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Born a Crime by Trevor Noah.
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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...

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Born a Crime Summary 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 arrived, they displaced the Dutch to remote areas inland. Slavery was legally dissolved, but the practice remained. The British needed people to mine discovered gold and diamond supplies. After some time, the missionaries left South Africa, and the Dutch moved back in and reclaimed power.

By that time, the Dutch had developed their own culture and language, calling themselves Afrikaners, a tribe of white Africans. They wanted a way to maintain control over the expansive black population, so they created a new set of laws, which became apartheid. These laws were based on research conducted...

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Born a Crime Summary Chapter 2: A Mixed Child Born a Crime

Noah’s birth was a crime under the laws of apartheid. Blacks and other races were not allowed to have relations with whites, and vice versa. The narrative under which apartheid existed was that blacks were fundamentally inferior and whites had no desire to engage with them, hence the segregation. Therefore, a child born as a product of racial mixing served to debunk the theories upholding apartheid. Because of this, a mixed child became a symbol of treason.

The government made the no-relations law the priority, strictly enforcing it through secret surveillance tactics. The punishment for interracial relations was five years in prison. However, often the white partner would be given a mere warning, whereas the black partner would be jailed or charged with rape if he was male.

A mixed child was not a new phenomenon during apartheid. In fact, there were plenty of mixed-race people by the time apartheid started. These people had historically been classified as a separate race: colored.

The Colored Race

The history of the colored race extends to the origins of South Africa. The Khoisan were the original tribe in South Africa, similar to Native Americans.**...

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Born a Crime Summary Chapter 3: The Son of God

Much of Noah’s life existed in a world where women ruled. The house in Soweto was all women: his aunt, whose husband lived there but was inconsequential; his grandmother; and his great-grandmother, Koko. Koko was frail and blind. She would sit by the stove all day and take in the activities. She was alert and mentally sound, but she couldn’t see or move around. Noah had a hard time thinking of her as a person because she seemed more like a statue who sometimes spoke.

Growing up with women was not unique to Noah’s life. Apartheid took his father because he was white, but the other black kids were often without fathers, too. Apartheid had taken their fathers to labor jobs far away or prison. Some fathers were in exile fighting against the laws.

The space that would typically be occupied by men was replaced with religion. Life for his family and all other women in the neighborhood centered around faith. They held daily prayer meetings at each other’s homes. His grandmother hosted the meetings on Tuesday nights.

Noah loved these nights because he loved to sing the hymns and pray. **His grandmother told Noah his prayers were the most powerful because he prayed in...

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Born a Crime Summary Chapter 4: Learning to Fit In

Being mixed in a black family was basically the same as being white for Noah. He wasn’t punished by his grandmother like his black cousins were. He was treated more leniently, being let off for bad behavior that was much worse than what his cousins were being beaten for.

Growing up this way helped him understand why whites are quick to hold onto their privilege. He never argued with his special treatment. He would rather allow his cousins to be punished for his misdeeds than take the beatings himself.

But as a small child, Noah didn’t understand that his skin color was the cause of the special treatment. He thought of color as types of chocolate, just different flavors of the same thing. His flavor was simply the combination of dark and white chocolate. He was milk chocolate. When other blacks referred to him as white or treated him as such, he just thought they didn’t know much about colors. He thought his special treatment was specific to who he was. It was a “Trevor” thing, not a “race” thing.

His lack of understanding was compounded by the fact that there were no other people who looked like him as a point of reference. **In Soweto, with a population of nearly...

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Born a Crime Summary Chapter 5: The Power of a Mother’s Love

Before apartheid, blacks were educated by the British missionaries, who wanted to Westernize the natives. Later, many of these people became leaders in the anti-apartheid movement because they were intelligent and well-educated.

However, during apartheid, the Afrikaners didn’t want blacks to be educated. They created separate educational systems called Bantu schools, in which the teachers were barely educated themselves. These schools didn’t teach science, history, or social studies. Blacks were taught only enough math to understand how to count during farm labor and other trade knowledge. Often, these lessons were taught like nursery rhymes, even to the older students.

More than just ensuring that blacks would not be able to think and organize, the Afrikaners claimed there was no reason to educate a black person. Knowledge would not be needed in their lives. Former missionary schools were forced to change or close. Many chose the latter.

But Patricia would make sure Noah would not suffer this fate. Properly educating him in knowledge and life experience became her priority.

Lower-Lower-Class Citizen

Patricia, like Noah, never felt a true sense of...

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Born a Crime Summary Chapter 6: The Naughty Boy

Like many children, Noah was self-centered and focused only on what was in front of him and benefited him. He had an immense appetite, consuming food, books, anything he could get his hands on, and always wanted more. He never stopped to consider the sort of strain this might put on his mother.

Patricia used to send him to their relatives with a bag of vegetables and cornmeal to make up for the amount of food he would consume. He became the family garbage disposal, cleaning everyone’s plates after a meal.

Noah was also rambunctious and hyperactive, always on the move and running with abandon. His babysitters often left in tears. He wasn’t mean or cruel; rather, he was quite polite and well-mannered when it was called for. But he had boundless energy and a large ego.

Patricia used to take him to the park and run him to wear him down. Later, when he was able to go to white parks, he realized that was how people treated their dogs. But wearing him down was necessary; otherwise, he was causing trouble.

The Merry Prankster

Noah enjoyed being naughty and pulling pranks on others. Sometimes, he’d even pull pranks on his whole school. Once, he removed all the magnifying...

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Born a Crime Summary Chapter 7: The Most Important Lesson a Dog Can Teach

After they moved into the house in Eden Park, Patricia brought home two black cats she got from a woman at work. Noah had never had pets and was excited, and Patricia loved animals. Although Patricia was well aware that black people hated cats, believing they were witches, she thought things might be different in a colored neighborhood. She was wrong.

One day, she and Noah came home to find the cats strung up and mutilated, with the Afrikaan word for witch written on the front wall. Noah took it in stride, seeing how the cats never became affectionate with him. But when they replaced the cats with two dogs, he was excited. They named the dogs Fufi and Panther.

Panther took to Patricia and Fufi to Noah. Panther was bright, but Fufi was not. (They didn’t realize Fufi was deaf until after she was killed by a burglar and the doctor told them.)

Noah loved Fufi more than anything. He trained her, slept with her, and taught her tricks. Fufi...

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Born a Crime Summary Chapter 8: Father and Son Reunion

There is so much Noah doesn’t know about his father, even now. He doesn’t know anything about Robert’s extended family or what his life was like before Patricia. What he does know is that his father was a chef in Canada and New York, then opened some bars and restaurants in South Africa, but that’s it. But thanks to Patricia’s insistence, he’s been able to learn a little about Robert as a person.

When Noah was 24, Patricia encouraged him to find Robert. Noah hadn’t seen him for 10 years and never thought he would again. Noah didn’t see the big deal. He’d grown up, started his career, and was happy. But she said it was important for Noah to show Robert who he’d become and learn about him. She didn’t want Noah going through life believing his father didn’t care about him, something that may not be true.

Understanding Robert

Noah attributes his father’s private nature to his parents’ ability to get away with a mixed child during apartheid. Where Patricia was feisty, Robert was reserved. Noah believes he is the confluence of both.

Robert hated racism and homogeneity of any kind. This feeling wasn’t one of moral superiority, but rather a lack of...

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Born a Crime Summary Part II | Chapter 9: No Race To Call His Own

Noah was a boy without an island, so to speak. He was mixed, which made him appear to be colored. But because the colored race was a cultural distinction more than a representation of a specific race, Noah didn’t belong with them either.

There was also a lot of tension between blacks and coloreds. As stated, coloreds were treated as “almost white” in the eyes of the law. But a colored person could rise to the status of white during their lifetime if they started to show white traits. Their hair might become straighter or skin lighter. The decision to reclassify involved a number of factors, and some would have to undergo the “pencil test.” A pencil would be placed in their hair. If the pencil fell out, they were white. If not, they were colored.

The government made sure colored people were aware of the reason they couldn’t have full rights. There was a fear that some blacks would pretend to be colored to skirt the system. Thus, blacks were to blame for the fate of the colored. The most damning thing you could call a colored person was “bushman” because it drew attention to their black heritage.

The Breaking Point

All of **these factors created problems...

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Born a Crime Summary Chapter 10: The Entrepreneur

Noah started eighth grade at Sandringham High School, a school mixed with different races and run like a charter school in America. The school was large and represented every race of South Africa, serving as a sort of model of how the country at large could or should be.

Despite the diverse student body, Noah found himself again on the outside of the different groups. The cliques, more often than not, comprised mostly one race. However, this breakdown had more to do with class structure, geography, and activity interests than race. Kids from the suburbs hung out with other kids from the suburbs, and the same was true for kids from townships. Athletes hung out with athletes, computer enthusiasts the same, and so on. Certain social classes or races of students were more likely to play certain sports or have interests in certain clubs.

Noah didn’t fit into any of these groups. He mostly hung out with the poor black students, but he never got to see them...

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Born a Crime Summary Chapter 11: The Benefits of Being Mixed

For a period of time, Noah and his family were more or less homeless. They’d left Eden Park, and everything they had went into helping Abel build his mechanic business. But after a while, Patricia bought a run-down house in a white suburban neighborhood called Highland North.

Highland North was mostly working-class or middle-class Jews. As the only black kid there, Noah once again stood out.

Making friends in this neighborhood was even harder than in Eden Park because of how the neighborhood was designed. Fear of blacks during apartheid had caused most white families to build tall walls around their houses with electric wire on top. Everyone was isolated from each other, and Noah could often ride his bike through the neighborhood and never see a kid.

Noah soon found that the best way to make friends in the white neighborhood was to befriend the children of the help. Servants who lived in backyard quarters of their white employees could keep their children with them. These kids became Noah’s only friends.

Two Peas in a Pod

One of these friends was a boy named Teddy, who went to Noah’s high school. Teddy’s mother was a domestic worker in a white neighborhood a...

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Born a Crime Summary Chapter 12: Girls

Patricia frequently talked to Noah about women. But her comments were always about grown-up relationships. She taught him what it meant to be a man and how to respect a woman. But she never taught him how to navigate puberty and girls his own age. Noah would have to learn those lessons on his own.

The First Love

After he moved from Catholic school to the government school, Noah found himself on the cusp of Valentine’s Day having no idea what it was. Catholic schools didn’t celebrate Valentine’s Day. When he found out what Valentine’s Day was, he thought it was bizarre. But he still wanted to be part of it.

His friend suggested Noah make a girl named Maylene his valentine. Maylene was colored, the only colored girl in the school. She and Noah looked the same, so people thought they should be together.

Noah already knew Maylene. When he still lived in Eden Park, they had walked home together from school. But Patricia and Abel had gotten married and had a son, Andrew. They’d moved out of their old neighborhood.

Noah liked Maylene, not romantically, but he thought she was smart and cute. If his friend hadn’t suggested her as a valentine, the thought never would have...

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Born a Crime Summary Part III | Chapter 13: The Big Man on Campus

Before Noah expanded his own enterprise to include pirated CDs, he sold them for a white student two years older named Andrew. The two met after Noah overheard Andrew complaining about being ripped off by the black students. The black students would buy items on credit and never pay. He was too afraid to collect.

Noah offered to partner up and manage the black students for a fee. Around this time, Noah also convinced Patricia to buy him a computer for school work. At first, he just wanted to play video games. But Andrew was a whiz at computers, and he helped Noah improve his with more memory and features and taught him how to download music.

Noah worked for Andrew for a year. When it came time for Andrew to graduate, he gave Noah his CD burner to keep the business going. Suddenly, Noah had everything he needed to go into business by himself.

Noah was a natural at the bootleg game. He was good at...

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Born a Crime Summary Chapter 14: A Career in Bloom

Bongani was from a small ghetto named Alexandra, a black area left over from pre-apartheid. It is known as Gomorrah for its wild parties and rampant crime.

The township of Alexandra was once a white-owned farm. It was a place where black squatters lived when coming to find work in the city before apartheid. The white owner had sold plots of land to some of the black tenants before apartheid made it illegal for blacks to own land. Whereas in other similar areas, blacks were moved out and the land was turned into white suburbs, the blacks in Alexandra refused to give up their land.

The government built wealthy white neighborhoods around Alexandra, but the residents still wouldn’t leave. Unlike Soweto, where there was room for the town to expand after apartheid, Alexandra was boxed in. It was a dense, rundown area with shacks squeezed in like sardines.

When Bongani asked Noah if he wanted to go to the hood the summer after high school, Noah wasn’t sure. He’d only been to Alexandra a few times, and never at night. During apartheid, the hoods were the places no one wanted to be from. You were supposed to be ashamed of being from a township.

But as apartheid ended,...

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Born a Crime Summary Chapter 15: A Life of Crime

Life in the hood is one of survival for most people. The need to survive often leads to many shades of illegal activity. The lines between good and bad become blurred.

Even if a person wasn’t outright stealing, likely they were buying something from someone else that was originally stolen one, two, or three exchanges before. It could be as simple as a mother buying a box of canned goods that “fell” off a delivery truck to feed her hungry children. Crime is just a part of life.

Everyone grew up together in the hood and knew each other. Even the gangsters were members of the community. Everyone in the hood looked out for each other. An example of this close-knit community is the mom code. There was an unspoken rule that if a mom asked you to do something, you did it, gangster or not.

The Hustle

Noah’s career as a criminal had originally started with the pirated CDs. But he never thought what he was doing was a crime. If you weren’t supposed to download music and burn CDs, why would they make it possible?

He and his crew were doing good business with the CDs and DJing gigs. Minibus drivers were their best customers. Because of the competition among them, the...

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Born a Crime Summary Chapter 16: The Hardest Lesson

Patricia never liked that Noah hung out in Alexandra. She didn’t have a problem with the people in the hood, just the way of life in the hood. She wanted Noah to be somewhere where progress happened, knowing he was the kind of person who would excel just to make sure others didn’t surpass him.

During his time in Alexandra, Patricia never stopped worrying that he would get arrested and throw his potential away. She told Noah if he ever got arrested, not to call her. He would have to learn his lesson the hard way.

When You Look for Trouble, Trouble Finds You

When he and Bongani were still in business, Noah saw an ad for some cell phones on the cheap that they could flip for a nice profit. He needed to drive into Johannesburg, so he took the old Mazda he’d taken to the matric dance from Abel’s garage. This behavior was nothing new. He’d been doing it for years and often got into trouble. But despite his mother’s punishment, he’d do it again.

The car, like many of the cars in Abel’s yard, wasn’t properly registered and didn’t have plates. But Abel kept a stack of old plates around, and Noah took one of those and put it on the car. He was nineteen or twenty...

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Born a Crime Summary Chapter 17: The Good Mother

Noah and his mother had always been a team. They argued, they fought, but there was always love between them, even when Patricia teased him about his looks. For instance, after the matric dance, Noah kept getting his hair relaxed and braided. Patricia teased him about putting so much effort into his appearance. But on Sundays, she’d dress to the nines for church. She’d tease Noah that he wasn’t the prettiest one in the house anymore.

Noah couldn’t help but agree. He saw his mom as a beautiful, strong woman, inside and out. But as he got older, a wedge would form in their relationship. This wedge was named Abel.

A New Member of the Team

After Patricia met Abel at the garage where she took the Beetle, she and Noah would visit him often. Noah was six and didn’t understand adult behavior, but he knew this man was suddenly part of their lives.

Abel was tall, with strong arms and large hands. He was moderately handsome, funny, and charismatic. He always helped whoever was in need. The world knew him as a good man. But at home, he was abusive.

At first, Abel was just Patricia’s cool friend they sometimes hung out with. But after the fire, when Abel moved into...

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Born a Crime Summary Chapter 18: From Abuse to Attempted Murder

Patricia eventually moved into her own bedroom for a year or two. Noah was counting the days until Andrew was eighteen and would leave home. He wanted his mother to be free to leave Abel once and for all. But when Andrew was nine, she became pregnant again.

Physically, this pregnancy should never have happened. Patricia’s tubes were tied after Andrew, and she was middle-aged. Not even the doctors knew what to say. But Patricia saw it as a sign from God. God wanted her to bring more decent men into the world. She seemed regretful of her new predicament, but she was determined to make it work.

Noah, on the other hand, saw that she would forever be stuck in that house with Abel. When the new baby, Isaac, was born, Noah retreated from the family. He didn’t visit often. Then, another event would make him stay away for good.

Noah had gone over to the house for a visit and found police cars out front. Patricia had intervened when Abel was fighting with one of his workers, and Abel used Andrew’s bicycle to beat her. As always, the police acted like old chums with Abel, and nothing happened.

After that incident, Patricia hired people from work to build her a small...

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Born a Crime Summary Chapter 19: The Aftermath

After Andrew drove off with Patricia, Abel had taken Isaac. Isaac asked him why he’d killed mommy, to which Abel said he was unhappy and sad. Abel dropped Isaac off at a friend’s house after telling Isaac he was going to kill himself.

Abel went around to all of his friends and relatives and told them what he did and what he was going to do. Toward the end of the day, a family member told him he was a coward and to turn himself in. Abel turned over the gun and went to the police.

Noah tried to block Abel’s bail, but because the police had never agreed to press charges, he had no priors....

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Shortform Exercise: Reflect on Born a Crime

Trevor Noah’s life is certainly unique, but there are universal elements to his story.

What aspects of Noah’s story resonated with you the most?

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page 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