non-logical: Consider this: Chinese people were classified as black in South Africa. I don’t mean they were running around acting black. They were still Chinese. But, unlike Indians, there weren’t enough Chinese people to warrant devising a whole separate classification. Apartheid, despite its intricacies and precision, didn’t know what to do with them, so the government said, “Eh, we’ll just call ’em black. It’s simpler that way.” Interestingly, at the same time, Japanese people were labeled as white. The reason for this was that the South African government wanted to establish good relations with the Japanese in order to import their fancy cars and electronics. So Japanese people were given honorary white status while Chinese people stayed black. I always like to imagine being a South African policeman who likely couldn’t tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese but whose job was to make sure that people of the wrong color weren’t doing the wrong thing. If he saw an Asian person sitting on a whites-only bench, what would he say?
  • Catholic school: 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.
  • Cats: I’ve yet to find a place where black people like cats. One of the biggest reasons for that, as we know in South Africa, is that only witches have cats, and all cats are witches. What was ironic to me was that white people had spent years seeing video of black people being beaten to death by other white people, but this one video of a black man kicking a cat, that’s what sent them over the edge. Black people were just confused. They didn’t see any problem with what the man did. They were like, “Obviously that cat was a witch. How else would a cat know how to get out onto a soccer pitch? Somebody sent it to jinx one of the teams. That man had to kill the cat. He was protecting the players.”
  • Being colored in SA: The history of colored people in South Africa is, in this respect, worse than the history of black people in South Africa. For all that black people have suffered, they know who they are. Colored people don’t. It was the biggest mindfuck I’ve ever experienced. The animosity I felt from the colored people I encountered growing up was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with. It taught me that it is easier to be an insider as an outsider than to be an outsider as an insider. Colored people had it rough. Imagine: You’ve been brainwashed into believing that your blood is tainted. You’ve spent all your time assimilating and aspiring to whiteness. Then, just as you think you’re closing in on the finish line, some fucking guy named Nelson Mandela comes along and flips the country on its head. Now the finish line is back where the starting line was, and the benchmark is black. Black is in charge. Black is beautiful. Black is powerful. For centuries colored people were told: Blacks are monkeys. Don’t swing from the trees like them. Learn to walk upright like the white man. Then all of a sudden it’s Planet of the Apes, and the monkeys have taken over.
  • Prejudice: It was like our species was going to die out if we didn’t mate and carry on. Which I’ve learned in life is something that white people do without even realizing it. “You two look the same, therefore we must arrange for you to have sex.”
  • Schools in SA: South African schools don’t have cafeterias. At Sandringham we’d buy our lunch at what we call the tuck shop, a little canteen, and then have free rein to go wherever we wanted on the school grounds to eat—the quad, the courtyard, the playground, wherever. Kids would break off and cluster into their cliques and groups. People were still grouped by color in most cases, but you could see how they all blended and shaded into one another. The kids who played soccer were mostly black. The kids who played tennis were mostly white. The kids who played cricket were a mix. The Chinese kids would hang out next to the prefab buildings. The matrics, what South Africans call seniors, would hang out on the quad. The popular, pretty girls would hang out over here, and computer geeks would hang out over there. To the extent that the groupings were racial, it was because of the ways race overlapped class and geography out in the real world. Suburban kids hung out with suburban kids. Township kids hung out with township kids. The white kids were always going shopping, going to the movies, going on trips—things that required money. We didn’t have any money, so I was out of the mix there, too.
  • History in school: Jewish people don’t flee. They’re done fleeing. They’ve already fled. They get to a place, build their shul, and hold it down. 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.” We were taught more about World War II than the typical black kids in the townships were, but only in a basic way. We weren’t taught to think critically about Hitler and anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. We weren’t taught, for instance, that the architects of apartheid were big fans of Hitler, that the racist policies they put in place were inspired, in part, by the racist policies of the Third Reich. We weren’t taught how to think about how Hitler related to the world we lived in. We weren’t being taught to think, period. All we were taught was that in 1939 Hitler invaded Poland.
  • Resourcefulness: I had a natural talent for selling to people, but without knowledge and resources, where was that going to get me? People always lecture the poor: “Take responsibility for yourself! Make something of yourself!” But with what raw materials are the poor to make something of themselves? 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’s missing. Working with Andrew was the first time in my life I realized you need someone from the privileged world to come to you and say, “Okay, here’s what you need, and here’s how it works.” Talent alone would have gotten me nowhere without Andrew giving me the CD writer. People say, “Oh, that’s a handout.” No. I still have to work to profit by it. But I don’t stand a chance without it.
  • Gap year: Most of the white kids I knew were taking a gap year. “I’m going to take a gap year and go to Europe.” That’s what the white kids were saying. So I said, “I, too, am going to take a gap year. I am going to take a year and go to the township and hang out on the corner.” And that’s what I did.
  • Awareness and means: But the cheese boy has been shown the world outside. His family has done okay. They have a house. They’ve sent him to a decent school; maybe he’s even matriculated. He has been given more potential, but he has not been given more opportunity. He has been given an awareness of the world that is out there, but he has not been given the means to reach it.
  • Unemployment: The unemployment rate, technically speaking, was “lower” in South Africa during apartheid, which makes sense. There was slavery—that’s how everyone was employed. When democracy came, everyone had to be paid a minimum wage. The cost of labor went up, and suddenly millions of people were out of work. The unemployment rate for young black men post-apartheid shot up, sometimes as high as 50 percent. What happens to a lot of guys is they finish high school and they can’t afford university, and even little retail jobs can be hard to come by when you’re from the hood and you look and talk a certain way. So, for many young men in South Africa’s townships, freedom looks like this: Every morning they wake up, maybe their parents go to work or maybe not. Then they go outside and chill on the corner the whole day, talking shit. They’re free, they’ve been taught how to fish, but no one will give them a fishing rod.
  • Crime: The hood made me realize that crime succeeds because crime does the one thing the government doesn’t do: crime cares. Crime is grassroots. Crime looks for the young kids who need support and a lifting hand. Crime offers internship programs and summer jobs and opportunities for advancement. Crime gets involved in the community. Crime doesn’t discriminate.
  • Survivorship: My life of crime started off small, selling pirated CDs on the corner. That in itself was a crime, and today I feel like I owe all these artists money for stealing their music, but by hood standards it didn’t even qualify as illegal. At the time it never occurred to any of us that we were doing anything wrong—if copying CDs is wrong, why would they make CD writers?
  • Insurance: “Yeah, when white people lose stuff they have insurance policies that pay them cash for what they’ve lost, so it’s like they’ve lost nothing.” It’s easy to be judgmental about crime when you live in a world wealthy enough to be removed from it. But the hood taught me that everyone has different notions of right and wrong, different definitions of what constitutes crime, and what level of crime they’re willing to participate in.
  • Hood: Otherwise, we’d buy a few beers and sit around and drink, talk about the day, listen to the gunshots in the distance. The tricky thing about the hood is that you’re always working, working, working, and you feel like something’s happening, but really nothing’s happening at all. 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. The hood has a wonderful sense of community to it as well. Everyone knows everyone, from the crackhead all the way through to the policeman. People take care of one another. The way it works in the hood is that if any mom asks you to do something, you have to say yes. “Can I send you?” is the phrase. It’s like everyone’s your mom, and you’re everyone’s kid. The biggest thing in the hood is that you have to share. You can’t get rich on your own. You have money? Why aren’t you helping people? The old lady on the block needs help, everyone pitches in. You’re buying beer, you buy beer for everyone. You spread it around. Everyone must know that your success benefits the community in one way or another, or you become a target. The hood was strangely comforting, but comfort can be dangerous. Comfort provides a floor but also a ceiling. The hood has a gravitational pull. It never leaves you behind, but it also never lets you leave. Because by making the choice to leave, you’re insulting the place that raised you and made you and never turned you away. And that place fights you back. As soon as things start going well for you in the hood, it’s time to go. Because the hood will drag you back in. It will find a way.
  • Police in SA: They came busting in wearing riot gear and pointing machine guns. That’s how our police roll. We don’t have small and then big. What Americans call SWAT is just our regular police. My mom never gave me an inch. 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. Cops in South Africa don’t give you a reason when they pull you over. Cops pull you over because they’re cops and they have the power to pull you over; it’s as simple as that. “Do you know why I pulled you over?” “Because you’re a policeman and I’m a black person?” “That’s correct. License and registration, please.” Racial profiling was common. This cop pulled me aside and said, “Listen, you don’t want to go to your bail hearing. They’ll give you a state attorney who won’t know what’s going on. He’ll have no time for you. He’ll ask the judge for a postponement, and then maybe you’ll go free or maybe you won’t. Trust me, you don’t want to do that. You have the right to stay here for as long as you like. You want to meet with a lawyer and set yourself up before you go anywhere near a court or a judge.” He wasn’t giving me this advice out of the goodness of his heart. He had a deal with a defense attorney, sending him clients in exchange for a kickback. He handed me the attorney’s business card, I called him, and he agreed to take my case. He told me to stay put while he handled everything. I had never seen anything like it. I was nine years old, and I still thought of the police as the good guys. You get in trouble, you call the police, and those flashing red-and-blue lights are going to come and save you. But I remember standing there watching my mom, flabbergasted, horrified that these cops wouldn’t help her. That’s when I realized the police were not who I thought they were. They were men first, and police second.
  • Lack of context on person being affected: In society, we do horrible things to one another because we don’t see the person it affects. We don’t see their face. We don’t see them as people. Which was the whole reason the hood was built in the first place, to keep the victims of apartheid out of sight and out of mind. Because if white people ever saw black people as human, they would see that slavery is unconscionable. 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.
  • Big guys are nice people: Once we started talking I realized he wasn’t the Hulk at all. He was the sweetest man, a gentle giant, the biggest teddy bear in the world. He was simple, not educated. I’d assumed he was in for murder, for squashing a family to death with his bare hands, but it wasn’t anything like that. He’d been arrested for shoplifting PlayStation games. He was out of work and needed money to send to his family back home, and when he saw how much these games sold for he thought he could steal a few and sell them to white kids and make a lot of money. As soon as he told me that, I knew he wasn’t some hardened criminal. I know the world of pirated things—stolen video games have no value because it’s cheaper and less risky to copy them, like Bolo’s parents did.
  • Law: The more time I spent in jail, the more I realized that the law isn’t rational at all. It’s a lottery. What color is your skin? How much money do you have? Who’s your lawyer? Who’s the judge? Shoplifting PlayStation games was less of an offense than driving with bad number plates. He had committed a crime, but he was no more a criminal than I was. The difference was that he didn’t have any friends or family to help him out. He couldn’t afford anything but a state attorney. He was going to go stand in the dock, unable to speak or understand English, and everyone in the courtroom was going to assume the worst of him. He was going to go to prison for a while and then be set free with the same nothing he had going in. If I had to guess, he was around thirty-five, forty years old, staring down another thirty-five, forty years of the same.
  • Picking a side: 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.

III. Quotes

  • 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.
  • My mom didn’t want my mind polluted by movies with sex and violence. So the Bible was my action movie.
  • The more time we spent at church, she reckoned, the more blessings we accrued, like a Starbucks Rewards Card.
  • We had a very Tom and Jerry relationship, me and my mom.
  • Integration by its nature was a political act, but the get-togethers themselves weren’t political at all.
  • The doctors took her up to the delivery room, cut open her belly, and reached in and pulled out a half-white, half-black child who violated any number of laws, statutes, and regulations—I was born a crime. Where most children are proof of their parents’ love, I was the proof of their criminality.
  • In America the dream is to make it out of the ghetto. In Soweto, because there was no leaving the ghetto, the dream was to transform the ghetto.
  • Some might say we lived like poor people. I prefer “open plan.”
  • The story of Soweto is the story of the driveways. It’s a hopeful place.
  • 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.”
  • My mom was the only force I truly feared. She believed if you spare the rod, you spoil the child.
  • As a kid I understood that people were different colors, but in my head white and black and brown were like types of chocolate. Dad was the white chocolate, mom was the dark chocolate, and I was the milk chocolate. But we were all just chocolate.
  • English is the language of money. English comprehension is equated with intelligence. If you’re looking for a job, English is the difference between getting the job or staying unemployed. If you’re standing in the dock, English is the difference between getting off with a fine or going to prison.
  • A knowledgeable man is a free man, or at least a man who longs for freedom.
  • 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. And she never was. The deprivations of her youth, the betrayals of her parents, she never complained about any of it.
  • If my mother had one goal, it was to free my mind. My mother spoke to me like an adult, which was unusual.
  • My mom’s attitude was “I chose you, kid. I brought you into this world, and I’m going to give you everything I never had.”
  • As modestly as we lived at home, I never felt poor because our lives were so rich with experience.
  • 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.
  • My mother used to tell me, “I chose to have you because I wanted something to love and something that would love me unconditionally in return—and then I gave birth to the most selfish piece of shit on earth and all it ever did was cry and eat and shit and say, ‘Me, me, me, me me.’ ”
  • They called me the rubbish bin of the family. I ate and ate and ate.
  • What kind of a sick person would eat all of Jesus’s body and drink all of Jesus’s blood? A hungry person.
  • One of my uncles stopped calling me Trevor. He called me “Terror” instead. “Don’t leave that kid alone in your home,” he’d say. “He’ll burn it to the ground.”
  • 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.
  • It’s not about knowing who you are. It’s about him knowing who you are, and you knowing who he is. Too many men grow up without their fathers, so they spend their lives with a false impression of who their father is and what a father should be. You need to find your father. You need to show him what you’ve become. You need to finish that story.
  • The curiosity of being together overwhelmed the animosity keeping people apart.
  • When a parent is absent, you’re left in the lurch of not knowing, and it’s so easy to fill that space with negative thoughts. “They don’t care.” “They’re selfish.”
  • Being chosen is the greatest gift you can give to another human being.
  • What I wanted was a relationship, and an interview is not a relationship. Relationships are built in the silences. You spend time with people, you observe them and interact with them, and you come to know them—and that is what apartheid stole from us: time. You can’t make up for that with an interview, but I had to figure that out for myself.
  • Revenge truly is sweet. It takes you to a dark place, but, man, it satisfies a thirst.
  • Trevor, remember a man is not determined by how much he earns. You can still be the man of the house and earn less than your woman. Being a man is not what you have, it’s who you are. Being more of a man doesn’t mean your woman has to be less than you.
  • I understood Valentine’s Day, as a concept. The naked baby shoots you with an arrow and you fall in love.
  • Her friends had told me she’d say yes. It’s like being in Congress. You know you have the votes before you go to the floor, but it’s still difficult because anything could happen.
  • He was really good-looking, too. It was like when he was creating his character he traded in all his intelligence points for beauty points. I stood no chance.
  • 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…”
  • English is the international language and the language of money and of the media.
  • For the first time in my life I had money, and it was the most liberating thing in the world. The first thing I learned about having money was that it gives you choices. People don’t want to be rich. They want to be able to choose. The richer you are, the more choices you have. That is the freedom of money.
  • Cash gave us leverage in the hood’s barter economy.
  • Where the hell is some guy going to get all of these burger patties from, randomly?” Of course, we ate the burgers. Then we thanked God for the meal.
  • Dealing with crackheads is unpleasant. We were upstanding, well-spoken East Bank boys. We could even charge a premium because we added that layer of respectability to the transaction.
  • Hustling is to work what surfing the Internet is to reading. If you add up how much you read in a year on the Internet—tweets, Facebook posts, lists—you’ve read the equivalent of a shit ton of books, but in fact you’ve read no books in a year. When I look back on it, that’s what hustling was. It’s maximal effort put into minimal gain. It’s a hamster wheel. If I’d put all that energy into studying I’d have earned an MBA. Instead I was majoring in hustling, something no university would give me a degree for.
  • The hood was strangely comforting, but comfort can be dangerous. Comfort provides a floor but also a ceiling.
  • 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.”
  • I was doing crazy calculations, looking at people, scanning the room, assessing the variables. If I go here, then this. If I go there, then that.
  • Don’t fight the system. Mock the system.
  • But you, God gave you that ass for whipping.
  • 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.
  • He thinks he’s the policeman of the world. And that’s the problem with the world. We have people who cannot police themselves, so they want to police everyone else around them.