Africa, African History, Apartheid, biography, Biography as Craft, Book Review, Born a Crime, Born a Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood, Father-Son Relationship, fathers, Feminism, history, Hitch-22, Humor, Jim Henson: A Life, Jon Stewart, library card, Masculinity Studies, memoir, mothers, Politics, race, racism, Racism is not logical, Satire, sex, Sexual politics, Sexual Rhetoric, South Africa, The Daily Show, Tolstoy, Trevor Noah, Tyler Public Library, violence, What Mothers Give Their Children
I’m pretty sure my mother is using me for my library card.
Ever since I started working for the Tyler Public Library my eyes have opened to the pettiness of local government, and the pain that can sometimes be public service. The Tyler Library is a significant one: we have one of the few full time Genealogy/Local History rooms that is open full time in East Texas. Along with that we serve a wide variety of people who come in looking for books, DVDs, access to computers and the internet, and a regular series of public speaking events in which people come to listen and watch professionals talk on topics ranging from Rose growing to the future of Nuclear Arsenal Diplomacy on the international stage. The problem with the library, like almost every library I’m sure, is funding. Because only the city of Tyler’s taxes go to fund us, people who live within the county but not the city have to pay a membership fee. My reader may be wondering what this has to do with my mother or Trevor Noah’s wonderful autobiography Born a Crime. I’m sorry, I like to talk, but I’m getting to it.
My mother lives in Smith county but she lives in a small town called Noonday which barely caps 400 people. She then, like many people in Smith county, complain about the fact that their tax dollars are being taken but they still have to pay to use the library. In her defense, she understands the money situation since I’ve explained it to her, but often I have to smile and carefully explain to patrons that the county refuses to pay us and therefore we have to charge a fee to stay in the black. Few people really understand this because of the unspoken maxim that I agree with in principle: Libraries should be free.*
But my mother likes to read and I like my mother, she’s got good taste in music and pays my cell phone bill, so I decided to arrange a system in which I would check out books that she wants to read and loan them to her. The system has worked so far, but as I noted from the start I think she’s enjoying this arrangement because every time I see her she’s asking for another book.
This little anecdote though does serve a purpose because as I noted before this essay is my response to Trevor Noah’s autobiography Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. I didn’t know about Trevor Noah at all until he got in trouble for an offensive tweet, and to be fair that was really only because he was taking over for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and people were looking to disrupt the institution at this supposed moment of weakness. Stewart left, Noah began, I stopped watching for a while. It wasn’t that he wasn’t funny, it just that he was new and I’m one of those obnoxious people who has to settle into things slowly. Still I enjoy The Daily Show and Noah himself has begun to really demonstrate that he’s made The Daily Show into his own and so I’ve become a regular watcher again, and in fact, in the last few months I’ve come to adore Trevor Noah as a comedian, and even more as a writer and Born a Crime is largely responsible.
I checked the book out from the library (my desk is literally right next to the New Books area) and read the first two chapters knowing instantly that my mother would love this book. I know it sounds ridiculous or absurd to suggest that I have anything in common with a celebrity (especially one who’s seemed to have a far more interesting and eventful life than I have), but reading these first two chapters I realized that Trevor Noah and his mother had a relationship that mirrored the relationship my mother and I have. A strange closeness that fortunately isn’t Oedipal.
I told her to read just the first two chapters.
I didn’t get the book back for a week.
Noah’s biography took me completely by surprise because I’ve read the autobiographies of comedians before, and most of them, if I’m being charitable, aren’t worth reading. It’s not that they aren’t funny, it’s just that most of them are just opportunities to track their individual development and show where they’ve come from. I know there’s merit and real humanity in such works, but the problem is too often these books are also just a chance to rap and ramble about everything and anything that comes into their heads. Noah’s book is different however, because his story chronicles not just his awkward puberty and childhood, it also tackles the issues of race, political corruption, domestic violence, crime, and poverty while still managing to be entertaining and well written. Trevor Noah’s very existence was a crime because, growing up in South Africa during apartheid, being the child of a black woman and a white man, he was a crime against the state.
Noah’s book often explores the sheer absurdity of apartheid in small segments between the chapters of the book. One passage which is one of my mother’s favorites, discusses the labeling of Chinese South Africans as black. He explains:
Apartheid, for all it’s power, had fatal flaws baked in, starting with the fact that it never made any sense. Racism is not logical. Consider this: Chinese people were classified as black in South Africa. I don’t mean that 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 tie, 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 the honorary white status while Chinese people stayed black. (75).
I still can’t read this passage without cracking up. The stupidity is just mind-boggling. Then again the United States Constitution originally labeled black people as three fifths of a human being so I suppose it’s important to remember that racism is a worldly stupidity rather than just a regional one.
One of the joys of reading Noah’s biography is the fact that, as a comedian, his retelling of one of the most truly despicable institutionalized race segregationist policies never becomes dramatic, hyperbolic, or soul-crushingly depressing. Instead of levelling on and on about the atrocities of apartheid, Noah tries constantly to present the small absurdities in his life while observing how they would relate to the wider national community. And in this right, I would argue, Noah succeeds far better in demonstrating the ineffectiveness of apartheid, because while concerted political efforts were what ultimately brought down such an odious system, it’s the power of subverting the institution through laughter that a real victory is achieved.
If you can laugh at something, it’s difficult to take it too seriously.
There so many levels to Noah’s biography in terms of race. One of the most prominent is also one of the hilarious and tragic scenes in the book. Noah describes his early infancy when his mother and biological father tried to take Noah outside for activity.
Where most children are proof of their parent’s love I was the proof of their criminality. The only time I could be with my father was indoors. If we left the house, he’d half to walk across the street from us. My mom and I used to go to Joubert Park all the time. It’s the Central Park of Johannesburg—beautiful gardens a zoo, a giant chess-board with human-sized pieces that people would play. My mother tells me that once, when I was a toddler, my dad tried to go with us, and I ran after him, screaming, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” People started. He panicked and ran away. I thought it was a game and kept chasing him. (27).
This passage is funny upon first reading, but by the second or third time I’m reading it I wonder (while still laughing) the pain of not being able to even be seen in public with your child.
Before I start the maudlin crap though I really do want to acknowledge how well written this biography is. I’ve observed before that it can be difficult to find truly great biographies. A.N. Wilson’s Tolstoy is always the first that comes to mind, Che: A Revolutionary Life by Jo Lee Anderson comes next, Jim Henson: A Life by Brian Jay Jones (Also look up his George Lucas), Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens, I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, and recently I’ve begun Life by Keith Richards. This list may seem to contradict my statement before about the scarcity of truly great biographies but in fact it only reinforces it. These books are products of a careful craft (pardon the alliteration) that tries to leave the reader with a real sense of the person under discussion, and rather than try to chronicle every detail of a person’s existence, it instead tries to offer the heart and personality in all its beauty and flaws.
Reading Born a Crime I feel like I know Trevor Noah’s personality, rather than just his facts.
And if I can offer one last sentiment, what is beautiful about the book for me is how much I come to recognize that the pair of us do have one thing in common: we grew up under strong women. The impression of Born a Crime that lingers for me is how Patricia Noah helped shape Trevor into the man he became. One quote is enough to see this because I return to it over and over again:
I 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 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 the futility of violence, the cycle that just repeats itself, the damage that’s inflicted on people that they in turn inflict upon 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. (262).
This passage is beautiful to me because it perfectly summarizes the home I was raised in, or at least the philosophy that governed it. Both of my parents grew up in homes where physical abuse was not controversial, it was just a common means of discipline. I was raised by parents who disagreed with that idea, who instead wanted their children to see that violence doesn’t check anything, all it does is inspire more of itself. Violence becomes a kind of cancer eating at the people who perform it and suffer from it until there’s nothing left. If anything, this passage seems like the most important in the entire book because ultimately this biography centers on Noah and his mother.
The relationships between mothers and sons can be complicated, because if men profess too much admiration or devotion to them the accusation of Oedipus complex becomes a loud prison sentence. Anyone who needs much evidence of this simply look to the “Martha” controversy of Batman Vs Superman. But mothers are important for a young man’s development because she becomes the first relationship. Mothers, the good ones anyway, teach their sons emotional strength and then eventually how to interact with the world. They teach them the proper ways to speak and act towards women. They teach them about the importance of family. They teach their sons love, and what that word really means against the supposed images and representations of it that crowd the media. This last lesson is important, the most important, because as Noah’s biography demonstrates that love is what helps develop people into the individuals they are and instills in them their ideals and moral constructions.
I had a wonderful mother who encouraged me to create and love rather than destroy. That guidance has led me to where I am today. Likewise, Noah had a loving mother who suffered and endured a pain that would break most people, but through it all endured and taught her son that essential quality.
Born a Crime isn’t just a story about racism, it’s a testament to a mother’s love for her son. And his success is only further proof that she probably deserves some kind of official “Mom of the Year” award, because you don’t get shot in the head and live through that and not receive any kind of accommodation. Spoilers.
Since writing this essay one of the library staff explained, rather effectively, that nothing in life is “free,” and in fact if you look at the way libraries work since their founding, they are most certainly not free. Books, internet access, and DVDs don’t magically appear from thin air and so libraries have to receive fuding of some kind, usually from taxes and grant funding. I’m writing this out because this attitude of “Libraries should be free” is bullshit and it needs to stop being perpetuated.
All quotes from Born a Crime were taken from the Spiegel & Grau First edition hardback copy.
For the record I don’t mind if my mother uses my library card. Shegave birth me and continues to support me financially, philosophically, emotionally, intellectually, etc., and reads whatever I write here. She also, from time to time, recommends great books. So thanks Mom, you rock. Love you.