Following popular culture is exhausting and impossible. Why even bother to try? The new hit movie or song, the latest viral TikTok. There are so many; most can be easily missed.
But when someone I know recommends something, I pay attention. What’s the point of talking otherwise? When a young man in his twenties — a teacher from Chicago — asked me to read Trevor Noah’s book, “Born a Crime,” I immediately looked it up on Audible.
The fact that it was a #1 bestseller when it was released 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 from Noah may pop up on Twitter.
Noé was born in South Africa. A good book not only introduces you to people – Noah, his parents, his friends – but a place. “Born a Crime” – literally true in the case of Noah, born of an illegal union of his black mother and Swiss father – does just that. We see South Africa with its 11 official languages, its oppressive apartheid system where officials stick pencils in people’s hair and if the pencil stays in, you are black and you cannot live in certain areas . The Chinese are officially black, but the Japanese are officially white.
The book has one of the funniest sets I have ever read. Due to inadequate upbringing – it’s not 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 others Europeans. I won’t go into the details, so as not to spoil the reading of the book, which is absolutely necessary. Let’s just say the episode involves HItler and a dance party.
But that’s not why I’m writing this. I write this because the book is about our moment.
Noah shoves pirated CDs on the street, living on the fringes of crime. He buys a stolen camera.
“I’ll never forget that camera,” writes Noah. “It was a digital camera. … It was full of pictures of a nice white family on vacation.
Noah felt very bad.
“You don’t think about it. But this camera had a face. I looked through these photos, knowing how much my family photos meant to me, and thought, I didn’t steal a camera; I stole someone’s memories. I stole part of someone’s life.
He had an epiphany.
“In society, we do horrible things to each other because we don’t see the person it affects,” he wrote. “We don’t see their faces. We don’t see them as people. This is the reason the hood was built in the first place. To keep the victims of apartheid out of sight and out of mind. Because if ever whites considered blacks as humans, they would see that slavery is inadmissible. We live in a world where we don’t see the ramifications of what we do to others, because we don’t live with them.
He tackled a riddle. With all the problems facing the country, why the war on books, on education? Why ban anything that portrays gay kids or trans kids in a positive light? Why turn the most irreproachable slogan of all time – “Black Lives Matter” – into some kind of menacing brand of the Illuminati? And I remembered, reading Noah’s book: They are afraid to see their potential victims as people. A bully needs someone to kick, and if society is going to paint these people as decent, valuable, and equal, it’s harder to abuse them without consequence. They don’t want to see their face.
Another important line from the book. His mother is the hero of the story. Her ex-husband buys a gun which he later uses to shoot her in the head. (She survives.)
“Why did he buy a gun? Noah asks.
“I don’t know,” her mother replies. “He thinks he’s the policeman of the world, and that’s the problem with the world. We have people who can’t control themselves, so they want to control everyone around them.
Exactly. There’s a lot going around, but I’ve never heard it so good. Read the book.