Friday, July 15, 2022

‘Born a Crime’ speaks to now

     Keeping up with popular culture is exhausting and impossible. Why bother even trying? The new hit movie or song, the latest viral TikTok. There’s so much of it; most can be easily missed.
     But when somebody I know recommends something, I pay attention. What’s the point of talking otherwise? When a young man in his 20s — a Chicago teacher — urged me to read Trevor Noah’s book, “Born a Crime,” I immediately sought it out on Audible.
     The fact that it had been a No. 1 bestseller when it came out in 2016 was news to me. I knew exactly one thing about Noah: he replaced Jon Stewart on his TV show, which I never watch. Occasionally a quip of Noah’s might pop up on Twitter.
     Noah was born in South Africa. A good book introduces you not only to people — Noah, his parents, his friends — but to a place. “Born a Crime” — literally true in Noah’s case, born of an illegal union of his Black mother and Swiss father — does exactly that. We see South Africa with its 11 official languages, its oppressive Apartheid system where officials are sticking pencils in people’s hair and if the pencil stays in place, you’re Black, and you can’t live in certain areas. Chinese people are officially Black, but Japanese are officially white.
     The book contains one of the funniest set pieces I’ve ever read. Because of inadequate education — it isn’t just Texas — a Black South African family will sometimes name their baby “Hitler” in honor of the powerful guy in the distant past who caused so much trouble for other Europeans. I won’t go into detail, so as not to spoil it when you read the book, which you absolutely should. Let’s just say the episode involves Hitler and a dance party.
     But that isn’t why I’m writing this. I’m writing this because the book speaks to our moment.
     Noah is hustling pirated CDs in the street, living on the margins of crime. He buys a stolen camera.

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  1. " on the margins of crime." When I read the book a few months ago, I kept thinking, "When is he going to go to jail...or get killed?" Those margins here and probably more so in South Africa are very narrow and straying to one side or the other can be fatal. He's one lucky guy.



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