Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
Author: Trevor Noah
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Published: 2/12/2019
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER - The compelling, inspiring, and comically sublime story of one man's coming-of-age, set during the twilight of apartheid and the tumultuous days of freedom that followed NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY Michiko Kakutani, New York Times - USA Today - San Francisco Chronicle - NPR - Esquire - Newsday - Booklist

Born A Crime By. Trevor Noah

Key Insights

You’ve probably heard of the late-night South African comedian, Trevor Noah.

Trevor Noah famously took over Jon Stewart’s, The Daily Show, in September of 2015.

But, there is much more to this satire-loving comic than many people know.

“You want to live in a world where someone is good or bad. Where you either hate them or love them. But that's not how people are.”- Trevor Noah

In, “Born A Crime” by Trevor Noah, you will learn the star’s life story. And, how he was affected by the racist beliefs of his country, where life for a mixed-race person is systematically cruel.

Key Points

  • Trevor Noah Was A Crime From Birth

Noah was born during apartheid in South Africa, which was racial segregation that was active between the years of 1948 and 1991.

“Relationships are built in the silences. You spend time with people, you observe them and interact with them, and you come to know them—and that is what apartheid stole from us: time.” - Trevor Noah

This segregation system was set in place in 1948, but the roots stretch much farther. In 1652, the Dutch settled in South Africa and took the people of the land as slaves.

In the 1800s, the British then took control of the land and the people. So, the Dutch decided to high-tail it inland in order to develop their own unique culture. They gained the name Afrikaners.

After the British left, the Afrikaners returned and created a code of laws that oppressed the native black people.

One part of the code made it clear that whites and blacks were not allowed to procreate or have any sexual encounters with each other. This was to keep the races completely separate so that it could not tear apart the racist apartheid system.

People who did intermingle with the other race were put into prison. Men were sent for up to five years and women would serve no more than four.

Keeping the races separate was essential to keeping the racist system intact. And because it was so important, police would peek into windows to try to bust interracial affairs.

On February 20th, 1984, Noah took his first breath. Noah’s mother was black and his father was white, which made Noah the evidence of a serious crime: interracial intercourse.

  • Noah’s Parents Prove That Opposites Attract

Noah’s parents were different racially, but they were also different in many other ways.

Noah’s father was named Robert. He was of Swiss and German heritage. In the 1970s, he moved to South Africa. Robert was a very quiet man who didn’t quite understand the apartheid system he was living in. Later in his life, he opened the first racially-mixed dining spot in the town Johannesburg.

Unfortunately, Noah wasn’t able to visit his father as much as he’d like to because of the racial system. By the time Noah was 13, they didn’t talk anymore.

But, when Noah turned 24, he was able to visit his father again and was welcomed with love and a big scrapbook his father had made of clippings from articles focusing on Noah’s comedy career.

Noah’s mother was the total opposite of Robert. Her name was Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. Patricia was full of life and extremely ambitious. She grew up in poverty and was dropped off with her aunt by her father, who had no interest in raising her. She lived in a one-room hut with 14 other members of her family; all who were unwanted. Patricia and her hut-mates often stole food from the animals in order to avoid starving to death.

Patricia stayed driven and hardworking. She learned English from a white missionary and when she was able she obtained a job at a sewing factory, which hardly put food on her table.

When she was 21, she moved back to where her parents lived and found a job as a secretary.

One of Patricia’s passions was Christ. She went to church three times on Sundays at three different churches; one church was black, one was white, and one was mixed.

At the age of 22, she moved to Johannesburg illegally. At the time Johannesburg was strictly white. She became friends with prostitutes who would help her hide in the city by sleeping in public toilets.

  • Noah’s Mom Always Wanted The Best For Him

Noah grew up in poverty too. Oftentimes they would eat simple broth with nothing but water and bones.

Most of his childhood he lived in Soweto, which was a part of Johannesburg where all the blacks resided. It was essentially a ghetto developed by the government to keep all the blacks in one place.

On holidays, Noah would often stay at his grandmother’s house, which wasn’t much better. He slept on the floor with uncles, cousins, grandparents, and his mother. They had an unhygienic outhouse with only newspapers to do their business.

“My mom did what school didn't. She taught me how to think.”- Trevor Noah

Patricia was set on giving Noah a better life. She educated Noah every chance she got. With the little money she had, she purchased “how-to” books, the bible, and encyclopedias so that she could teach Noah as much as possible. She didn’t want him paying the “black tax.” She wanted him to stay positive and hopeful that there was more to life.

Noah, however, was not an angel. As a child, he began playing with knives and fire. He even burned down a house!

  • Post-Apartheid Life Was Not Easy Either

Nelson Mandela was set free in 1990, which triggered the 1991 call of saying ‘goodbye’ to apartheid. But, these drastic changes also created new problems.

The two largest tribes the Zulus and the Xhosas began a power struggle since the power for blacks was now on the table. Because of this struggle, thousands perished.

Throughout this rough time in South African history, Patricia remained strong and did whatever she had to in order to protect Noah and his half-brother Andrew. One time Patricia had to push both boys off of a moving bus, as busses were unsafe at the time and they had just been threatened by the driver. After the three landed, they ran home to safety.

Noah was a smart kid and make it his mission to learn several of the 11 languages that were spoken in South Africa at the time so that he would be easily able to navigate his way through life. This helped him to stay safe when walking the streets at night amidst potential muggers.

“Language, even more than color, defines who you are to people.”- Trevor Noah

  • Noah Always Considered Himself Black

In the time of apartheid, the term“coloured” was used as a classification. If you were coloured, you were a person of mixed-race. But, after apartheid that presented the problem of where a person belonged; with the whites or with the blacks?

During apartheid, the coloureds were told that they were able to become white if you mixed with more whites.

But when apartheid was over, being black wasn’t such a bad thing in South Africa.

Noah embraced his black identity. He spoke African languages, he spent his childhood with his mother, who was black, and her family. But, just because he considered himself black, didn’t mean he didn’t interact with white people, as well.

At school, Noah talked to all sorts of kids from different backgrounds. He was friends with the rich kids, the jocks, and the nerds. This was mainly because of his job as the “tuckshop guy.” Tuckshop is a British term for a shop that sells sweets, sodas, and snacks. Noah would always get to the school’s tuckshop first to take orders for people and create a racket with his jokes. This was the start of his comedy career.

  • Noah’s DJ Career

When Noah was 16, he started selling bootleg CDs. He created them from downloading songs illegally at home and burning them onto discs. He got the burner from a rich white friend at school.

“People love to say, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” What they don’t say is, “And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.” That’s the part of the analogy that’s missing.”-Trevor Noah

Then Noah began making his own tracks and deejaying at parties. His DJ business took off fast and he was booked solid. Noah even had a dance crew that would come with him on gigs to perform.

Noah was playing at a Jewish cultural festival and unfortunately, his best dancer was named Hitler. This got Noah into quite a bit of trouble when he started calling “Go Hitler” over the mic to get his star dancer up and dancing. Noah’s background in South Africa didn’t teach him about WWII or Hitler. So Noah was shocked when the music was cut and anger erupted throughout the venue.

  • Noah’s Run-Ins With The Law

Noah was lucky to have a small DJ career because it was hard for blacks to find work even after apartheid.

In law, it was said that whites and blacks have equal work opportunities. But blacks were not educated because of their previous oppression, so it made it hard to actually secure work.

“The first thing I learned about having money was that it gives you choices. People don’t want to be rich. They want to be able to choose. The richer you are, the more choices you have. That is the freedom of money.”- Trevor Noah

Blacks often found money through crime. And, Noah fell into this lifestyle too.

Noah and his friends started a credit-and-loan business in the ghetto. They financed it from Noah’s bootleg CDs and DJ funds. But, a police officer shot Noah’s computer, which made Noah lose all of his music. So, the business didn’t last long.

When Noah was a little older he took a car from his stepfather’s garage. Noah knew that it was probably stolen, but took the chance anyway. Officers arrested him and put him in jail for a week after they suspected he stole it. It was Patricia who hired a lawyer and paid his bail.

  • Noah’s Mother Was Almost Murdered

While Noah was dealing with the law, Patricia had trouble of her own. When Noah was a young boy of six or seven, Patricia got involved with a car mechanic named Abel. Eventually, she and Abel got married and conceived two children.

The relationship became abusive because of Abel’s alcoholic tendencies which pushed him to be aggressive and violent. During one of Abel’s fits, he got rough with Patricia. When Patricia went to the police, they refused to help and even went as far as saying that she shouldn’t have made Abel angry.

Patricia felt trapped and was afraid to escape. She felt that Abel might kill her or her children.

Noah had a hard time watching his mother stay in an abusive relationship. So after he finished school, he moved away and let their relationship dissolve.

Patricia, the fiery determined woman that she was, did break free eventually and even got remarried.

Noah did hear about one almost-fatal attack that Abel committed while he was performing in England. Abel barged in on Patricia and her new family and shot her twice. She miraculously survived and was back to work in a week’s time.

Incredibly, Abel wasn’t punished for this crime. He was sentenced to three-years probation for shooting his ex-wife.

The Main Take-Away

Living as a mixed-race person during and after apartheid was not easy. Trevor Noah faced poverty and racism throughout his life, while also getting mixed-up in crime.

About the Author

Trevor Noah is a South African comedian, writer, producer, political commentator, actor, and television host. He is the current host of The Daily Show, an American satirical news program on Comedy Central. He was born in Johannesburg. He hosted several television shows for the South African Broadcasting Corporation and was the runner-up in the fourth season of South Africa’s iteration of Strictly Come Dancing in 2008.

From 2008 to 2011, he created and hosted the late night talk show Tonight with Trevor Noah, which aired on M-Net and DStv. After his talk show gained international success, he became the Senior International Correspondent for The Daily Show in 2014. In 2015, he succeeded Jon Stewart.

In 2017 and 2018, he was named one of The 35 Most Powerful People in New York Media by The Hollywood Media. In 2018, Time Magazine added him to the list of the 100 most influential people in the world.


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