Born a Crime

Born a Crime Summary

Trevor Noah's memoir interweaves vignettes from his childhood and adolescence with reflections on the history and culture of South Africa. The various episodes are not always presented in a strict chronological order, and they include information about his life and the life of his mother.

Trevor's mother, Patricia Noah, is born into a Black South African family that belongs to the Xhosa tribe. After her parents' divorce and her father goes to live with his second wife and new family, Patricia grows up feeling neglected as the middle child of a working-class single mother. Although she hopes to return to live with her father, she ends up being sent to live with her paternal aunt in an impoverished rural area. Patricia, however, is able to get a good education and is ambitious, determined to make a better life for herself. She begins working as a secretary, and when she becomes frustrated with her family members taking most of her money, she moves to an apartment in Johannesburg by herself. There, she meets Robert, a white man with whom she becomes friends. Wanting to have a baby so that she can establish a new family for herself, Patricia persuades Robert to father her child; she gives birth to Trevor, a light-skinned, mixed-race child. At this time, it is illegal in South Africa for people to have sex with individuals from different racial classifications, so Trevor is evidence of her criminal activity.

Although both Patricia and Robert have to make sure that they hide their relationship to Trevor for fear of being arrested, he recalls a happy early childhood growing up first in a small flat, and then, as the influence of apartheid gradually diminishes, in a primarily colored neighborhood called Eden Park. He visits with his father every week, and he also spends time with his mother's family in the Black neighborhood of Soweto. He is a rambunctious child and his mother often disciplines him strictly, but they also have a very loving relationship. Patricia encourages Trevor to be a curious and independent thinker who reflects critically, asks lots of questions, and thinks for himself. She plants the seeds of ambition in him, encouraging him to believe in himself and have aspirations. She also gives him a good educational foundation by getting him enrolled in a private Catholic school, although Trevor often gets in trouble there for challenging rules and questioning authority.

When Trevor is about six years old, Patricia meets a charismatic mechanic named Abel, and after the two of them have dated for a while, they decide to marry. Trevor doesn't trust the man who will become his stepfather, but there's little he can do. The marriage and then the birth of Trevor's half-brother Andrew introduce new dynamics into the family. For example, Abel does not like Trevor spending time with his father Robert, so Trevor visits less frequently. This diminishing relationship leads to Robert moving away to Cape Town when Trevor is thirteen years old. Around this time, Trevor also gets kicked out of Catholic school and transfers to a public school called H.A. Jack at the end of the sixth grade. Starting at the new school, where students of different races don't intermingle much, Trevor realizes that he feels most comfortable with the Black students and identifies as Black. However, by this time it is clear that he doesn't fit in well with any specific group. His mother's family and other residents of Soweto have always treated him differently because he was light-skinned and spoke perfect English. In the primarily colored neighborhood of Eden Park, he's considered either too black or too white to fit in. Trevor rarely has close friends, is often bullied or outcast, and becomes resourceful about moving fluidly between communities, focusing on honing his language skills so that he can try to fit in wherever he goes.

This pattern continues once Trevor starts high school at Sandringham, a large public school. By this time, his stepfather has experienced serious economic troubles after trying to start his own car repair shop. Patricia provided money to help him, but Abel's problems with alcohol make him irresponsible and the business fails. Abel has also begun to occasionally be physically abusive towards Patricia, Trevor, and their pets. To cut their losses, they sell the shop and move to a primarily white neighborhood called Highlands North. Patricia legally divorces Abel but continues to live with him, supporting the family with her income while he drinks more and more heavily. Trevor becomes interested in his own business ventures, first making money placing lunch orders for other students, and then eventually selling pirated and mix CDs. While awkward and unsuccessful at attracting girls, Trevor does have a few close friends and starts making a significant income for himself.

When Trevor finishes high school, he has no clear plan in place. He doesn't have the money to attend university, and the only work he can find is expanding his CD business and also beginning to DJ parties. This line of work leads him to spending more and more time in Alexandra, an impoverished neighborhood dominated by petty crime. By this time, tensions between Trevor and Abel have led Trevor to move into his own apartment. The relationship between Patricia and Abel has deteriorated, and he is hoping that his mother will leave Abel entirely. Trevor is devastated when he finds out that Patricia is pregnant again, and he spends less time with his mother and younger brothers after this. When he is in his early twenties, his career starts to take off, giving him other things to focus on. When Trevor is twenty-four, his mother encourages him to seek out his estranged father, Robert. Trevor tracks down Robert and begins to rebuild a relationship with him. Patricia also eventually leaves Abel and remarries.

Trevor is startled to receive a phone call one day when he is in his mid-twenties and learn that Abel has shot his mother. He rushes to her side and covers her medical costs. Miraculously, Patricia sustains only minor injuries, and the incident reaffirms the deep love between mother and son. Unfortunately, Abel is able to avoid jail time and goes on to live as a free man, having served only parole.