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Trevor Noah's Born a Crime is a memoir about growing up in South Africa at the end of Apartheid. Born of a black mother and white father, in a time when interracial sex was illegal, the young Trevor was literally “born a crime.” Noah begins his book with this historical context, explaining how apartheid relied on creating artificial divisions between groups of people so that the white colonial elite could maintain their power.
At the start of the memoir, Noah tells a funny anecdote from his boyhood. His mother, Patricia Noah, was a deeply religious woman and took her sons to three different church services on Sundays—one Black, one White, and one mixed. One Sunday, with their car broken down, they caught a minibus to get home, but the driver threatened and insulted them. Afraid for their safety, Patricia opened the door, pushed Trevor out, and then leapt after him with his baby brother—all while the minibus was still moving! They ran to a nearby gas station and phoned the police.
We soon learn that Noah's mother was born into a Black South African family that belonged to the Xhosa tribe. She was determined and independent and as a young woman moved to Johannesburg on her own. There, she met Robert, a Swiss-German expat and the man who would be Trevor's father. Patricia and Robert had to hide their relationship; Patricia would dress up as a maid when she visited Robert, so that no one would suspect them.
Trevor was born, a light-skinned, mixed-race child; he spent much of his early years isolated and hidden, in order to protect his parents from arrest. When he and his mother went out in Joubert Park in Johannesburg, a caretaker would walk with Trevor while Patricia trailed behind them. Patricia and Robert remained friends and Trevor visited his father every week.
Trevor also spent much time in his grandmother's house in the black neighborhood of Soweto, where he grew up mostly among women. Although he was happy, he played alongside the sounds of gunshots, screams, and tear gas firing into crowds.
Trevor was a rambunctious child and his mother often disciplined him strictly, but they also had a very loving relationship. Patricia encouraged Trevor to be a curious and independent thinker who reflected critically, asked lots of questions, and thought for himself. She enrolled him in a private Catholic school, where Trevor often got in trouble for challenging rules and questioning authority.
When Trevor was around six, his mother started dating a charismatic mechanic named Abel, who lived above the garage of a white family. Patricia and Trevor sometimes stayed with him. One day, when Trevor was seven, he and another little boy were playing together with a magnifying glass and matches, burning words into pieces of wood. Suddenly, they set a mattress on fire! Soon enough, the fire spread and consumed the entire house.
The young Trevor was not punished, but the white family kicked Abel out. He moved in with Trevor and his mother. Eventually Patricia and Abel decided to marry. Trevor didn't trust his new stepfather, and the birth of his half-brother Andrew, further complicated the family dynamics.
Meanwhile, Trevor felt profoundly isolated and was often the target of bullying. One day, a group of older boys threw mulberries at him. When Trevor told Abel, he realized he could manipulate Abel's anger to get revenge. Sure enough, Abel caught one of the boys and whipped him with a tree branch. Watching the violence, Trevor experienced first pleasure and then horror.
Trevor was kicked out of Catholic school and transferred to a public school at the end of the sixth grade. While he felt most comfortable with Black students, he didn't fit in well with any specific group. His mother's family and other residents of Soweto treated him differently as well because of his light skin and perfect English. Living in the primarily colored neighborhood of Eden Park, he was considered either too black or too white. Trevor honed his language skills and could code switch easily, learning to move fluidly between communities.
Meanwhile, Abel had 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 made him irresponsible and the business failed. Abel began to physically abuse Patricia, Trevor, and their pets.
To cut their losses, Abel sold the shop and they moved to a primarily white neighborhood called Highlands North. Patricia legally divorced Abel but continued to live with him, supporting the family with her income while he drank more and more heavily.
As Trevor grew older, he started his own business ventures, eventually selling pirated and mix CDs. When he finished high school, he expanded his business and began DJ-ing parties. He spent more time in Alexandra, an impoverished neighborhood dominated by petty crime. Tensions between Trevor and Abel led Trevor to move into his own apartment.
The relationship between Patricia and Abel deteriorated, and Trevor was devastated when he found out Patricia was pregnant again. He spent less time with his mother and younger brothers after this. Meanwhile, his DJ-ing career took off.
The climax of the memoir occurs when Trevor, as a young man, received a call from his brother, Andrew. Abel had shot Trevor's mother. First, he shot her in the leg, and then the gun misfired several times, and finally, he shot her in the head.
At the hospital, doctors were hesitant to treat Patricia because she didn’t have health insurance, but Trevor promised to pay her bills. Miraculously, her injuries turned out to be minor. No one could explain why the gun misfired, but Patricia believed that God intervened on her behalf. Abel received only probation, never serving any jail time. Trevor Noah ends his memoir reflecting on the deep love and unshakeable bond he shares with his mother.
The Question and Answer section for Born a Crime is a great resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
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In context, our given names are assigned...... our nicknames are earned based upon our personality or looks. In other words, nicknames likely are a better fit for those who earn them..... but not always.
Important themes presented in the novel, Born a Crime, include race, language, growing up, history, violence, and masculinity. You can find a detailed explanantion of each of these themes in GradeSaver's study guide for this unit.