Born a Crime

Born a Crime Summary and Analysis of Chapters 4-6


Noah reflects on how shared or different languages can be used to divide people or bring them together, noting that aside from nationality, race, and appearance, people generally trust other people who can communicate easily with them in a shared language. Growing up as a visibly light-skinned child in a family and neighborhood where everyone else was Black gave Noah both privileges and a sense of isolation. All of his family members, with the exception of his mother, treated him more leniently than other children. Noah's mother also ensures he grows up speaking perfect English because she knows this will give him greater opportunities later in life. Observing how his mother's ability to speak in multiple languages gives her flexibility and freedom, Noah imitates this habit. Over the course of his life, being able to speak many different languages allows him to fit in with different groups who would otherwise see him as an outsider.

Noah begins his schooling at Maryvale Academy, a private Catholic school attended by children of all different races and where students mixed and mingled freely. In the sixth grade, Noah transfers to a public school where his testing performance shows he should attend gifted classes. He is astonished to find these classes almost exclusively have white students in them, and then he realizes that the black students are attending classes for less academically advanced students. Noah decides to switch into these classes, despite warnings from school officials, because he feels welcomed and experiences a sense of belonging with the Black students.

Noah discusses the history of education for Black people in South Africa: prior to apartheid, they could be educated by European missionaries where they often acquired a high-quality education. Under apartheid, the South African government wanted to limit education for Blacks, so they set up a system of Bantu schools where Blacks were taught only rudimentary skills designated appropriate for the low-skilled jobs they were expected to hold. He then moves on to recounting his mother's personal history. Patricia's parents (Noah's grandparents) divorced when she was young, and she grew up unhappy with her mother and siblings. She made a plan to go and live with her father, but she was unexpectedly sent to live on her aunt's farm in an isolated area. Growing up there, Patricia experienced intense poverty but also received a good education at a local mission school. Her ambition drove her to obtain training and find work as a secretary, but she was expected to contribute most of her money to supporting her family. Frustrated, she made the decision to move to Johannesburg alone. Once she had Noah, Patricia became determined to see him well-educated and able to question and think for himself.

As the end of apartheid eases some racial stigma, Patricia is able to live more openly as the mother of a colored child, and she and Noah move to Eden Park, a neighborhood primarily inhabited by colored people and near black neighborhoods. They also acquire a used car, allowing them to explore and go on adventures, reveling in a sense of freedom. Despite living in poverty, Noah remembers a happy childhood animated by curiosity and a sense of possibility. Nonetheless, Noah and his mother experience lots of conflict since he is a high-energy, mischievous, and strong-willed child. In order to discipline him, his mother sometimes resorts to somewhat extreme measures, such as pretending in public that she doesn't know him and has no relationship to him. When she gets frustrated trying to argue with him, she writes him letters trying to assert her authority. She uses corporal punishment, but Noah respects that she is always clear about why he is being punished. He experiences challenges with discipline at Catholic school as well, especially because he is not afraid to point out that he finds many of the religious beliefs illogical. Noah's mother often sides with him, refusing to punish her son for being intelligent and questioning authority. Noah is eventually expelled from Catholic school, which is what leads to him transferring to public school.

One of Noah's worse transgressions occurs when he is around seven. Patricia is dating a man named Abel, who lives above the garage of a white family. Patricia and Noah sometimes stay with him, and Noah befriends another boy, who is the son of the family's Black maid. One day, Noah and the other boy are playing together, using a magnifying glass and matches to burn words into pieces of wood. Leaving the tools unattended, they set a mattress on fire, and the fire spreads to consume the entire house. Noah is not punished, but Abel comes to live with him and his mother because he is kicked out by the family.


This section highlights some of the formative ways through which Noah develops his personality, values, and sense of self. Despite growing up with a lot of challenges and restrictions, Noah has gone on to be incredibly successful. Some of that can be attributed to his linguistic fluidity, education, and sense of confidence. South Africa is a complex and multi-lingual society, described by scholars as "radically heterogeneous in linguistic and cultural terms" (Attwell & Attridge pg. 5). As a mixed-race individual, Noah is at a disadvantage because he doesn't belong clearly to any one particular group. One strategy he adopts to cope with this lack of fixed identity is enhancing his ability to move between as many different groups as possible. Although he will never be immediately and clearly recognizable as a member of a particular group, Noah can enhance his ability to fit in anywhere and everywhere by learning to speak multiple languages. He learns this strategy from Patricia. As a Black woman, she has a more solid identity, but also one that carries many restrictions. By speaking multiple languages, she has expanded the possibilities available to her and wants the same for her son.

Likewise, Patricia has also seen how education has broadened her horizons and given her opportunities. She makes sure that Noah has access to a good school, but by sending him to a Catholic school she also sets the stage for Noah to experience conflict. Noah makes a direct parallel between the Catholic religion and apartheid, arguing that both rely on harshly shutting down any dissent or challenges to authority. Noah is used to thinking for himself and articulating his opinions, so he is not afraid to challenge ideas that he finds illogical. This puts him in conflict with the school. Interestingly, despite her own deep faith, Patricia vehemently stands up for her son's right to think for himself and challenge doctrine he doesn't agree with. Patricia sees it as one of her goals as a parent to make sure Noah can think for himself.

This desire to support Noah confidence and critical thinking showcases both how mother and son are similar, and why they sometimes come into conflict. When Noah describes Patricia's own childhood, it is clear that she was also rebellious and strong-willed, and it is not surprising she has passed these qualities on to her own son. Noah's very existence represents an act of refusing to follow the rules, and he lives his life with that same spirit. Patricia makes sure to give her son the broadest and most optimistic perspective she can. Her approach to parenting only backfires in that Noah is sometimes unwilling to listen to her. He is used to standing up for himself and arguing his case, and this leads to power struggles between mother and son. Despite these disciplinary challenges, Patricia still continues to invest in her son's education and confidence. She would rather raise a strong-willed and assertive child than a passive one, even if the latter might be easier for her to control.

This section also continues to develop the theme of Noah feeling a lack of belonging, especially amongst other children. His education and linguistic ability mean that he has things in common with white children, but those white children would most likely come from a higher socio-economic background. Because he has grown up amidst Black family members, Noah identifies as Black. He will always foreground that community as the one where he feels most at-home and most like himself. At the same time, he has to actively choose where he belongs rather than simply fitting in. As the conversation with the teachers shows, choosing to identify as Black also has potential consequences. The Black South African population has historically suffered the worst discrimination and been the most disenfranchised. While choosing to think of himself and live as Black, Noah foregoes potential privileges such as attending more advanced academic classes.