Born a Crime Summary

Born a Crime is a 2016 memoir by Trevor Noah about his upbringing in South Africa during and immediately after apartheid.

  • Trevor Noah’s parents, Patricia and Robert, are Black and white, respectively, even though apartheid prohibits coupling across racial lines.
  • Trevor struggles to find a place for himself, since he does not fit into any of apartheid’s codified racial categories. At the same time, he recognizes the privilege he experiences due to his relatively light skin.
  • Trevor grows from a mischievous boy into an entrepreneurial young man, finding ways to make a living amid difficult economic conditions.

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Last Updated on March 9, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 896

In Born A Crime, Trevor Noah’s 2016 memoir, the author writes about his experiences growing up with a Xhosa mother and a white father in pre- and post-apartheid South Africa.

Throughout the memoir, he interweaves his own experience with short essays on the region’s history, demographics, and legacy...

(The entire section contains 896 words.)

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In Born A Crime, Trevor Noah’s 2016 memoir, the author writes about his experiences growing up with a Xhosa mother and a white father in pre- and post-apartheid South Africa.

Throughout the memoir, he interweaves his own experience with short essays on the region’s history, demographics, and legacy of colonialism and racial oppression under European rule. In doing so, he outlines the major historic mechanisms that ultimately led to the apartheid government of the twentieth century, its effects on the region in practice, and its lasting implications on the daily lives of its people.

Under apartheid, South Africa was racially segregated by law into four groups: “white,” “Black,” “colored,” and “Indian.” Despite the arbitrariness and imprecision of these groups—people were typically classified based on their appearance rather than their actual ancestry—it created a codified caste system that prioritized whites over all other racial classifications. They were given priority status and the full benefits of citizenship, and the other three racial groups were held under their oppressive regime.

The author is born during this time, and he spends his early childhood living under apartheid. His mother, Patricia, is a bright and strong-willed Xhosa woman who wholeheartedly rejects the restrictions on Black people and deliberately subverts the conventions of the time. She leaves her family home in one of the all-Black townships to secretly live in the city, befriending sex workers who teach her to live in white areas undetected. She dates a white Swiss-German man named Robert, who lives in her building and who once owned one of Johannesburg’s first integrated restaurants. She asks him to give her a son—not to serve as a parent, she tells him, but to allow her to raise a child on her own.

Race-mixing was illegal under apartheid, which means Trevor’s very birth is considered a criminal act unto itself. To avoid detection, Patricia moves him through the world as a “colored” child instead of a “mixed” child. Though the biological meaning between the two is effectively the same, their legal status is quite different—a “colored” person is descended from those who had children across racial lines further back in history, while a “mixed” person is born to members of two different races.

During Trevor’s childhood, the implications of these codes are severe: he is unable to be seen in public with his mother or his father, who, it turns out, does want to be involved after all. Trevor can’t be honest about his own identity or openly embrace his connection to his Xhosa or his Swiss-German heritage. He is seen as an outsider in every context that might otherwise be relevant—in Black settings, he’s the white kid. In white settings, he’s the Black kid. In colored settings, he blends in visually but has no cultural or familial reference.

To cope with this sense of statelessness, Trevor learns as many of the languages of those around him as he can. In a place like South Africa, where the multitudes of languages often keep people from being able to understand each other even within their own racial groups, this allows him to move more freely among groups. To speak to someone in their own language is to identify yourself as a member of their community, Trevor reasons.

Patricia raises Trevor to question and defy the limitations placed on him. Sooner than either of them expected, her tenacity pays off—in 1994, apartheid ends and the region sets to work dismantling its broadest restrictions. The pair is able to live more freely, embracing in public the values they have held in private.

Apartheid left a lasting legacy of systematic injustice even after its fall. Trevor continues to live with its consequences as he grows into a young man. But the power imbalance at home is just as present, and every bit as threatening: as Trevor matures, Abel, Patricia’s husband and the father of Trevor’s half brother Andrew becomes increasingly volatile by the day. He begins drinking heavily and soon begins to lash out physically. The first time he hits Patricia, she tries to file charges against him and is dismissed by police officers. He hits Trevor, too, and the relationship between them never recovers.

When Trevor is seventeen, Patricia tells him he has to move out. It’s too dangerous, she says, like having two grown male lions in the same house. Trevor moves to his own flat and focuses on his business—after graduating high school, he and two friends become very successful at selling pirated CDs, playing DJ gigs, and hustling consumer goods. Soon after, Patricia is shocked to learn that despite her tubal ligation, she and Abel are pregnant again. She gives birth to a son, named Isaac, but her relationship with Abel continues to deteriorate. Eventually, she leaves.

A few years later, Trevor gets a call from Andrew and learns that Abel has shot Patricia in the head. He rushes to the hospital, where something astonishing happens: she survives. Somehow, in what the doctor on staff calls a miracle, the bullet’s path from the back of her head to the front missed all her critical tissue. Trevor can’t stop crying, but Patricia tells him that there’s a bright side to all this—now, he’s finally the most attractive one in the family.

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