Born a Crime

by Trevor Noah

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In Born A Crime, Trevor Noah intertwines his own backstory with a critical examination of apartheid in South Africa. Born to a Black Xhosa mother and a white European father under apartheid’s strict segregationist policies, under which mixed-race parenting is patently outlawed, Noah’s own birth is a criminal act unto itself. Much of the narrative focuses on his struggle to embody this ambiguous identity against the shifting backdrop of pre- and post-apartheid life.

The circumstances of the author’s life in South Africa are often precarious, and he witnesses unspeakable violence as a matter of routine. In an early chapter, he writes that “necklacing” is a common act of street violence during the post-apartheid riots, referring to a practice in which a person is shoved into a tire, doused in gasoline, and set aflame.

Despite these impossibly bleak surroundings, Noah injects even the darkest moments of his life story with humor. Indeed, the memoir’s tone is predominantly light and witty. This choice, surprising as it may be to some readers, is also crucial to the book’s effectiveness. He writes for an American audience, and he does so as a well-known comedian.

Celebrity memoirs are a genre for which the buying public has certain expectations, and Noah manages to align his book’s tone with those expectations. The stakes here are very high, educationally speaking—for many of his readers, it might reasonably be assumed that this memoir will constitute their first exposure to a firsthand account of life during apartheid. Noah’s editorial choices strike a delicate and critical balance to ensure no readers are lost. The book’s subject matter is difficult, and the circumstances it describes are harsh, but the writing nonetheless aims to amuse.

Throughout the work, one recurring theme is work itself. Namely, the sheer amount of constant labor it takes for most people to live in a society rife with systemic injustices. The characters in Born a Crime are always working, always striving. Occasionally, this work is for something aspirational. In an anecdote from his teens, for example, Trevor becomes fixated on upgrading his appearance and wardrobe to impress his date for an upcoming dance. More typically, though, this constant labor is in pursuit of access to the very baseline necessities of living. Drawing on his childhood memories, Noah recalls a span of several months when he and Patricia ate “sawdust,” an amalgamation of cheap butcher scraps intended to be fed to dogs.

This undercurrent of unending labor typifies the unrelenting work a person must put in to survive in an environment structured around systemic inequities, both in the past and in the present. In chapter 5, Noah summarizes the issue thus:

So many black families spend all of their time trying to fix the problems of the past. . . . Because the generations who came before you have been pillaged, rather than being free to use your skills and education to move forward, you lose everything just trying to bring everyone behind you back up to zero.

When he finds himself “hustling” after high school—peddling consumer goods around the township in an underground shadow economy—this principle is proven over and over again. Often, Noah notes, he would hustle an entire day—swapping one item for another, reselling to someone else, buying and selling and moving inventory around—and still, after a long day’s work, finish with no profit.

It’s generally understood that a memoir’s author and narrator can also be considered its protagonist. But Born A Crime, some readers may well walk away with a different character at the forefront of their minds: Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, Trevor’s mother. The author writes his own backstory, but almost everything from his own life is interpreted in relation to his mother and her strengths, weaknesses, and goals.

As Noah explores the power imbalances between South Africa’s social factions under apartheid, Patricia’s own relationships can be seen as somewhat allegorical. She lives a life of both power and subjugation at the same time, and her personal life can be interpreted as a microcosm of the work’s major themes. She chafes and rebels against barriers of systemic racism all her life, exercising a quiet power by finding agency through tricks and loopholes. At the same time, she is under a constant threat from Abel, her abusive husband, whose looming, irrational anger can arise at any moment.

When Abel shoots Patricia at the end of the book, the doctor tells Trevor that her ensuing survival is a miracle. Throughout Born a Crime, however, it is clear that from Noah’s perspective, the miracle of Patricia begins much earlier on. “My mother showed me what was possible,” he says in chapter 5, “The thing that always amazed me about her life was that no one showed her.”


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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah is a story about institutionalized racism and the effect it has on a child. It is also the story of the author’s life, and despite the fact that it was a life of hardship, Noah relates stories from his childhood with humor. Noah was a child of an interracial couple, and he grew up in South Africa under the system of apartheid, a system that considered it a crime for a child to be born to parents of two different racial groups. Noah suffered from his parents’ “crime,” as he struggled to find his place in a society where Black people were considered subhuman and families like his were shunned. Noah experienced firsthand how Black and white South Africans were treated differently, particularly by the police, who enforced the laws of apartheid and promoted injustice.

Noah was a victim of his environment—both his physical environment of South Africa and the historical time in which he lived. The story highlights the influence of environment on a person’s social and moral development; Noah lives in a number of different places in his life, and each place molds him into the person he becomes. Noah experiences the realities of racism and existence within a police state, and he learns to live within the system. He considers the English language—as wells the mastery of other languages—a tool for survival in a world that equates English with intelligence. He also considers crime, such as pirating CDs, an opportunity for success, especially in the face of diminished economic opportunities.

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