A Year in Books: March
Hello, my dear friends! Though I’ve completely obliterated the March deadline, I couldn’t be more excited to share last month’s powerful reads:
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
by Trevor Noah
In a nutshell: A collection of eighteen witty, devastating, eye-opening essays recounting Trevor Noah's childhood growing up in and following apartheid in South Africa.
As a fan of The Daily Show, I picked up Born a Crime anticipating a charming, hilarious memoir. Though at times humorous, this book is much more than a sugar coated “ma, I made it!” story. This well-written memoir is an alarming, raw account of the author’s childhood in South Africa. Trevor does not mince words — it is difficult to read about the pain, the extreme poverty, the domestic abuse his mother endured. I finished this book in awe of how this young man flourished in the midst of such turmoil, poverty and crime.
Trevor is a gifted writer — his stories read like an old friend reminiscing on his childhood. Some essays are heart wrenching, others are entertaining and charmingly relatable. In this excerpt, he compares asking a girl to be his Valentine to getting votes in Congress:
“The week before Valentine’s Maylene and I were walking home together, and I was trying to get up the courage to ask her. I was so nervous. I’d never done anything like it. I already knew the answer; her friends had told me she’d say yes. It’s like being in Congress. You know you have the votes before you go to the floor, but it’s still difficult because anything could happen.”
Trevor effortlessly weaves funny stories with more serious anecdotes. His childhood was largely impacted by his “half-white, half-black” identity and he often struggled with feeling like an outsider. However, he very quickly discovers the secret weapon to combating this feeling — language. He knew six of them! “Language,” he writes, “even more than color, defines who you are to people.” The passage below was one of my favorites:
“Nelson Mandela once said, 'If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.' He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if its just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, 'I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.'”
Ultimately, the thread that connects all eighteen of Trevor’s essays together is the admiration he has for his mother. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times sums up the book’s premise nicely, describing it as a “love letter to the author’s remarkable mother.” Trevor’s mother did everything in her power to encourage her son to bloom where he was planted. Here, Trevor reflects on the impact his mother had on his aspirations:
“We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited. Growing up in Soweto, our dream was to put another room on our house... Because that is all we knew. But the highest rung of what’s possible is far beyond the world you can see...
Neighbors and relatives used to pester my mom: “Why do 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.’"
Trevor Noah’s success is extraordinary — and this feeling is only augmented after finishing Born a Crime. This book is a must-read for fans of The Daily Show, but I’d recommend it for anyone looking for a vulnerable, uplifting story of a young man who against all odds, blossomed. A quick side note — Trevor himself narrates the audio version of this book, which I’ve heard is absolutely incredible. :)
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
by Michelle Alexander
In a nutshell: Acclaimed civil rights lawyer and professor Michelle Alexander argues that the United States’ criminal justice system is a “contemporary system of racial control” that “relegates millions to a permanent second class status.”
I will say this in advance: nothing I write here will do this book justice. The New Jim Crow is tremendously important, deeply disturbing and had me shaking my head in disgust. Alexander dismisses the common notion that "the election of Barack Obama signaled a new era of colorblindness.” Instead, she argues there is danger in this way of thought:
“In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination — employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, detail of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service — are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it."
Alexander begins by carefully analyzing the history of mass incarceration — from slavery, to the reconstruction and Jim Crow, to the Reagan-era War on Drugs. She goes on to explain how the United States’ current legal system “immunizes the entire criminal justice system from claims of racial bias” — citing a plethora of Supreme Court cases including McCleskey v. Kemp (1987), a decision that Justice Brennan’s minority dissent noted “seemed to suggest fear of too much justice.” She continues with an in-depth discussion on discriminatory rules and regulations that people face once released from prison, and ends by drawing parallels between Jim Crow and mass incarceration.
As I read The New Jim Crow, I kept asking myself, how is this possible? How is it possible that the United States “has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country…"? How can it be that “in Chicago (as in other cities across the United States), young black men are more likely to go to prison than to college”? How can it be that “race has always influenced the administration of justice?” How have I not known about this? The New Jim Crow exposes these painful truths:
“It is far more convenient to imagine that a majority of young African American men in urban areas freely chose a life of crime than to accept the real possibility that their lives were structured in a way that virtually guaranteed their early admission into a system which they can never escape."
The New Jim Crow made me aware of just how unaware I am. I would recommend it to anyone and everyone. It is important for all Americans to recognize that “deep compassion” comes from “concern for each and every individual,” words drawn from Cornel West’s eloquent foreword:
“Martin Luther King Jr. called for us to be lovestruck with each other, not colorblind toward each other. To be lovestruck is to care, to have deep compassion, and to be concerned for each and every individual, including the poor and vulnerable.”
Thanks for reading, dear friends — ’til next time.