Born A Crime Summary

Trevor Noah

Born A Crime

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Born A Crime Summary

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Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (2016), by comedian Trevor Noah, is a memoir about his childhood and adolescent years in apartheid South Africa as a biracial child. When Trevor was born in 1984, it was technically illegal for a black and white human being to have a child; Trevor’s father is white and his mother is black, thus his birth was literally a crime. Noah, who hosts the popular Daily Show comedy series, saw the memoir top the bestseller list at several newspapers, including The New York Times. It was praised for its humorous style paired with an analysis of racism and institutionalized injustice.

Born a Crime explores many themes, including mother-son relationships, the personal ramifications of political decisions, and the prevalence of systemic injustice.

In the preface, Trevor considers how the system of apartheid was maintained in South Africa for so long. Though blacks outnumbered whites 5:1, blacks were separated (by whites) into over a dozen groups. With blacks encouraged to fight amongst themselves, they did not unite against the white population that often exploited their labor.

In the first chapter, Trevor opens with the vivid scene of his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, throwing him out of a moving car when he is nine years old. She does so to protect him from a man from another tribe whom she thinks wants to kill him.

This chapter, like all that follow, is interspersed with a brief section that analyzes some aspect of institutionalized racism, or establishes the historical and cultural context for the personal stories that follow. These sections are set in bold.

Trevor’s mother is Xhosa, a tribal group who are often characterized as intellectual. Trevor’s father, Robert, is a Swiss-German man. With one black parent and one white parent, Trevor is categorized as “Colored”; this is the racial group he is officially registered as part of with state officials.

Fortunately, Trevor grows up in “the Greenwich Village of South Africa.” His neighborhood encouraged artistic exploration and liberal politics. His mother was extremely involved with on this scene, and met his father, 22 years her senior, at one of the clubs in this area. Theirs was an attraction of opposites: she was socially active and Robert was rather reserved. When Trevor was born, his mother claimed that he was born in another country; officials agreed to write on his birth certificate that Trevor was born in Swaziland because they too needed an explanation as to why the child was so pale.

While Trevor had a loving relationship with his father, because of apartheid, he was mostly raised by his mother. Trevor remains very close to his mother, who is a rather complex character: she escaped an exceedingly impoverished childhood through sheer will power, a belief in Christianity, and a willingness to question institutional structures.

Apartheid in South Africa came to an end in 1991, when Trevor was six years. Before then, Trevor had to stay indoors for most of his childhood, lest someone see the white-looking child playing with other black kids and call the police. However, there was still unrest and protests after the end of apartheid, and it was not totally safe for Trevor to leave the house until he was around 9.

In part two of Born a Crime, Trevor details his experiences as an adolescent. Along with the usual issues of learning about matters of love and sexual attraction, Trevor had to navigate the complex realities of being mix-raced in a seemingly “free and equal” South Africa. For example, he’s not totally accepted by some darker skin people, and gains certain advantages for being perceived as white, such as the time he and a friend stole something and the friend, who was darker than him, received a much harsher sentencing.

Trevor has a major attraction to a girl named Zaheera, but he’s too shy to ask her out and so settles for her best friend.

As Trevor grows up, he increasingly questions his mother’s actions and beliefs. He doesn’t think a belief in Jesus Christ is beneficial to her economic prosperity or social equality.

In the final part of the book, Trevor proves to be an enterprising young man. Along with some friends, he starts a food delivery business, and another business copying CDs. Reckless and confident, one day Trevor takes a car belonging to his stepfather, Abel, without his permission. When he’s caught by the police, his mother allows him to stay in jail for sometime to teach him a lesson.

Because he perceives himself as poor and unattractive, Trevor looks for ways to make money while engaging with race without being weighed down by it. The answer is comedy.

The memoir concludes with a powerful chapter that relates Trevor’s tumultuous relationship with his stepfather, Abel, and his eventual departure from South Africa. Abel is a conservative black man who works as a car-mechanic and has a violent temper, that one day results in him physically attacking Trevor. Trevor moves out after the assault.

One day, Trevor hears the news that his mother was shot in the head by Abel. Fortunately, the bullet somehow missed her brain, and she lived. She credits her faith with protecting her and allowing her to survive the ordeal. Trevor analyzes the criminal justice system in South Africa that allowed Abel to serve hardly any jail time for his crime.