Born a Crime

Born a Crime Summary and Analysis of Chapters 15-16


Noah reflects on the way different nations have handled teaching the shameful aspects of their history. In South Africa, there is minimal time spent learning about the legacy of apartheid. Noah then delves into the backstory of how he got his CD business up and running. When he was in ninth grade, three Chinese students transferred to the school; one of them, Bolo, started selling bootlegged PlayStation games and befriended a white boy named Daniel who sells pirated CDs. Noticing that Bolo and Daniel were too intimidated to sell to black students, Noah offered to act as a middleman. By helping them, he was able to make his own computer more efficient.

When Daniel graduates, he gives his CD writer to Noah. Noah can now copy CDs and sell them at a rate that is a fraction of what it would cost to buy a CD in a store. Business expands rapidly, and soon Noah is selling mix CDs and mixing tracks together.

The money Noah makes from his business allows him the freedom to do things like buying fast food and a cordless telephone. His business partner, Sizwe, lives in Alexandra, a small impoverished neighborhood, and suggests that Noah start DJ'ing parties. Noah DJ's his first street party in Alexandra the summer after he graduates from high school. He doesn't have a job, and he makes money from selling CDs and playing parties. Without a high school market, he relies on Alexandra as his main customer base. One key ingredient in Noah's business model is bringing dancers to parties to demonstrate the dance moves to unfamiliar songs and get the crowd excited. A young man named Hitler is widely known to be the best dancer. At that time, it wasn't unusual for Black South African men to be named Hitler because most South Africans had only a very minimal knowledge of the Holocaust and didn't have a strong sense of what Hitler had done.

As the fame of Noah's group spreads, they are invited to play different places; one day, they are invited to an event at a Jewish school. At first, the performance goes well, with everyone enjoying the music and dancing, but at one point, as Hitler is dancing, the rest of the group starts cheering and calling his name to encourage him. The teachers abruptly cut short the performance and throw out the group. At the time, Noah doesn't understand why they are being thrown out; he thinks they are being discriminated against for being Black.

After Noah finishes high school, he decides to move out because he has a bad relationship with his stepfather. He is trying to save money for university and relies on work selling CDs to minibus drivers in the hood. Noah is quickly introduced to a world of hustling and petty crime, but also to a fiercely close-knit community. Time passes quickly, and Noah starts to drift away from his initial goals as he never seems to amass any money. One night, Noah is DJ'ing a party and the police arrive to shut it down. Noah tries to comply, but his software and computer take a long time to shut down. Frustrated, an officer fires a gunshot into the computer, leading to chaos in the crowd, whom he then tear-gases. Noah's equipment is ruined, and with no capital to get re-established, the business quickly crumbles. A short time later, Noah is shown a stolen camera; when he looks at the pictures, he realizes that the petty crime all around him actually has an impact on people's lives. He is also rattled by being arrested and spending the night in jail after the police find a gun in the minibus he is riding in. Gradually, Noah realizes that he is different from the other boys in his group because he has more privilege and choices about how he wants to live his life.


As Noah grows up, he becomes both more successful and more restricted in his future options. His energy, intelligence, and keen business sense help him to build a thriving business, and he is driven to try new revenue streams and expand. While Noah takes pride in the success he developed, he also acknowledges the help that mentoring and resources gave him. Noah is mistrustful of the common narrative that people can achieve anything if they put their mind to it. While he was highly motivated, he would likely not have gotten anywhere without help from others and the resources they could provide. Especially because it would be easy for people to read Noah's story as a "rags-to-riches" memoir or evidence that people can progress based on their will alone, he makes it clear that privilege intersects with success.

Noah's experience of getting to know Alexandra gives him an additional understanding of South African culture. While he has not been well-off, he has also not been exposed to the level of poverty he encounters there. Noah's education and ability to move ambiguously between different groups gives him a significant level of privilege compared to many of the people he encounters in Alexandra. Nonetheless, he also finds a sense of community and acceptance there that he has not really experienced anywhere else. Noah likes feeling useful and like he is part of something bigger than himself. While it doesn't actually advance his income or help him progress his career, Noah quickly falls into a comfortable and stable routine there. Especially since he is no longer living with his mother, Noah is not being spurred to ambition and big dreams. He lets himself indulge in living day-to-day.

Noah seems to be settling into a routine that may not expand his future. Living a life husting in Alexandra seems like it would be a waste of his education and potential, and, deep down, Noah knows that he has more options than many of the people around him do. However, incidents like the one with Hitler dancing at the Jewish school also show that Noah continues to have areas of ignorance due to having seen only a small part of the world. Even with a fairly good education, Noah doesn't know much about the Holocaust and why the name Hitler would be offensive. At a moment in the narrative when it seems like Noah might be in danger of being stuck in his current way of life, this incident shines a light on what that would really mean.

However, despite Noah falling into an easy routine and lacking some ambition, incidents like the episode with the stolen camera and spending a week in jail make him reassess and gradually decide to move forward. Noah has a strong sense of moral responsibility and is not entirely comfortable with living a life that relies on crime and exploiting others. He also does not want to risk spending time in prison, and he knows that most people who get started on a cycle of crime are never able to break free of it. By looking at men around him who lack opportunities, education, and privilege, Noah realizes that he wants to make the most of what he has.