5 Surprising Things You'll Learn from Trevor Noah's “Born a Crime”

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Somers, Jeffrey. "5 Surprising Things You'll Learn from Trevor Noah's “Born a Crime”." ThoughtCo, Mar. 6, 2017, thoughtco.com/trevor-noah-born-a-crime-4132424. Somers, Jeffrey. (2017, March 6). 5 Surprising Things You'll Learn from Trevor Noah's “Born a Crime”. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/trevor-noah-born-a-crime-4132424 Somers, Jeffrey. "5 Surprising Things You'll Learn from Trevor Noah's “Born a Crime”." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/trevor-noah-born-a-crime-4132424 (accessed September 25, 2017).
Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah
Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah.

Unless you keep up with the standup comedy scene, the arrival of Trevor Noah last year as Jon Stewart’s replacement on might have been a bit of a surprise. It’s easy to forget how relatively unknown Stewart himself was when he took over for Craig Kilborne in 1999. Noah’s assumption of the hosting duties wasn’t without controversy. Shortly after he was announced as host, some Tweets he’d sent a few years earlier surfaced, some of which were deemed tasteless, some even anti-semitic. Before he even began hosting, calls rolled in for him to step down. After a rocky first couple of episodes, some predicted he wouldn’t last long in the role.

Since then, Noah has proven that he has what it takes to last as a late-night host and continues to see his star rise. His recently-published memoir, Born a Crime, has spent 13 weeks on The New York Times’ Bestseller List, confirming that Noah’s brand of intelligent outsider comedy is winning over audiences in America. He’s an outsider, of course, because he was born and raised in South Africa, the son of a Xhosa mother and a Swiss-German father. Even if you're already familiar with Noah's background, his hilarious and insightful memoir is chock full of facts about the comedian that will surprise you. Here’s just five, to give you an idea.

The title Born a Crime was chosen very deliberately, because when Noah was born he was a crime—it was illegal in South Africa at the time for blacks and whites to have children (yes, really). In fact, Noah opens his book with a quote from the Immorality Act of 1927. Noah was born in 1984, just a few years before South Africa’s apartheid system collapsed, but that racist system and the Immorality Act had an immense influence on his early life, because Noah was very light-skinned. He never saw his father, and his mother had to hide him away, often acting as if he wasn’t her son in public for fear that she might be charged with a crime and arrested.

Noah didn’t have it easy, though as a light-skinned black man in South Africa he recounts that he often had it easier than others because he was mistaken for white—which spared him beatings and other abuses. Noah’s honest about the fact that he thought he got special treatment because he was special, rather than because of his skin color; he points out that he didn’t have any other light-skinned kids to show him that it wasn’t because he was so wonderful.

Noah was a prankster, and a bit of a wild child. In a series of hilarious anecdotes, he recounts some of his adventures in the extremely poor area he grew up in. One night when he was a teenager working (and living) at his stepfather’s auto repair shop, he borrowed a car from the shop. He was pulled over and arrested for auto theft, and spent a week in jail before being bailed out. He pretended he’d been visiting a friend, and didn’t realize until years later that his mother had paid for the lawyer who got him released.

Noah’s mixed racial status inspired him to become something of a mimic in order to survive; he says he found that the best way to fit in with people was to speak their language. English was most important; Noah says that in South Africa English “is the language of money” and being able to speak it opened doors everywhere—but he also speaks Zulu, and six other languages, including German, ​Tswana, and Afrikaans. He says that when he speaks German he has a “Hitler-ish” accent that can be off-putting, which is interesting, because ...

Noah tells a humorous story about his time as a DJ, and his friend who would come and dance at the parties Noah would book—a friend named Hitler. Noah explains that in South Africa there’s only a superficial concept of some Western historical figures, and names are often used without any idea of their significance, leading to a surreal moment at a Jewish school when the Noah gets the dancefloor popping and suddenly everyone is chanting ​Go Hitler! Go Hitler! as his friend tears it up.

Names are central to Noah’s life; he explains that in the Xhosa culture, names have specific meanings. His mother’s name Nombuyiselo, for example, means “She Who Gives Back.” What does Trevor mean? Nothing; his mother specifically chose a name that had no meaning so that her son would have no fate and would be free to do whatever he wanted.

Noah freely admits he was a bit of a pyromaniac in his youth. He once burned down the house of a white family whose maid was the mother of a friend of his, leading to a moment where his mother literally cannot even punish him because she is so stunned by what’s transpired. The funniest bit is when a young Trevor empties gunpowder from several firecrackers into a planter and accidentally drops a match into it; when his mother asks if he’s been playing with fire he says no, of course not, and she tells him she knows he’s lying. When he looks in the mirror, he’s burned off his eyebrows!

Serious, Hilarious

Born a Crime is a serious look at growing up in the final days of apartheid, growing up poor, and growing up with a strong, loving mother. It’s an absorbing look at another culture and at the early life of a smart, funny man who has gone from one of the poorest and most racially troubled places in the world to become a bona-fide American celebrity.