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Born a Crime

Born a Crime Summary


Here you will find a Born a Crime summary (Trevor Noah's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

Born a Crime Summary Overview

Growing up in South Africa amidst the racial segregation era known as apartheid, a young boy of mixed race experienced life as an oppressed individual. Born in the mid-80s by his black single mother Patricia and Swiss father Robert, who defied the laws criminalizing interracial relationships, his life was fraught with complexities. Patricia and Robert had to keep their son's existence a secret due to his mixed heritage, as public knowledge of his existence was perilous. South Africa had been colonized by the Dutch in the 1600s, who seized lands and exploited black African tribes like the Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho, using them as farm slave labor. The descendants of these colonizers, known as Afrikaners, continued the racial subjugation under apartheid law until the mid-1990s. The boy, a product of interracial mingling, belonged to the "colored" racial group, often experiencing rejection from both black and white cultures. Despite the end of apartheid in 1994, navigating South African society remained challenging for him. Patricia encouraged her son to educate himself and think critically, fostering in him a proficiency in several of South Africa's official languages. This linguistic dexterity enabled him to interact with various racial and cultural groups, despite feeling alienated in many instances. He leveraged his skill in language to run a profitable illicit CD business in Johannesburg's township, Alexandra, and build a career as a DJ. Despite several run-ins with the law, he recognized his privilege compared to his peers. His mother's effort to prepare him for a harsh world bore fruit when he stepped up to cover her medical bills after she survived a shooting incident at the hands of her abusive husband, Abel.

chapter 1

South Africa, prior to apartheid, had tribes of Black South Africans. The Zulu and Xhosa tribes were the main ones, often in conflict. The Zulu, known for their warrior tendencies, battled European invaders and massively suffered. The Xhosa tried to learn from Europeans, resisting them strategically rather than violently. Apartheid intensified the resentment between the tribes, eventually leading to war. Notably, Nelson Mandela and Trevor Noah's mother were from the Xhosa tribe. Trevor Noah, famed comedian and author of 'Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood', was born during apartheid in 1984. His childhood tales from the years surrounding the end of apartheid incorporate his reflections on South Africa's history, customs, and traditions. Despite Europeans imposing Christianity on South Africans, Trevor's mother was a faithful Christian. She took her family to several churches weekly, each with distinct racial demographics. Trevor loved church but detested the commute, often involving multiple minibuses when their car failed. His fearless mother had firm faith in God. Once, when Trevor was nine, his mother threw him from a menacing bus driver's vehicle and jumped out following him. Unaware at the time, his mother had likely saved his life from potential racial gang violence linked to bus drivers. His mother thanked God for their survival; Trevor suggested that God should intervene at home next time their car broke down.

chapter 2

Dutch colonizers, known as Afrikaners, arrived in Cape Town in 1652 under British authority. They then created their own culture and language. When the British left in the 1800s, the Afrikaners took over South Africa's governance. They established a sophisticated system of racial discrimination termed apartheid, which uprooted local populations and forced them into servitude. Trevor was brought up during apartheid, having a white father and a Black mother, a time when interracial relationships were considered illegal. Despite the laws, many multiracial children were born, as the authority struggled to enforce it. Trevor’s mother, Patricia, defied the law by living and working in Johannesburg, where Black people weren't allowed to reside. She befriended a Swiss man she trusted enough not to report her to the police. Eventually, Patricia expressed her desire for a child to the man, who later agreed, resulting in the birth of Trevor, a mixed-race child, in 1984. Patricia had to be crafty to avoid questions about Trevor’s lighter skin as it was illegal for him to exist. The risk of being sighted in public with their son was too high for Trevor's parents. Consequently, when Trevor visited Patricia’s family in Soweto, his grandmother barred him from playing outdoors with his cousins for fear of being arrested. Trevor learned to amuse himself indoors. Eventually, Trevor met biracial South Africans who had escaped the country before the election of Nelson Mandela. Patricia, in response to Trevor’s question about why she hadn’t taken him to another country like Switzerland, said she had no desire to leave her homeland, South Africa.

chapter 3

South African society is a mix of modernity and archaic practices, even in its legal system. It's an oddity that witchcraft can still be a prosecutable offence in the 21st century. Trevor Noah's childhood was marked by the sporadic influence of his grandfather, Temperance Noah, a man both charismatic and troubled due to his bipolar disorder. His grandmother, Frances, was a steady influence, and his mother, Patricia, raised him independently with relative ease, like many women in Soweto who built their own spiritual community to support each other. Soweto houses were usually constructed in bits and pieces, without indoor plumbing. A funny anecdote from Trevor's childhood involved his refusal to use the outdoor toilet in the rain. Instead, he used a newspaper, which he dumped in the trash can. This led to confusion and superstition when his mother and blind great-grandmother, Koko, discovered the newspaper. Trevor denied his part in the incident, leading the family to believe it was the work of a demon. Consequently, Trevor was tasked with praying against the perceived demon in an extended prayer session. Alone later, he found himself begging for God's forgiveness for trivializing prayer.

chapter 4

Noah understands that language can both dismantle and perpetuate racist ideologies, as it's a medium through which people distinguish between "us" and "them." The South African government exploited language to create divisions among tribes. Noah's grandmother Frances used to discipline his Black cousins with a belt, but not him. When his mother Patricia questioned this, Frances responded that white children bruise too easily. Patricia was unique in that she didn't treat Noah differently due to his lighter skin tone. He quickly realized language was a powerful tool to navigate his intricate world, and became adept at switching between Zulu, Tswana, and English as the situation required. His schooling at Maryvale College, a Catholic institution, had a racially diverse student population. His social interactions were smooth until he reached primary school. In sixth grade, he was put in the high-aptitude class which had no Black students. He faced social isolation from Black students in other classes during recess until he demonstrated his fluency in their African languages. Therefore, he requested to be withdrawn from the advanced classes and placed with his Black schoolmates.

chapter 5

Prior to apartheid, Black South African kids received education at English mission schools, learning subjects like science, history, and law. However, the Bantu schools, set up by the apartheid administration, were dedicated to keeping Black communities impoverished by offering limited education in agriculture and basic numeracy. Noah argues that the English colonizers instilled hope of an improved life in Black South Africans by civilizing them, a hope that was absent in the Bantu scheme. Patricia, Noah's mother, had parents whose marriage was fraught with unhappiness. As a child, wishing to reside with her father, Patricia was instead sent to her aunt's place in Xhosa, a semi-autonomous homeland nation. Here, she received education at a mission school and started working early to avoid being a financial liability to her family. At twenty-one, while studying at a secretarial school in Soweto, she had to send her earnings back home. Patricia recalls this as the “black tax” - the obligation to financially support the elder generations before self-upliftment. This responsibility was indicated even in her name - “She Who Gives Back”. Patricia purposefully gave her son a name, “Trevor,” devoid of any Biblical or familial connections. She encouraged Trevor’s fondness for reading and intellectual pursuits, ensuring his mind remained unbound. Shortly after Nelson Mandela's release from prison signaled the impending end of apartheid, Patricia relocated to Eden Park with Trevor. Despite their humble living conditions, she instilled in Trevor the belief in his potential and the possibilities for his future. Patricia anticipated the changing times and wanted her son to be prepared for them.

chapter 6

Noah was perplexed by the arbitrary racial classifications in South African apartheid. He found it strange that Chinese immigrants were categorised as Black while Japanese immigrants were considered white. Such distinctions were meaningless to most South Africans, leading to a baffling social and legal hierarchy. As a child, Trevor was lively and prone to mischief. To manage his shenanigans, Patricia had some unconventional methods, one of them being an odd pen-pal arrangement. From when Trevor was around eight, they'd engage in humorous, formal letter exchanges regarding his chores or subpar grades, avoiding face-to-face confrontations. Quick on his feet, Trevor often managed to dodge punishment. On the infrequent instances that Patricia caught him, she'd ensure he understood the reason behind his punishment, assuring him of her love. Patricia would occasionally back Trevor's defiance if they both disapproved of a school rule. This taught Trevor to question authority, leading to his reputation as a rebel. Patricia's boyfriend, Abel, had his residence in the garage of a white family in Eden Park. On one occasion, Trevor unintentionally caused a fire while playing with matches and a magnifying glass in the garage, leaving everyone at a loss about his punishment. Trevor's daring exploits left his cousin Mlungisi astounded. His defiant nature was a trait he shared with his mother, along with their shared ability to quickly move past painful experiences.

chapter 7

Following their shift to a racially diverse neighborhood, Patricia gifted Trevor with two black cats. These pets were tragically killed by a local, their lifeless bodies left at Trevor's doorstep. Replacement pets came in the form of two dogs, one of which Trevor named Fufi. Initially, Trevor judged Fufi to be less smart than Panther, their other dog, but later found out from a vet that Fufi was deaf. He admired Fufi's impressive jumping skills which she often used to roam around the neighborhood before waiting at their gate to be let in. One day, Trevor discovered Fufi in another kid's yard and had a dispute with the boy who claimed Fufi was his pet. This was resolved when Patricia decided to purchase Fufi from the other family. Trevor felt a sense of betrayal when Fufi seemed to show affection towards the other boy. However, Patricia reassured him that Fufi's love for him hadn't diminished, a lesson that stayed with Trevor for the rest of his life. He even shares this lesson with his friends, reminding them that they can't possess the ones they love.

chapter 8

Patricia, Trevor's mother, urged him to reconnect with his father when he got older, believing it would be beneficial for him to demonstrate his growth. However, Trevor is yet to meet his Swiss relatives, including his father's siblings. The man he never referred to as "Daddy," Robert, was a stranger to apartheid and an opponent of racism. He was the proprietor of one of Johannesburg's first integrated eateries, which he closed following complaints, refusing to serve only white patrons. Once apartheid was abolished, Trevor started seeing his father again, marking some memorable events together. As Trevor transitioned into adolescence and Robert relocated to Cape Town, the pair lost contact. But a decade later, when Trevor had achieved fame as a radio and TV presenter, he reconnected with his father and resumed visits. On his first visit, Robert confessed he'd been following Trevor's career. Trevor, in turn, endeavored to understand Robert more by asking various questions. Robert was a reserved individual, and he favored Trevor learning about him through shared moments.

chapter 9

Unlike Black South Africans, mixed-race or “colored” people in South Africa tend to not have a deep-rooted connection to their origins and often blend into the Afrikaner society. This has caused them to have a more challenging historical experience. Being of mixed-race himself, Trevor experienced more hostility from his own community than other races. During apartheid, whites feared being reclassified as colored, leading them to prove their children’s racial purity. Mixed-race were above Blacks but below Whites in the social hierarchy. The end of apartheid elevated the Blacks' social standing above the mixed-race, causing friction between the two communities. Trevor, with his brown skin and curly hair, was detested by Whites while his flawless English accent made him a mockery among Blacks. He narrates an incident where he was tormented by mixed-race children in his locality by throwing mulberries and tiny rocks at him. Abel, Patricia’s boyfriend, came to his rescue, punishing the children and making their leader apologize to Trevor. Trevor then understood that the hatred this other mixed-race child had for him reflected their shared self-hatred. He also saw the violent side of Abel when he picked a fight with the bully's father.

chapter 10

Patricia, Trevor's mother, dedicated time to instructing him on how to respectfully engage with women. Although Trevor wished he had learnt more about adolescence and interacting with girls from his mom, she prioritized teaching him about adult behavior. A Valentine's Day event at Trevor's elementary school prompted his friends to pressure him into asking Maylene, the only mixed-race girl, to be his Valentine. Despite the assurance that she would agree, Trevor felt anxious. They frequently walked home together, and on one such occasion, he mustered the courage to ask her. To his delight, Maylene accepted and they shared a kiss outside a McDonald's – Trevor's first kiss. He excitedly saved up to buy her Valentine's Day gifts. However, on the anticipated day, Maylene revealed that she couldn't be his girlfriend anymore as another boy, Leonard, had asked her to be his Valentine. Although heartbroken, Trevor gave her the gifts and understood her choice. Leonard was an attractive white boy.

chapter 11

Patricia's frugality often resulted in the car running out of fuel, leading Noah to disguise himself to avoid the embarrassment of being seen pushing her car. In his eighth grade at Sandringham High School, Trevor was amongst a diverse student population. His classmates were from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Trevor struggled to fit into a specific group due to his remote living situation and daily tardiness resulted in constant detentions. However, during lunch breaks, Trevor found an opportunity to integrate himself into the school's social fabric. He started a mini-business of buying snacks from a food truck for his affluent classmates. This not only made him popular but also improved his comedic skills and brought in some extra cash.

chapter 12

Although Noah doesn't lament about his past actions, he often finds himself regretting things he didn't pursue. He's convinced that confronting failure and rejection is the surest way to dodge regret. As a teenager, Noah had a difficult time attracting girls' attention, largely due to his intense acne. However, his sense of humor made it easy for him to interact with girls. His classmate Johanna introduced him to her friend, Zaheera, a girl who caught Trevor's eye. Despite being just a freshman, he decided to ask Zaheera to the senior prom. He took steps to get closer to her by being a supportive friend whenever she broke up with her boyfriend. But when Zaheera was finally single, Trevor couldn't find the courage to express his feelings. After the winter break, Zaheera didn't come back to school. Johanna revealed that Zaheera had moved to America and that she'd always hoped that Trevor would ask her out. This hit Trevor hard, realizing he lost a chance with Zaheera due to his fear of expressing his feelings.

chapter 13

Patricia managed to find a dilapidated house for sale in the affluent, predominantly Jewish, all-white Highlands Park. Trevor desired to befriend the local children but was ostracized. However, he did befriend several children of the domestic help that lived in the servants' quarters of some homes. He often found himself in mischief with his chum Teddy. On one occasion, both were chased by a security guard for shoplifting, but Trevor managed to escape. After failing to find Teddy at his place, Trevor waited for him at home. When Teddy did not appear at school the following Monday, his parents arrived at Trevor's home to inform Patricia about Teddy's arrest for shoplifting. Despite Teddy’s claim of acting solo, Patricia suspected Trevor's involvement. Subsequently, Trevor was summoned to the principal's office to identify Teddy's accomplice from the grainy security footage. The indistinct images depicted a white boy, leading the principal to assume that Trevor, as Teddy's best mate, would identify their white classmate involved in the theft. Trevor kept mum. Anticipating punishment, he braced himself for weeks, but it never came.

chapter 14

Despite South Africa's eleven official languages, most locals communicate in English and Afrikaans with mixed results. During his last year of school, Trevor convinced his mother, Patricia, that he required a computer for his studies, which he later used for illicit music duplication. His neighborhood friend, Tim, assisted him in this underhanded business, while also using the computer for his private pastimes. Since Trevor wasn't socially involved with girls from school, he didn't plan on attending the senior dance. However, Tim found him a date, Babiki, who Trevor considered stunning. They interacted within group settings, rarely alone due to Babiki's reserved nature. As the dance approached, Trevor sought to borrow his mother's boyfriend, Abel's BMW to impress Babiki. Abel agreed after seeing Babiki's attractiveness. Meanwhile, Sizwe, another accomplice in Trevor's illegal CD trade, persuaded him to style his hair in cornrows. Patricia mockingly complimented his new hairstyle. On the dance night, Abel reneged on his promise, forcing Trevor to use his old Mazda. His tardiness almost caused Babiki to abandon their date. Upon reaching the dance, Babiki refused to leave the car, revealing her inability to converse in English. Consequently, Trevor missed the dance and drove her home. Reflecting on his brief relationship with Babiki, he felt regret for not knowing her better, having been distracted by her physical allure, akin to the women he viewed online.

chapter 15

Trevor Noah mentions the German education system's approach to teaching about the Holocaust, contrasting it with the American and South African systems' treatment of slavery, segregation, and apartheid. He feels these latter systems lack the same level of scrutiny and humility. In ninth grade, Trevor befriended Daniel, a bootleg CD seller. Observing Daniel's difficulty in collecting payments from his Black customers, Trevor stepped in to help, earning a share of the profits. When Daniel completed school, he passed the business and its equipment to Trevor, marking Trevor's first taste of independent wealth. He acknowledges this would not have been possible without Daniel's generosity. Trevor's skill in creating mixed CDs caught the eye of Sizwe, who saw the potential for profit in showcasing Trevor's talent before a live audience. After finishing school, Trevor and Sizwe started a street-side business, selling CDs, playing music, and dancing. Their best dancer was a young man named Hitler, reflecting a trend among Black South Africans to adopt powerful European names. While Western cultures often view the Holocaust as a historical low point, many black Africans simply regard Hitler as an important historical figure. This disparity in perspectives sparked a confrontation with a teacher at a Jewish school where Trevor and Sizwe's group was hired to perform. Their performance was abruptly halted when they shouted "Go Hitler! Go Hitler! Go Hitler!" in support of their dancer. Trevor was taken aback by the teacher's negative reaction, interpreting it as a racist response to his Black friends' talent.

chapter 16

Noah discusses that unlike Soweto, squatter settlements like Alexandra in Johannesburg, could never develop into cities due to lack of government-provided land, despite being home to roughly 200,000 people. His friend Sizwe, an Alexandra native known for safeguarding other local children, introduced Trevor to the vibrant and unpredictable life in the township, referred to as the "hood". Living in a relatively upscale part of Alexandra, where the government had replaced shanties with houses, Sizwe and his friends were dubbed "cheese boys" for their capacity to add cheese to their meals. Trevor, drawn to the spirit of the hood, decided to move there to sell pirated CDs to finance his college fees. Sizwe expanded their venture into trading pilfered items like DVDs and branded shoes, with mothers being their most reliable patrons. They took these mothers' daughters to parties in exchange for forgiving their debts. This successful business hit a roadblock when law enforcement shot Trevor's computer at a party, forcing the boys to halt their operations for a while. In an attempt to earn money, they took their dance group to compete against Soweto. However, they were stopped by the police and discovered a weapon. Known to be from Alexandra, the boys were beaten and insulted by the police. The cops expected a bribe they couldn't afford, leading to their arrest. Trevor managed to get bail money from a friend from Highlands Park. This incident made Trevor reflect on the limited life choices his friends in the hood had, unlike him who had the freedom to leave anytime.

chapter 17

At ten, Noah was apprehended for stealing batteries. His mother, Patricia, refused to bail him out, hoping he would learn from the experience. The police, thinking he was an orphan, released him. Noah often took cars without complete registration from Abel's garage. When he was stopped by a policeman and couldn't prove ownership, he was incarcerated. He borrowed cash for a lawyer from a friend. On his third day inside, a formidable Tsonga man was brought in. Taking a leaf from Nelson Mandela's book, Noah spoke to him in Tsonga and discovered he wasn't the tough criminal he seemed. They exchanged stories and Noah felt sympathy for the man. Noah was moved to a holding cell for his court hearing, and quickly realized his new cellmates were not like the petty thief he had befriended. He found himself surrounded by criminals who were segregated by race, just like in school. He decided to align himself with the white prisoners. One advised him to cry before the judge. He was eventually sentenced and freed. On reaching home, he learned that it was his mother who had paid for his lawyer. She clarified that her strictness was an expression of her love for him, warning him of the dangers of the world.

chapter 18

Patricia relied on faith and prayer over medicine for treating Trevor's sicknesses, and Trevor started attracting girls after braiding his hair. Patricia had a good-natured mechanic named Abie, who she later married, alarming Trevor due to Abie's violent tendencies. Patricia had a son, Andrew, with Abie but faced issues fitting into his family that believed in male dominance. Trevor and Patricia began losing their independence, and Abie started showing his aggressive side by coming home drunk and arguing with Patricia. When Abie physically assaulted Patricia, she reported him to the police, but they allowed Abie to take his family back home. Abie's auto shop, purchased with Patricia's savings, failed due to his poor business skills. Patricia had to sell her house to settle the shop's debts, forcing the family to live in the shop's warehouse. Trevor found life there difficult, and his school performance suffered. Patricia eventually found a job as a secretary and bought a new house. Trevor noticed a change in Patricia's parenting style, with his half-brother Andrew not receiving the same physical discipline he had endured. Abie, however, began hitting Trevor. Abie's violence escalated, leading to him purchasing a gun, causing Trevor to move out. Patricia also moved with Andrew and her third son, Isaac, to a shack in the yard due to Abie's frequent beatings. Trevor threatened to cut ties with the family if Patricia remained married to Abie. Abie eventually shot Patricia in the head during a violent outburst. Trevor and Andrew found Patricia in hospital, surprisingly calm despite her injury. Andrew revealed that Patricia had remarried after leaving Abie, and the shooting occurred when they returned from church to find a drunk Abie threatening to kill them. Patricia shielded her sons, getting shot in the process, and Andrew drove her to the hospital. Patricia was to be transferred to a state hospital due to lack of insurance, but Trevor promised to cover the costs. Doctors proclaimed Patricia's survival a miracle, as the bullets didn't hit any vital organs. She recovered quickly and returned to work within days. Patricia's youngest son, Isaac, was told by Abie that he'd shot Patricia due to sadness. Abie planned to commit suicide, but instead turned himself into the police, pled guilty, and was released on bail. Through all this, Trevor was able to pay Patricia's hospital bills, but she credited her survival to Jesus, as He had given her a son who could afford her hospital bill.

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