Born a Crime

Trevor Noah’s standup comedy has always been impressive. From seeing clips of him as a rising star in South Africa, to seeing him around the NYC standup circuit, I always found his perspective funny, well-argued and refreshing. But as they say, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Or else, among comedians trying to tell jokes, bringing even a little wisdom and political acuity can make you seem wiser than you actually are.

In his turn as host of the Daily Show, these flaws have started to show a little more. His recent, viral, interview with Tomi Lahren, for example, betrayed not a fully formed world view, political acumen, and strong perspective, but a smug, dismissive tone that seemed self-congratulatory, ready to accept the lauding of an audience who was already ready to agree with him.

All of that is preamble, to say, that although his book Born a Crime is full of great stories, and even decent writing at times, it is not literary, wise or deeply thought. All of this is fine, he’s an entertainer, his targets are usually not sophisticated readers of literary writing, but some of the discussion of this book made it seem (at least to me) like a deeper exploration of race, class, immigration and identity than what I found in these pages.

One example that captures this feeling, for me, was his discussion of his name. He says his mom named him this because it means nothing, she wanted for him a blank slate, a future that he could shape from his own molding. This is clearly not the case. A quick google search reveals that Trevor, like any name, has an etymology. It may not be grounded in South African culture, but it exists. Instead of stopping where he stopped in this line of thought, he could have pressed a step further, exploring what it meant for his mom, a black woman (who is the most fascinating part of this book), to marry a black man, name her colored child a European name. There is a whole line of thought waiting to be dug up there that’s left untouched.

I probably sound harsher than I intend. My aim is to mostly warn people who may approach this book after its inclusion on best-of lists, and its favorable reviews, expecting something that isn’t there.