Born a Crime

by Trevor Noah

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Born a Crime Characters

The main characters in Born a Crime are Trevor Noah, Patricia Noah, Robert, and Abel.

  • Trevor Noah is the author, narrator, and protagonist of the memoir. He depicts himself as a mischievous, charming, and enterprising boy.
  • Patricia Noah is Trevor’s mother. A Black Xhosa woman, she is willful in her defiance of apartheid’s norms and her adherence to her Christian faith.
  • Robert is Trevor’s white Swiss-German father. He initially intends not to be involved in Trevor’s upbringing, but he ultimately forges a relationship with his son.
  • Abel is Trevor’s violent, abusive stepfather, with whom he clashes frequently.

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Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah is the author and narrator of Born A Crime. Born to a Black Xhosa mother and a white European father under the restrictive segregationist laws of apartheid, which outlaw race mixing, Trevor’s own birth is a criminal act. To avoid legal problems, Trevor’s mother, Patricia, tells people he’s not “mixed” but “colored”—in the context of South African racial classification, this means that she tells people his parents were both descended from mixed-race people rather than admitting that his parents were not of the same race.

This puts young Trevor in a difficult position. He is culturally disconnected from his actual heritage and has to pretend to be a member of a group with which he has no shared experience. This sense of statelessness pervades his life. Trevor rarely knows which group to join, opting instead to cultivate a funny, likable, chameleonic persona and learning multiple languages so he can move freely between groups.

Trevor is mischievous but also very smart, self-possessed, and enterprising. As a young boy, he writes his mother long formal letters by way of debate, and by the time he finishes high school he is running a successful CD-pirating business. By his twenties, he is developing a comedy career, too.

Throughout the narrative, Trevor reinterprets his youthful experience through the wisdom of adulthood. From this distance, he is able to see the broad scope of apartheid more clearly and track its mechanisms as they influenced his own life. On a smaller scale, he is also finally able to see the truth about the abusive power dynamic at play in his own home.

Patricia Noah

Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah is Trevor’s mother. Intent on living life on her own terms, Patricia—a Black Xhosa woman—defies a number of the expectations of her time. She trains as a typist years before Black women are allowed to hold white-collar jobs; she runs away from Soweto, the Black township the government placed her parents in; and she finds a way to live in the city, despite being formally prohibited from doing so. She dates Robert, a white Swiss-German man in her building and becomes pregnant, even though it is illegal to have mixed-race children, according to the codes of apartheid.

Patricia is fearless in the face of conflict, both legal and physical. In one anecdote, Trevor remembers watching her walk through fights and drive through tire fires during the riots after the fall of apartheid. Deeply religious, she will endure just about anything to get to church.

Patricia raises Trevor to question and defy the restrictions placed on him just as fervently she does. Together, they sneak around to visit his father, live quietly in restricted areas, and above all, prioritize education. Though resources are scant, Patricia always finds money for books and ensures that Trevor attends the best schools available to him.

Though Patricia is able to subvert the immense power of the apartheid state without fear, she never fully manages to escape the wrath of her abusive husband, Abel. In the book’s final chapter, she finally leaves him, and at his first opportunity, he shoots her in the head. Miraculously, she survives.


Robert, who will become Trevor’s father, is a stoic and sensible white Swiss-German man who lives in the building where Patricia illegally rents her flat after fleeing Soweto. He is precise, fastidious, independent, and private, and he finds the inherent racism of the apartheid state to be abhorrent. Prior to his time with Patricia, he operated one of the first integrated restaurants in Johannesburg.

Robert doesn’t want children, so Patricia asks him to father her child without taking any further responsibility. He is initially resistant but soon acquiesces, and once Trevor is born he realizes he would like to be involved after all. The two develop a relationship and become close.

When Patricia marries, her new husband, Abel, takes issue with Robert’s involvement in their life and forces Patricia and Trevor to distance themselves from Robert. Unable to see his son, Robert moves away. Trevor seeks out his father when he is in his twenties, unsure whether he has been forgotten. When they reconnect, he discovers that his father has been following his comedy career from a distance.


Abel, a Black Tsonga mechanic whom Patricia meets when her Volkswagen breaks down, eventually becomes Patricia’s husband and Trevor’s stepfather. At first, Trevor likes Abel, who comes across as affable, fun, charming, and helpful. But as Trevor gets older, he begins to see alarming signs of Abel’s hidden temper. After some bullies throw mulberries at Trevor one day, Abel gives one of them a savage beating that terrifies everyone in the vicinity. Over time, Abel becomes increasingly volatile and begins to drink more heavily. Eventually, he lashes out physically at both Patricia and Trevor.

The first time Abel hits her, Patricia attempts to file charges and is sent away from the police station. As his violence escalates, she continues to attempt to get authorities involved. Repeatedly, she is ignored. After she finally leaves him, Abel’s violent tendencies reach a culmination when he shoots her in the back of the head. Miraculously, she survives, but Abel suffers no major legal consequences for his actions.

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