95 pages 3 hours read

Trevor Noah

Born a Crime

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 2016

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Born a Crime is a comedic autobiographical work chronicling Trevor Noah’s childhood growing up in South Africa. Published in 2016, it became a New York Times Bestseller, and it’s currently being adapted into a film. Born a Crime doesn’t follow a linear timeline; rather, the narrative jumps around, offering anecdotes from Noah’s past. Before each chapter begins, there’s a prologue that’s related to the content of the upcoming chapter. Usually, these sections provide historical facts or interesting asides.

While the memoir focuses on Noah’s childhood and young adult life, every memory is heavily influenced by effects of South African apartheid. Noah describes apartheid as a purposeful and deliberate form of government-imposed segregation and racism; essentially, it was an attempt to make South Africa a white nation. Because apartheid was so deeply ingrained in the people of South Africa, its detrimental effects persisted even after apartheid officially ended.

Apartheid ended halfway through Noah’s childhood. While this meant that he could officially attend schools with people from all races, the cliques within each school remained segregated. For much of Noah’s memoir, he focuses on this idea of people being segregated, either forcibly, and by the government, or of their own volition. Noah always felt divided and like he never fit in anywhere because of his skin color. Noah’s mom is black, while his dad is white; under apartheid in South Africa, this meant that he would be legally classified as non-white. However, he soon realizes that although he is legally considered “colored,” he identifies as being black. This evolution of his self-perceived identity is a major thread that connects each chapter and is witnessed through his interactions with the people and places around him.

While the first half of the book focuses on Noah’s young childhood with his mother, the latter half of the book centers on his search for identity through his friends, attempts at dating, and business ventures. Each of these people and experiences are intimately connected to a specific place, which further reveals the effects of apartheid. For example, Noah’s mom’s side of the family has been forced for generations to live in Soweto, a government-sanctioned ghetto for black South Africans. When Noah visits his mom’s family, he is the only non-black person in an otherwise all-black neighborhood. However, when Noah visits his dad, he sneaks into an all-white neighborhood. After high school, Noah spends a lot of time in Alexandra, a poor, all-black ghetto that is filled with crime. Again, he’s one of the only non-white people in the entire neighborhood. While his mother defies the government-imposed racial restrictions by secretly living wherever she desires, Noah is still the only non-white person wherever they live. The only exception is when they move to the “colored” neighborhood; however, even while there, Noah doesn’t fit in with the other kids because they perceive him as either too white or too black. These examples demonstrate why Noah continually feels like he doesn’t belong anywhere, and it’s this search to belong that ultimately propels each story in the memoir.

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