Monday, July 15, 2024

In Memory of a Coloured Crime


By Tolu Akinwole

  • Title: Born a Crime and Other Stories
  • Author: Trevor Noah
  • Publisher: Pan Macmillan South Africa
  • Number of pages: 342
  • Year of publication: 2016
  • Category: Memoir

Ensconced in your cosy couch in your snug living room, you are watching a television show. It is one of these satirical television shows that analyse political happenings in the US. You are not, perhaps, an American, but you know these are very interesting times for Americans. The host is a fair-complexioned young man who is doing an impressive job of ‘cracking up’ his audience and incisively analysing the American political situation. Now you are asking yourself questions: ‘Who is that man?’ ‘Where did he get that insight from?’ You can easily figure out the answer to the first question because his name gleams on the screen almost as soon as you ask yourself, as if you and the television were elements of a piece of science fiction in which the television has learnt to read the human mind: Trevor Noah. The answer to the second question is hidden in Born a Crime and Other Stories, a charming summary of the first three decades of his life. Trevor Noah’s memoir recounts the adventure of an outsider in his own land, a lone leaf afloat on a troubled sea.

In apartheid South Africa, the white man ruled. He was special. He was much smarter than all other creatures, Africans and monkeys inclusive. He was not to contaminate his blue blood by mating with Africans, the natives. He did not just tell himself to keep his very special blood from contamination – he went ahead to ensure it. So, in 1927, the apartheid iron heart conceived and enacted a law dubbed the ‘Immorality Act’:

Any European male who has illicit carnal intercourse with a native female, and any native male who has illicit carnal intercourse with a European female…shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years

Any native female who permits any European male to have illicit carnal intercourse with her and any European female who permits any native male to have illicit carnal intercourse with her shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to imprisonment for a period not exceeding four years (p vii).

It was under the oppressive watch of this law, in the early 1980s, that a Swiss man met a daring Xhosa woman. Drinks shared, visits exchanged, and a relationship blossomed. Somewhere down the line, a criminal act occurred, and nine months later, the apartheid world welcomed the result of that crime, whose first thirty years of life were bound to be adventurous.

Noah spent the first two decades of his life running: running from the iron fist of racism, running from the poverty that beleaguered his people, running from the shadows of a stifling world, running from the abuse of an alcoholic stepfather. Is there any more reason why the opening story is aptly entitled ‘Run’? The nature of his birth necessitated his estrangement from his father, so that he was raised by his mother.

Noah was born a few years to the end of apartheid, but that offered him little as his family struggled to adjust to the restructuring that took place after the fall of apartheid. Being a black woman afforded his mother only so many opportunities, a situation that his being coloured did nothing to improve. His mother, a secretary, threw herself into the business of bringing him up. Beyond getting him enrolled in a good school, she ensured that he understood the world around him. At times, mother and child would walk into forbidden terrain and marvel at the opulence of the white people around them. This, Noah recounts, she did in order to show him that life transcended the claustrophobic space available to him in an environment hostile to the colour of his skin.

They – a strict, religious mother and a mischievous coloured boy – made a great team, wading blithely through besetting challenges. Well, mischievous may not be word for a boy who set a house on fire and landed his best friend in trouble, but he found a match in his indefatigable mother. The comradeship was soon to be broken by an interloper, his stepfather, Abel, an excellent mechanic who drowned his genius in bottles of alcohol.

Abel could not be helped, and he proved it too well. When his wife, Noah’s mother, helped him to acquire a workshop, he discovered the workshop was steeped in debt, no thanks to his failure to do the necessary checks. It took his wife’s courage and sacrifice, which included selling her house and investing the money in the business, to get the business afloat. However, Abel’s penchant for alcohol and his inordinate pride sank the workshop, for he drank away his money and when his wife brought her office-keeping expertise to the business he could not bear the accolades she got from his friends. Eventually, Noah’s mother legally divorced Abel, who only went on to cap his proclivity for violence by acquiring a gun, which would later come in handy on the day he decided to get rid of her.

Noah eventually moved out to start life on his own. He plunged headlong into the wild world of Alexandria, a growing black community in post-apartheid South Africa. Disk-jockeying, dubbing CDs and retailing stolen items, he strung body and soul together and gradually wormed his way, through personal mishaps, into the glamorous world of entertainment. Now sitting behind the host’s desk in a lofty, New York studio, Noah looks back at the road that has brought him from South Africa to North America with a smile.

The eighteen stories in Born a Crime take on the task of criticising discriminatory structures in all forms. Each story, prefaced with a short background commentary, is interspersed with sharp notes on racism. For instance, pointing out the ludicrousness of the racist establishment, Noah inserts this in the ninth tale, ‘The Mulberry Tree’:

The legal definition of a white person under apartheid was ‘one who in appearance is obviously a white person who is generally not accepted as a coloured person; or is generally accepted as a white person and is not in appearance obviously a white person’. In other words, it was completely arbitrary. That’s where the government came up with things like the pencil test. If you were applying to be white, the pencil went into your hair. If it fell out, your curls were not too tight and you were thus white. If it stayed in, your curls were too tight so you were coloured. Sometimes, that came down with to a lone clerk eyeballing your face and making a snap decision (p 139).

Often, Noah makes an entire story a humorous jibe at the apartheid system, turning it upon its own head. Take the ironic turn of events in the thirteenth story, entitled ‘Colourblind’, as an example. Young Noah quickly discovered that the apartheid organisation was riddled with loopholes, which he exploited. It is interesting that the life of one man – who is not at all done with life yet (for life begins at forty!) – could so eloquently lampoon the suffocating societal structure into which he was born.

Obviously, Noah directs his humour to a purpose. Each story is reminiscent of what philosophers and humourists have termed the incongruity theory of humour, à la Simon Critchley. By describing the ridiculousness of the events related in each tale, Noah projects the irregularity of a thoughtless regime. He points out that the apartheid system, like every despotic government characterised by abrasive force, lacks the dignity of common sense. He goes on to analyse post-apartheid South Africa. In the twelfth story, ‘A Young Man’s Long, Awkward, Occasionally Tragic and Frequently Humiliating Education in Affairs of the Heart, Part III: The Dance’, in which beautiful, gorgeously adorned Babiki could not speak English, for instance, he offers a comment on the linguistic diversity of post-apartheid South Africa in which the government accords official status to eleven major languages, thus inadvertently building a Tower of Babel.

Noah is not one to indulge in excessive linguistic embellishments that sap the life out of a story, nor is his work over-edited. Each word in each story says exactly what it is meant to say, simply, clearly, beautifully. In keeping with his purpose of giving an honest and witty report of his life, he adopts a simple style, stepping down from the pedestal of privilege and identifying with common people. Rather than drag the oppressed into the dry well of self-pity, Noah provides a reason for creative reflection on the organisation of societies. In any way you want to read it – whether as a collection of short stories, as memoir, as social commentary, as material for sociological studies in race relations, or as research material in the burgeoning field of memory studies – you will find Born a Crime and Other Stories amenable to your goal.

As Khaya Dlanga (whose memoir also graces the shelves) declares, Noah’s is the story of South Africa. More than that, it is the story of anyone and everyone who has tasted the gall of oppression. In a word, Born a Crime and Other Stories is a superbly created, cathartic interaction with history, a poignant evocation of memory.

Photograph: ‘01.WMATA.WestHyattsville.MD.10October2015’ by Elvert Barnes

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Tolu Akinwole
Tolu Akinwole
Tolu Akinwole is a student of literature. Because talk is cheap, he writes.

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