Born a Crime

Born a Crime Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-3


Trevor Noah opens his memoir by articulating a central premise: that apartheid relied on creating artificial divisions between groups of people so that the white colonial elite could maintain their hold on power. He introduces the major tribes of South Africa, with a focus on the two main groups: the Zulu and Xhosa. He identifies the Zulu as having taken a forceful and combative approach to resisting colonial power, while the Xhosa primarily used strategy and political maneuvering. These different approaches led to increased tension between the two groups, and once apartheid fell, systematic oppression was replaced by different African tribes fighting against one another.

Noah then shifts into the first of his personal recollections: as a child, he was thrown out a moving car by his mother. At age 9, he, his mother, and his infant brother, Andrew, had their car break down on a Sunday as they were trying to get to church. Noah's mother was a deeply religious woman and typically spent Sunday attending three different services, one each at a primarily Black, primarily White, and mixed church. Refusing to be swayed from her goal of attending church, Noah's mother decides to travel using the minibus system, a transit system established by Blacks who were forbidden from accessing regular public transit. Noah reflects on how his mother responded to his rebellious nature by being firm and no-nonsense, and because of this relationship, he didn't challenge her plan even though he was unhappy about traveling by minibus.

At this point, tensions and violence were running high for Black individuals in South Africa. The fall of apartheid had put two major political parties, roughly aligned with the Zulu and Xhosa tribes into a power struggle and Noah witnessed violence and riots frequently. Nonetheless, his mother insisted on them continuing to go about their day to day lives. After a long day of attending church services, Noah's mother and her two children find themselves far from home with no transit available. After getting into one car, another minibus comes along with a driver angry at being deprived of his fare. The family gets into the minibus, only to have the driver threaten and insult them. Feeling increasingly unsafe, when the bus slows down, Noah's mother opens the door, pushes him out, and then leaps out with the baby in her arms. They run to a nearby gas station and phone the police.

Noah pauses to provide additional historical context for the South African political situation: in the 17th century, Dutch colonists established a trading presence and began systematically oppressing the African population in order to maintain control of their new colony. The British eventually took over, driving the original Dutch settlers away from the coast where they developed the Afrikaners culture. After the British lost power, the white Afrikaners returned to power and enacted apartheid a systematic approach to controlling the predominantly Black population.

Noah was born into this system of apartheid, the child of a Black Xhosa woman named Patricia and a white man of Swiss-German nationality named Robert. At the time he was born, it was illegal for individuals belonging to different racial classifications to marry or have sex with one another, and thus Noah's very existence is an indication of criminal behavior. His mother's strong-willed and rebellious approach to life is evident both in her decision to have a mixed-race child and in her other decisions. At a time when most Black women were limited to working in factories or domestic service, she was able to acquire training and work as a secretary. She also decided to move away from her family home and live in central Johannesburg. It was illegal at this time for Black individuals to live outside of designated neighborhoods, but Patricia is able to arrange to secretly rent an apartment.

While living in her new apartment, Patricia meets and befriends a white man named Robert. She wants to have a child but does not want a partner, so she persuades Robert to conceive a child with her while promising him that he will not have any responsibilities. However, after Noah is born, Robert realizes that he wants to play a role in the life of his son. Because Noah is visibly light-skinned, his mother hides his parentage and passes him off as the child of two colored parents rather than her own child. Noah is kept largely isolated and hidden as a child, especially when he spends time with his grandparents in the Black neighborhood of Soweto, because he could be taken away from his mother and she could be arrested for having a mixed-race child.

Noah continues to meditate on his childhood, noting that in South Africa, Christianity coexists alongside traditional African beliefs about witchcraft and other spiritual practices. Within his immediate and extended family, Noah mostly grew up around women, with few male role models. This situation was part of a wider pattern where the structures of apartheid fragmented many families. For many of the women Noah observed growing up, a fervent religious belief functioned as a way to cope with the immense responsibility they had to shoulder. Noah reflects on the socio-economic features of Soweto, including the lack of indoor plumbing. At age five, he decided one day to defecate on a piece of newspaper inside the house rather than going out to the outhouse. However, his blind great-grandmother noticed suspicious sounds and smells and alerted his mother and grandmother, who became convinced that a demon had entered the house. Noah never admits that he was the one responsible.


This opening section highlights how Trevor Noah will interweave personal and political histories throughout the memoir. On one hand, he is telling the story of his own life to an audience who likely already has some familiarity with him in his persona as actor and comedian. On the other hand, he is sharing information about South Africa and the traumas of apartheid. Combining the personal history of a specific individual with this information makes it more likely to reach a wider audience. Moreover, Noah's personal anecdotes provide additional context and nuance for how laws and political changes played out in the day-to-day lives of ordinary individuals. It can be easy to assume that history is primarily about listing dates, key events, and the names of famous figures, but this memoir offers an alternative perspective on how history can be presented and consumed. Trevor Noah's celebrity status also gives him a unique ability to draw readers into learning about the history of South Africa. Fans may wish to know more about him or be seeking to learn how he grew into the personality he is, and Noah's memoir harnesses "the ambivalent emotional currents underlying the cultural fascination with both life narratives and celebrity" (Mayer & Novak 150) to tell not just his own story, but also the tumultuous story of a specific nation.

In order to tell his own story, especially the story of his childhood, Noah also has to give a lot of attention to his mother Patricia, a formative presence in his life. Patricia is going to be an important character in the memoir because she has played a part in most of the key events in Noah's life. More so than many mothers, Patricia also made a series of deliberate choices that set Noah up to have a very unusual life. Patricia refused to have her choices and ambitions be dictated by the rigid rules of apartheid, nor by broader cultural norms in South African society. She wanted to have a child of her own, and she was willing to have that child be mixed-race. By doing so, Patricia took a huge risk and potentially also chose to bring a child into the world knowing that her son was going to have a hard time fitting in. Even though he will later be open about the way his racial heritage will create challenges in his life, Noah celebrates Patricia's courage in making her own decisions and following her heart.

The incidents Noah narrates in the first few chapters highlight how he uses funny or dramatic moments to give a personal insight into the realities of life in South Africa. Although apartheid was set up to allow white colonial powers to dominate and oppress the non-white population, much of the day-to-day tension and violence Noah experiences results from tensions between different non-white groups. The memoir's first episode shows him, his mother, and his baby brother being endangered not by white men, but by Black men who belong to a different tribe. One of the particularly toxic consequences of colonialism and apartheid was the way it led to power struggles between groups who were simultaneously being oppressed by the white ruling elites. Since apartheid ends when Noah is quite a young child, his early life is more impacted by the indirect fallout of violence and power struggles between different Black African groups than direct conflict with white individuals. Noah first explains this reality to readers, and then gives a vivid dramatic episode in which his mother throws him out of a moving car. The episode makes a factual reality more vivid and memorable. It also shows how Noah and his mother find humor in challenging and dangerous situations. The incident is one in which they could all have been killed; Noah doesn't shy away from admitting that reality, but he also doesn't dwell on it.

The opening episodes also highlight the important role of Christianity in Noah's childhood. Patricia's fervent religious faith shows the complex ways in which colonial influences play out over time. Christianity was introduced by European colonialists and may represent a tool of oppression. However, on the individual level, her faith has given Patricia a sense of self-confidence and bravery that actually makes it possible for her to rebel against those same oppressive systems. For Patricia, her extended family, and many other Black South Africans, Christianity has been synthesized and intertwined with traditional tribal spiritual beliefs. As the episode with the demon shows, along with Noah's description of the role witchcraft played in South African culture, traditional beliefs continue to be integral to the worldview of Black South Africans, but they also regularly go to Christian church services and invoke Jesus through prayers. This fusing of religious beliefs in a colonial context represents an example of Homi K. Bhaba's theory of hybridity: as Amardeep Singh explains, "In thinking about religious hybridity, the question is usually not whether or not someone converts to a foreign or imposed religious belief system, but how different belief systems interact with traditional and local cultural-religious frameworks." In Noah's world, Christianity coexists with a legacy of colonialism in complicated ways because while it has been interwoven with pre-colonial beliefs, his grandmother and others still believe that because Noah is light-skinned, his prayers are more effective. They have always been shown images of Jesus depicted as a white man, so while it has been partially integrated, Christianity has also reaffirmed a worldview in which white or light-skinned individuals are inherently superior to those with darker skin.