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Book Review: BORN A CRIME by Trevor Noah

Born a CrimeBorn a Crime by Trevor Noah

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the back of the book, his bio states simply: Trevor Noah is a comedian from South Africa.

Enigmatic is a word I would add. This is not the story of Trevor Noah’s rise to fame. Indeed, there’s no clear connection from the stories he shares to where he is now.

I’m sure a great deal of the book was intended to be humorous and purposefully irreverent, but I read undercurrents of resentment and extreme selfishness. At some points there was incredible incongruity in the retelling. He writes that he felt (and still feels) no guilt for the enormous repercussions others faced for his actions (i.e. unemployment, homelessness and jail time)…. when those others were Black South African domestic workers and their children. However, he then writes how guilt ridden he was when one of his buddies brought him a stolen digital camera to resell (as part of his regular hustle) with images of a white family vacationing. He actually went into detail about how that one thing, so insignificant compared to other stories he shared, had the power to make him evaluate the direction his life was going in. He was devastated by the thought of a well-off white family being robbed of their vacation photos… even as he sat on a corner in the Alexandra slums taking advantage of his fellow oppressed Black South African neighbors. That was difficult to read and hard to swallow.

Instances like this and others made it feel as if he were playing to an audience. Throughout the book, he played to several different audiences: Americans, Black Americans, the World, South Africa, white people. All large scale and somewhat large in scope with little to no intimacy.
That being said, Born a Crime is a good read. The pacing is consistent throughout. Noah’s commentary on various cultural and societal norms as well as the history of South Africa is insightful and at some times, eye-opening. There’s no real chronology to the stories, he actually jumps around quite a bit with no solid grasp of time period or age, but the stories flow well together.

Early on the book comes across as a loving tribute to his mother. He shared some beautiful moments and teachings from his mom. Towards the middle the underlying resentment becomes quite prominent. I got the sense that there’s quite a bit he has yet to come to terms with, to accept or to forgive. He explains situations and rationalizes experiences but he doesn’t really express any real understanding or empathy for the people he’s writing about. Which is surprising, considering how he prefers to talk about his mother’s courage and devotion to providing for and protecting her children. There are also stunning moments when he belittles his mother on the sly… while propping himself up. His intelligence. His speed. His independence. His logic and realism. Eventually, at a very young age, he became better than his mother. He doesn’t explicitly say this, but it is implied throughout. Ironically, one of his biggest tributes to his mother is her insistence that he learn to think for himself, that he question authority and systems. It becomes evident that his critical thinking and questioning led to an internal rejection of his mother, her faith and cultural beliefs. Due to the way life flows, there is also hope that his thinking will bring him full circle to a wholesome appreciation for everything his mother is and represents.

Common Themes:

Church and faith: Christianity as a white man’s religion. Trevor Noah appears to have equal low regard for the practice of Christianity and tribal mysticism. He writes a great deal about his mother’s faith but nothing of his own. In this way he provides the scope of a panoramic image (mother, tribe, cultural history) without the intimacy of his details (is he a Christ believer, follower, practitioner?).

Critical thinking and breaking cycles of bondage: Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah is a rebel with a cause. She didn’t so much spend time questioning the systems and norms as much as figuring out how she could get around them to live her life on her terms. From an early age, she made decisions for her life and grew from the consequences and results of her decision. She was determined not to live in her mother’s home on tribal homelands in obscure servitude as the second girl child in the family. She was even more determined not to raise children who were beholden to the past and the tribe. Her intelligence, her perseverance, her dexterity, her independence allowed her to venture where most Black people did not dare in apartheid South Africa. Bit by bit, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah carved out a space for herself in a world that was completely against her. Then she made room for her son, Trevor. Eventually, she enlarged that space to include her growing family. When I first read the below passage, I thought, “Even if showing Trevor that the ghetto was not the world was all she had done, she would have indeed accomplished a great deal.”

People thought my mom was crazy. Ice rinks and drive-ins and suburbs, these things were izinto zabelungu – the things of white people. So many black people internalized the logic of apartheid and made it their own. Why teach a black child white things? Neighbors and relatives used to pester my mom. “Why do all this? Why show him the world when he’s never going to leave the ghetto?”

“Because,” she would say, “even if he never leaves the ghetto, he will know that the ghetto is not the world. If that is all I accomplish, I’ve done enough.”

Ms. Noah, you’ve done a superb job!

Independence and outsider: Trevor Noah writes about being an outsider everywhere he went at each stage of life he shares about. Perhaps more from that feeling than his mom’s teachings, he grew to be fiercely independent. It also seems clear that his fondest days were when it was just him and his mom. Before the family expanded and he became an outsider in his own home. In some instances it seems the idea of independence and being an outsider morphed to mean the same thing and become somewhat interchangeable in the retelling of his stories.

Power and impact of choice: At one point he writes: “Nobody wants to be rich. People want to have choices. Money gives you choices.” Perhaps overall, he dissected his movement through the world as varying levels of opportunity and choice. On some level, he may truly believe that money equals choice and translates to power. Perhaps he thought as he took advantage of his opportunities he could create the power to choose his life as well. Ultimately, he has. However, the glaring power moves he made in Born a Crime were when he accepted the benefits of being mixed/colored/lighter skinned in black and white communities when doing so put other black people at a severe disadvantage and occasionally harm’s way.

My mother used to tell me, “I chose to have you because I wanted something to love and something that would love me unconditionally in return.” I was a product of her search for belonging. She never felt like she belonged anywhere.

Love, discipline and rebellion: Noah thinks his mother was too hard on him, but it seems like she let him get away with a lot just from exhaustion. In many ways he parallels his life with his mothers’ life. Her quest for love and belonging became his. Her need to discipline him birthed his need to out-maneuver her and perhaps show her how little he needed her in general. On the flip side, he also viewed her rebellion as his natural inheritance.

Freedom: There is a strong cord of freedom flowing throughout the stories Trevor Noah shares. As a concept, reality, illusion, wish, hope… as something somehow always out of reach. A couple of times, regarding his own troubles and the poor Black South African community in general, Noah writes, “They’re free, they’ve been taught how to fish, but no one will give them a fishing rod.” At one point, he thanks someone from a privileged class for giving him a rod. The analogy has a false ring to it. Or perhaps it’s simply incomplete. The poor, oppressed and disadvantaged people of the world are not incapable of enjoying their freedom because the lack the tools to nourish it. The poor, oppressed and disadvantaged people of the world are prevented from accessing resources (farmable lands, drinking water, washing water, bodies of water with fish, etc.). He actually writes about how the South African government purposefully removed groups of people from their tribal lands and forced them onto near barren lands and locked them in with walls and guns. When apartheid fell, the people pretty much stayed where they had been put for the last century, i.e. Soweto and Alexandra. The irony of looking to your oppressor for a handout is painful. The way around that is to exercise your freedom. Make your way to the resource you need and figure out how to nourish yourself with the tools on hand. Usually the only tools we have are our own two hands. However, necessity is the mother of invention. The poor, oppressed and disadvantage people of the world have been made to think that their better life is on the other side of a wall. In other words, that they need their oppressors. They don’t. They only need access to resources that cannot be owned, but that men the world over continue to capitalize on and create barriers around.

Language and Communication: One of the most beautiful illustrations in Born a Crime, is Trevor Noah’s use of language. He speaks several languages and learned at an early age that language, not skin color is the true indicator of belonging and community. When you speak a person’s language you are able to speak to their heart (paraphrased). Even as he shared how he was able to switch from being an outsider to an insider by speaking the language of the group he was attempting to appear like or to infiltrate, he also showed how speaking the same language with no common understanding is as disastrous as speaking different languages while working towards the same goal. In some ways, Born a Crime is a micro study of how communication between and within groups can go awry and also how it can tie us all together.

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Quote: You are a fact.

Randall:  I was a replacement for your dead baby, that’s all I’ve ever been. I spent my life striving for perfection. You know why, Dad? Because I live in fear that if I let up for a moment, I will remember that I am unwanted. And then what’ll happen to me?”

Jack:  The moment I saw you, I knew you were my boy.You were never a replacement son, do you understand? You weren’t a choice, Randall. You are a fact.

~ Jack and his adopted son, Randall, during a mushroom induced conversation Randall had with his deceased father in This Is Us, Ep. 9

jack-and-young-randall

Jack and young Randall taking part in Father/Son Initiation at a martial arts studio in an effort to provide Randall with role models he could identify with.

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Struggle & Triumph

20160805_213854We all carry a flame of passion within us that we struggle to bring (lift) into the physical world (our lives). Oftentimes it feels like we’re diving headfirst off a cliff… or we don’t move forward because we fear falling on our face… or we fear losing face. However, if we can only summon the courage to keep going, or to get up after a fall, or numerous falls, we will eventually finish. We will complete what we started. We will triumph. We will win more than gold. We faced our biggest fears, wrestled with our most deadly demons, dove deep within ourselves and rose again victorious! Our prize will be the sure knowledge that we are more than conquerors for we have overcome ourselves. 

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In defense of Ms. Patti LaBelle owning her overall pie success

Last weekend the internet, i.e. the known world, turned against Patti LaBelle. The weekend prior to last Patti’s new pie venture with Walmart sold out across the country. The Patti-pie craze was ignited by a humorous, but irreverent video by a Patti LaBelle admirer and voice mimic, James Wright (11/12/15). On Nov 20, TMZ posted a video of Patti stating, “I did it myself,” when asked about James Wright’s contribution to her successful pie sales over the weekend. All over the internet, people loss their minds. I read numerous posts calling for a boycott of Patti’s pie. There was even a photo of a full boxed pie in the trash. Most disturbing were the people calling her names and vilifying her for being ungracious about James Wright’s contribution to her pie success. People insisted she was taking “all the credit” when someone else basically put her pie on the map. I became offended on her behalf and on behalf of every woman who has ever been maligned and castigated for representing herself fully and unapologetically. I became offended for every woman who didn’t think for a second she needed to cede her work, her life, her efforts and her value to a man.

I am of the opinion that Patti LaBelle is right: she did do it herself (inclusive only of giving credit to one person; not excluding God at all). As I shared in my own Facebook comments: it’s her life, her name, her legacy, her reputation, her recipe, her pie. It was the public’s collective knowledge and familiarity with all of her public self that had them rushing to buy her pie at Walmart. Yes, James Wright took word-of-mouth to another level with a video that went viral, but it was still word of mouth. How many millions of people over the last five decades have sang her praises or encouraged others to go out and purchase something of hers? How much does she owe all of those millions of people? Other than a sincere “thank you” and continuing to be her true self, she doesn’t owe us anything. And even that, she actually owes to herself and her Creator. I’ll note here: she has been thanking James for his video since nine minutes after he posted it. But apparently, people all over the internet don’t think that is enough.

Shade 1: No one knew about Patti LaBelle’s pie until James Wright did a video about it.

The video is not viral because James Wright is singing in his own voice. He’s singing in Patti LaBelle’s voice and hitting her notes with impressive ease. His whole premise was: Patti’s pie will turn you into Patti LaBelle!

This is a certainty: If not for Patti LaBelle, we would not be talking about James Wright right now.

The backlash against Patti LaBelle makes it sound as if James Wright put her on the map. No one in the world would know about her pies if he hadn’t enlightened us? Really? She’s been putting out cookbooks for decades and she talks about her cooking – as her true blessing – every where she goes. Not only that, other celebrities talk about her cooking!

No, I did not know about the pie being on sale at Walmart before I saw James’ video, but I certainly knew Patti was well known for her cooking and I’ve been wanting her cookbook for years. That said, I didn’t know about James Wright at all until I saw his video about Patti LaBelle. I’m not dismissing James Wright or his contribution to bringing awareness to Patti’s pie at Walmart. What he did amounts to word of mouth on a social media viral scale. If James Wright had sang about LaShawnda’s pies in my voice, there would be no internet sensation. That’s my bottom line. He sang about a legend in her voice and, in her own words, hit her notes higher than she did. That’s why he’s a sensation right now. That’s why I don’t think she was being arrogant or ungracious or rude or dismissive by stating, “I did that.” She was simply being herself.

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Shade 2: Patti LaBelle is ungracious for taking “all” the credit for her pie sales.

The primary complaint is that she isn’t grateful enough for what James Wright’s video did for her. She said “thank you.” She called him and thanked him personally. In Mr. Wright’s own words on The Roll Out (warning: there’s a great deal of profane and offensive language in this video), they spoke for about 15min before she went on stage in London (mark 6:17-30). That would have been before she received weekend sales data following his review post on Wednesday, November 11, 2015 (The Roll Out is showing an interview date of November 13).

My point is: the impact on his life is much greater due to his review than it is on Patti LaBelle’s life. And that’s okay. We all look for a star to hitch on to. And James Wright picked a tried and true star to hitch himself to.

Devaluing Patti LaBelle because she owned her own success is amazingly arrogant on the public’s part. Unfortunately, the internet bashers are not the only ones who think Patti LaBelle is unworthy to claim responsibility for her own success. According to Fortune.com the sales are due to Walmart’s retail strategy: “Sales have soared since the retailer has improved its baked goods.” Their “retail strategy” consisted of dumping their own pie and purchasing rights to Patti LaBelle’s sweet potato pie recipe. Key words: Patti LaBelle. Apparently that doesn’t matter because corporate America will continue to focus on Walmart’s “retail strategy” and the public will focus on James Wright’s viral video. No one is focused on giving this woman credit for building and sustaining her own name and reputation over a fifty-plus-year career in the public eye. That’s amazing to me.

Please notice in the statement below, that what appears like a huge deal out of context (i.e. with context: Walmart sells two pumpkin pies per second during this time of year and Patti LaBelle’s lifetime legacy excites generations of people), is just regular business for Walmart:

Walmart representative John Forrest Ales confirmed to Yahoo Food that the sweet potato pies are selling like hot cakes (er, pies) at locations across the country. “For 72 hours, we were selling one per second,” he told us. Ales wouldn’t go into specifics about sales figures, but at $3.48 a pie, that works out to just under $1 million in sales over the weekend. The pie’s product page is currently the most-visited food site on Walmart.com, Ales said. (For a bit of context, Walmart might sell two pumpkin pies every second in the month of November. But still, $1 million in sweet potato pie sales is a lot of pie.) ~ Yahoo News

Keep in mind the pie came to market in September and as far as I can find, neither Patti LaBelle nor Walmart were promoting the pie. However, it’s safe to assume that had either one done so, the result would have been the same.

Gripe 1: Who you callin’ a bitch?

I understand that colloquial language is all about applying degrading monikers as terms of endearment, however I don’t appreciate it, nor do I agree with any instance of it.

I watched James Wright’s video and I laughed and clapped when he burst out in song. He does sounds like Patti LaBelle. I didn’t share the video because he referred to Patti LaBelle as “bitch” and used the word several (8) times throughout his video in addition to a MF bomb, ending with: Patti, bitch, you are my friend! (3:08)

To many, calling a woman a “bitch” is just another word for female or woman. Not to me. So for that, I did not share the video. What I did do was enjoy Patti LaBelle’s and other’s songs from the 1980’s and 90’s. James Wright inspired me to go back to the original and enjoy her voice directly.

In none of the reading I’ve done regarding this video have I read one comment about James’ irreverent and disrespectful language. Maybe no one remarked because it went unnoticed. Maybe it went unnoticed because “that’s how black people speak”…or… because it was said in a playful tone…or…because it wasn’t meant as an insult…or…because, perhaps, all black women are bitches…. Heck, even Queen Latifah said “When we playing, it’s cool,” in U.N.I.T.Y., a song all about a woman calling out those who call her a “bitch.” Who knows what the individual or collective reasoning is? Patti LaBelle as “bitch” didn’t cause a stir because the video was entertaining and hilarious. Yes, I enjoyed the majority of James Wright’s performance, but I also cringed each time he used derogatory terms. However, there was no enjoyment at all in hearing a living legend, a woman I’ve admired my whole life, referred to as “bitch” simply for clicks…and humor.

It should be noted that though James may not have intended any harm with his use of the word, the same word being used in comments all over the internet is indeed intended to be offensive. This is the world we live in. People will boycott a singer’s pies (from a recipe she’s been talking about for decades) because her “thank you” to someone who liked it didn’t sound grateful, but an ecstatic review by that same someone peppered with bitches and MFs receives no comment at all. No correction. No admonishment. No update after the widespread viewing. As a Black Woman in America, I take issue with the hatefully dismissive and belittling words whether they are coming from outside the community or from within.

Gripe 2: Flexing economic muscle

My first Facebook comment about this situation stated:

….I think the way the black community is turning on her for “not being gracious enough” is representative of our issues as a community. What’s the bar for graciousness? Who sets it? If we can throw Patti out with her pies, why are corrupt and abusive city governments and police departments still standing in this country? This is what blows my mind. We will flex our economic power to build one of our own up (unintentionally, of course), then flex harder to tear her down. Yet we continue to shop in the same cities where we are being slaughtered in the streets.

It has long been estimated that by 2015, the Black Community would reach $1.1 trillion in buying power. Buying power is said to be the amount of money people have to spend after taxes and does not include savings or money that can be borrowed in the future (Humphreys, 2014). Basically, our buying power means: it matters how, where and when we spend our money. We can shut down communities or build them up. We can fund businesses or watch them dry out. How Black America spends its collective dollar matters overall to the economy of the United States of America, but most especially to the communities and cities we live in. We have not focused on the larger picture – elected officials, public servants and corporations that have usurped our rights and our lives. But we should focus on them. We think we’re powerless against the government and its agents as well as against corporations and their mighty dollar, but we are not powerless. They are all fed by what we choose to give or give up. As long as we, as a community, turn on each other in pettiness, there will be nothing left of us for others to destroy or oppress.

The Black Community will never be able to live within its power and exercise its communal authority as long as we continue to devalue our women (no matter their accomplishments) and worship our men for what they do while disregarding who they are (character). We have to harness the experience and wisdom of everyone who has come before and everyone who currently is.

In her fifty-plus years in the public eye, Patti LaBelle has given us only joy and an enduring example of the beauty of self-expression, as well as whatever personal memories we individually attach to her songs. All that was disregarded when she took ownership of her own life and accomplishments when the media wanted to give the credit to someone who was mimicking her and calling her out her name in a thee-minute video. Many of the comments on Ms. LaBelle’s recent page posts are disgraceful and truly emblematic of the emotionally distant and chronically disrespectful social media-based society we’ve become.

We can do better. We have to start doing better for each other. We have to stop being our own worse enemy.

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2015 Emmys: A Trifecta of Strong Black Women

“‘In my mind, I see a line, and over that line I see green fields, and lovely flowers, and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line… but I can’t seem to get there no-how. I can’seem to get over that line.’ That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800’s. And let me tell you something, the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

~ Viola Davis on accepting her first Emmy for Leading Actress

Orange is the New Black
American Crime
How to Get Away With Murder

The intention of this post is not to focus on the fact that crime and violence are at the center of each of the shows Uzo Aduba, Regina King and Viola Davis won Emmys for during the 67th Emmy Awards on  Sunday, September 20, 2015… which happens to be the first Emmy program I’ve watched in full since… I don’t know when…. I’ll save that analysis for another post.

The intention of this post is to bask in the glory of black womanhood – in all her collective complexity, grace, humility, gratitude, strength, perseverance, life-giving, life-building forthrightness and beauty.

Source: http://www.awesomelyluvvie.com/2015/09/regina-uzo-viola-black-2015-emmy-awards.html
Source: http://www.awesomelyluvvie.com/2015/09/regina-uzo-viola-black-2015-emmy-awards.html

Three black women won Emmys – the highest industry award for their craft – in one night. I was happy for Uzo Aduba – though I only gotten through the first eight episodes or so of the first season of Orange is the New Black. Her character, Crazy Eyes, left an impression for sure. When Uzo Aduba accepted her Emmy, her gratitude was inspiring and beautiful witness.

“Hi. I really just want to say ‘Thank you’ a thousand times! If I could say ‘thank you’ a thousand times, it would not be enough to cover the amount of thanks that I feel for you, Jenji Kohan. I love you so much! I appreciate you for putting belief back in my heart. I love you. Thank you for making this show, for creating this space – for making a platform…. I love you most for your kindness! Thank you…. Thank you everybody! [I want to say thank you to my team] I love you most…mostly.. because you let me be me!”

~ Uzo Aduba on accepting her second consecutive Emmy for the same character, Crazy Eyes on Orange is the New Black, Netflix

Like many other black women of my generation, I’ve grown, aged and matured watching Regina King in countless roles on the small and big screens beginning with 227 in the late 1980’s. Her speech warmed my heart. She’s been a working actress for over twenty years, well-known and acclaimed and during her speech she put motherhood front and center as her greatest accomplishment. That warmed my heart and gave me hope.

“I was not expecting this, so I am just going to listen to God and just give gratitude for all the love that surrounds me. Thank you [to many]…. My amazing mother and grandmother who have taught me the power and the blessing of being a woman…. And this is absolutely amazing… My son Ian [sigh], the fact that I get to share this night with you, the best date in the house… ah, man… you make being a mother my greatest accomplishment. I love you! Cheers!  

Regina King on accepting her first Emmy, for Best Supporting Actress in Limited Series or Movie, American Crime, ABC

I can’t tell you the first time I saw Viola Davis on screen. I don’t know what her first role was or if I saw it in real time. But I can say that I have known her – and women like her – most of my life: her rawness, her emotional honesty and power, her determination to allow her presence to be seen and experienced as equally noteworthy talent no matter her role or amount of screen time. Watching Viola evolve into a Hollywood powerhouse and a dynamic voice has been a distinctly awesome experience.

“‘In my mind, I see a line, and over that line I see green fields, and lovely flowers, and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line… but I can’t seem to get there no-how. I can’seem to get over that line.’ That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800’s. And let me tell you something, the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else, is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. So here’s to all the writers, the awesome people… people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman. To be Black! And to the Taraji P. Hensons, Kerry Washingtons, the Halle Berrys, the Nicole Beharies, the Megan Goods, to Gabrielle Union: Thank you for taking us over that line! Thank you… to the Television Academy.”

~ Viola Davis on accepting her first Emmy for Leading Actress in a Drama Series, How to Get Away With Murder, ABC