Born a Crime is the story of a strong-willed black mother and her mixed-race child as they traverse life in South Africa during apartheid. When comedian Trevor Noah was born in the mid-1980s, his birth was a crime under the laws of apartheid, forbade whites and blacks from mixing and procreating. Growing up during and after apartheid, Noah struggled to understand where he belonged in this racially divided environment.
Through anecdotes from Noah and his mother’s life and details regarding the elements and consequences of apartheid, Noah provides an insider’s perspective of racism, survival, abuse, love, and the importance of heritage in a society built on difference and oppression.
1-Page Summary of Born a Crime
Trevor Noah, the acclaimed comedian and host of The Daily Show, is mixed race. His mother is a black South African, and his father is a white Swiss-German. At the time Noah was born, during the racial oppression of apartheid in South Africa, his existence was a crime. Apartheid dictated that blacks had no legal rights as humans and were to remain separated from the white South Africans. By creating a child together, both his parents broke the law and could have been sent to prison for five years.
A Woman’s Quest to Overcome Apartheid
Noah’s mother, Patricia, raised Noah by herself against all odds. She’d grown up impoverished, as all black families did, and was sent away to live with her paternal aunt as a young child. In this new environment, Patricia was one of more than a dozen children whose families couldn’t afford them or simply didn’t want them. They were put to work, helping farm whatever meager rations could be scraped together from the infertile land to which blacks were relegated.
Patricia was fortunate in her ability to attend a missionary school nearby, where she learned English. She took her education and used it to better her life, enrolling in a secretarial course and finding work in Johannesburg through a loophole in the laws. Willfully independent, always brazen, and consistently determined, Patricia moved secretly among white society, posing as a maid so she could live in Johannesburg (where blacks were forbidden to live). She decided to have a son with a white man as an act of defiance against the laws of oppression.
An Illegal Life
Noah’s early life was one of confinement. Apartheid was still law for the first five years of Noah’s life, and a mixed child in white society raised questions. Patricia could not be seen as Noah’s mother, since a black woman with a mixed child would be conspicuous. And Robert, Noah’s father, could not have any public involvement in his son’s life. The only times Noah and his father could visit were in Robert’s apartment for fear of being found out.
As Noah grew older and concealing his skin became more difficult, Patricia engaged the services of a colored woman to pose as his mother because of their likeness in skin tones. The colored race is a culturally constructed categorization of people with varied ethnic and racial heritages. It was not illegal to be a descendent of the colored race, meaning having two colored parents, but it was illegal to be the product of race mixing, or having a black parent and a white parent. During these moments, Patricia would follow Noah and this woman, posing as the black maid.
Even in Soweto, the black township Patricia was from, Noah was kept indoors. If the neighbors or police caught wind of a mixed-race boy belonging to a black family, Noah could be sent to a colored orphanage and his family imprisoned. **A life without friends and freedom encompasses Noah’s earliest memories. **
A New World Brings New Questions
When Nelson Mandela was freed and apartheid abolished, Noah was able to enter the world, but his struggles to belong were just beginning. Noah struggled to fit into a cleanly categorized race, which further separated him from his community and children at school. He felt black because he was raised within the black culture, but his light skin tone told another story. He looked colored, but he was not culturally colored. He was part white, but no one thought of him as such.
It wasn’t infrequent that Noah would find himself stranded on a playground not knowing which group he belonged to. The quandary of how he fit in would rear up again and again as Noah moved from school to school, neighborhood to neighborhood, with Noah always feeling like an outsider.
To counteract his ostracization, Noah became a master of languages. There were 11 official languages in South Africa, a policy created to ensure no black tribe felt unrepresented in the new democracy. His mother made English his first language to give him a leg up in life, and he spoke her native language of Xhosa, his father’s language of German, the language of his oppressors (Afrikaans, created by the Dutch colonists pre-apartheid), and many other African tribal languages he picked up on the streets. Speaking the languages of others allowed him to relate and be viewed as “one of them,” rather than “different.”
Noah also started a lunch delivery business in high school to move among all groups and be accepted. He became known as the “tuck-shop” guy, the tuck shop being the food cart where students bought lunch. These entrepreneurial skills endeared him to his fellow classmates. He expanded his business to selling pirated CDs, finding a prowess for sales and his niche in the social sphere. Noah’s success at these business ventures would carry him through life after high school. There were no jobs available for young black men, and after meeting a friend who lived in one of the poorest and most volatile black townships, he spent the next three years engaged in a life of petty crime.
The Bond Between Mother and Son
Noah was never weak or felt sorry for himself. His mother’s strength and mission to give him a better life gave him confidence and made him inquisitive about the world. Patricia inundated his early life with books and excursions into wider society, preparing him for a world that would one day accept him.
His relationship with Patricia was loving but volatile. Noah was a rambunctious child who got into trouble frequently. He would run wild and shoplift. He pulled pranks at school and had a penchant for fire. His actions would cause him to burn down a house and, later, land himself in jail. Patricia was a fierce disciplinarian, trying to raise her child to be a good man so he wouldn’t fall victim to a world stacked against him. Despite these disputes, they were always a team.
But a man named Abel would change all of that. Patricia met and married Abel after apartheid ended but still during Noah’s childhood. **At first, Abel was a kind and charismatic man, but his alcoholism and temper would change him into an abuser. **He started to beat both Patricia and Noah, and no one, not even the police, could stop him. It would take all of Noah’s adolescent life and some of his early adult years before Patricia would find the strength to leave Abel, but by this time, the damage had been done. Noah, unable to live in the toxic environment any longer and angry at Patricia for staying with this man, separated himself and became estranged. He wouldn’t reunite with his family for years, until Abel’s rage had grown to such fierce heights that he attacked Patricia in front of her new family and shot her twice, including once in the head.
An Uncertain Future
Noah and Robert lost touch when he was 13, mostly owing to Abel’s disapproval of the relationship. A decade passed before Noah finally tracked his father down and reunited. All of the doubt and distance Noah felt about his father disappeared the first time he saw Robert again. By now, Noah’s career had taken off, and Robert had been following his son’s progression the whole time. He was proud of who Noah had become.
Racism in South Africa
More than just a memoir, Born a Crime is also part history lesson, part social commentary about one of the most significant examples of institutionalized racism in history. The origins of colonial intrusion in South Africa and the lasting effects of greed, power, and oppression are paired with anecdotes both from Noah’s life and life in general. These anecdotes explore not only the illegitimacy of apartheid, but also the manner in which it created suffering and long-term detriment in the lives of black citizens.
For example, the high unemployment rate for blacks post-apartheid relates to the inability of employers to afford regular wages once the massive pool of slave-laborers were given rights. Furthermore, because of the lacking educational system geared toward blacks during apartheid and the illegality of work beyond manual labor or domestic service, blacks had few skills and little knowledge to take into the new world. Without knowledge or resources, many were unemployable and unable to change their circumstances.
Learning to Survive
Noah describes apartheid from an insider’s perspective, finding connections in his life that relate directly to the legacy of the laws. He was fortunate to have been able to change his circumstances and become a successful, financially independent person. **He credits his mother for educating him and never forcing him to limit his life based on race. **He credits the help of friends and family for supporting him when he was in trouble and providing the resources he needed to make something of his life. He knows that without resources and a support system, he would have had no options beyond the fate of most black South Africans: a life of poverty and survival.
Full Summary of Born a Crime
Part 1 | Chapter 1: The Consequences of Apartheid
A Little History
Apartheid was a system of institutionalized racism in South Africa. It began in 1948 and lasted for 46 years. The laws delineated different rights to citizens based on race, with the white race reigning supreme.
Apartheid was efficiently executed. It first developed as a result of colonial intrusion, which started in the mid-17th century. The Dutch arrived first and established a trading post in what would become Cape Town. They warred with the native blacks to attain power and instituted laws to enforce it, including enslaving them.
When British missionaries arri…
Read the rest of the “Born a Crime” summary at my new book summary product, Shortform.
Here’s what you’ll find in the full Born a Crime summary:
- Part 1 | Chapter 1: The Consequences of Apartheid
- Chapter 2: A Mixed Child Born a Crime
- Chapter 3: The Son of God
- Chapter 4: Learning to Fit In
- Chapter 5: The Power of a Mother’s Love
- Chapter 6: The Naughty Boy
- Chapter 7: The Most Important Lesson a Dog Can Teach
- Chapter 8: Father and Son Reunion
- Part II | Chapter 9: No Race To Call His Own
- Chapter 10: The Entrepreneur
- Chapter 11: The Benefits of Being Mixed
- Chapter 12: Girls
- Part III | Chapter 13: The Big Man on Campus
- Chapter 14: A Career in Bloom
- Chapter 15: A Life of Crime
- Chapter 16: The Hardest Lesson
- Chapter 17: The Good Mother
- Chapter 18: From Abuse to Attempted Murder
- Chapter 19: The Aftermath
- Exercise: Reflect on Born a Crime
I’ve been building Shortform for the past year. It’s the book summary product I always wanted for myself. I was never satisfied with the summaries from what was on the market, and so I built Shortform for myself and readers like you. If you like my book summaries, you’ll love Shortform.
Shortform has the world’s best summaries of nonfiction books and articles. Even better, it helps you remember what you read, so you can make your life better. What’s special about Shortform:
- The world’s highest quality book summaries—comprehensive, concise, and everything you need to know
- Broad library: 1000+ books and articles across 21 genres
- Interactive exercises that teach you to apply what you’ve learned
- Audio narrations so you can learn on the go
- Discussion communities—get the best advice from other readers
Sound like what you’ve been looking for? Sign up for a 5-day free trial here.