Born a Crime


Trevor Noah

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Born a Crime Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Trevor Noah's Born a Crime. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Trevor Noah

Born to a Xhosa mother and a Swiss-German father in Johannesburg, Trevor Noah’s very existence as a mixed-race person was technically illegal until the end of South Africa’s white supremacist apartheid regime in 1994. Born a Crime covers his life until the beginning of his career in the early 2000s, following his close relationship with his beloved mother, his attempts to articulate his complex identity in a nation that still clung tightly to racial hierarchy, and his struggle to overcome the poverty and violence that surrounded him. After he finished high school, humor transformed from a means of coping with suffering to the foundation of his career: after a year DJing and selling CDs in the Johannesburg suburbs, he gained a substantial following in South Africa by hosting a youth radio show called Noah’s Ark and doing stand-up comedy. He hosted a number of major South African television shows and became one of the nation’s most prominent comedians before moving to the United States, where he was completely unknown, in 2011. By 2014, he landed a recurring role on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, then took over the hosting role in 2015, which propelled him to international fame. He currently lives in New York City.
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Historical Context of Born a Crime

The earliest years of Trevor Noah’s life were also some of the most consequential years in the history of South African history because they saw the erosion and ultimate defeat of the nation’s racist apartheid regime, which was then replaced with a democracy led by Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. In order to understand why the end of apartheid was so significant, it is crucial to understand the broader history of European colonialism and racism in South Africa, which largely begins with the establishment of a Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope in the 17th century. Dutch settlers took South African natives as slaves and mixed with the native Khoisan population, creating a distinctive mixed-race population known today as the Cape Coloureds, as well as fighting a number of wars against the Xhosa. Around the turn of the 19th century, the British took over the Cape of Good Hope and began forcing the Dutch settlers (also known as Afrikaners or Boers) to move inland and form the Boer Republics. The British then fought and won wars against both the Zulu and the Boers before uniting with the latter in the early 20th century to impose increasingly repressive laws on the native population. The most notable was the 1913 Natives’ Land Act, which effectively made it illegal for blacks to own land. South Africa officially gained independence from the UK in 1931, but the Afrikaner-led National Party won the 1948 elections, closely studied government-enforced racial segregation policies around the world, and implemented the most effective to create the system of laws and governance known as apartheid. The population was divided into four groups: whites, Indians, coloreds, and blacks. Unlike with racism in countries like the US, there was no illusion of anything like “separate but equal”; rather, the apartheid government openly proclaimed an ideology of white supremacy. Apartheid guaranteed the white minority most of the nation’s land, wealth, and political power; gave coloreds and Indians limited political rights; and forced native black Africans to labor in what was effectively a form of slavery and to live in cramped slums (townships) and depleted rural areas (homelands or bantustans). Apartheid also created separate zones for each group to live in and prohibited intermarriage among people from the different groups. Of course, as Trevor Noah’s very existence proves (and he argues repeatedly in Born a Crime), these racial classifications were messy and changeable in practice, because race is a construct rather than a set of clear biological categories. As domestic and international opposition to apartheid grew from the 1950s through the 1980s the South African government became increasingly violent and repressive, slaughtered and imprisoned thousands of dissidents, and even developed nuclear weapons. In conjunction with international sanctions against the South African government, the internal anti-apartheid movement led by organizations including the African National Congress (ANC) campaigned for equality through both nonviolent methods (protest and civil disobedience) and armed resistance. Secret negotiations between the apartheid government and anti-apartheid leaders began in 1987, and the National Party began dismantling the apartheid system and legalizing opposition parties in 1990, when it also released prominent ANC leader Nelson Mandela from jail. When apartheid fully ended and South Africa had democratic elections for the first time in 1994, when Noah was 10 years old, Mandela won the presidency (and the ANC has held power ever since). An essential feature of the post-apartheid healing process was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a body convened to judge human rights abuses committed during apartheid. Unlike most legal measures taken in the aftermath of atrocities, the TRC focused on restorative rather than retributive justice and offered amnesty to some offenders who openly admitted their crimes. After apartheid, South Africa remains one of the world’s most unequal countries, with income inequality and black unemployment actually increasing, roughly half the nation continuing to live in poverty, and the tiny white minority (now less than 10%) still owning a large majority of the land and over 90% of wealth. While some of the ANC’s social and economic empowerment programs have seen limited success, the majority have failed, especially due to enduring corruption and connections between the government and business interests.

Other Books Related to Born a Crime

In the last few decades, a monumental amount of ink has been spilled by writers and activists from across South Africa’s political and ethnic spectrums trying to come to terms with apartheid’s legacy and the difficulties of transition to democracy. Without a doubt, the most famous book that grapples with these topics is Nelson Mandela’s classic prison autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. More journalistic accounts include Allister Sparks’ history of the political negotiations leading to apartheid’s end, Tomorrow is Another Country, as well as Country of My Skull, white anti-apartheid activist Antjie Krog’s account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions used by the democratic South African government to address the crimes of the apartheid government. More personal work includes scholar Pumla Dineo Gqola’s meditation on gender relations in South Africa, Reflecting Rogue: Inside the Mind of a Feminist, and Indian-South African anti-apartheid activist Fatima Meer’s Prison Diary (in addition to her authorized biography of Mandela, Higher Than Hope). Another remarkable story similar to Noah’s is that of Sandra Laing, a woman born to white parents but classified as colored and forcibly relocated by the apartheid government, as documented in Judith Stone’s book When She Was White. Other recent memoirs by black South African celebrities include rapper Kabelo Mabalane’s I Ran for My Life and actress Bonnie Mbuli’s Eyebags & Dimples (both, like Noah, are also from Johannesburg). White Nobel Prize-winning novelist and anti-apartheid activist Nadine Gordimer wrote extensively about how in apartheid South Africa, love quickly turned into tragedy, trust eroded between communities and often within families, and individuals grappled with the relationship between their ideals and their material interests. Some of her most prominent novels include The Lying Days, Burger’s Daughter, and the recent No Time Like the Present. When asked to list his favorite books for the New York Times Magazine, Trevor Noah also included white South African Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart, South African essayist Khaya Dlanga’s To Quote Myself: A Memoir, Ghanaian-American writer Yaa Gyasi’s landmark intergenerational historical novel Homegoing, and acclaimed early Tswana writer Sol Plaatje’s 1916 Native Life in South Africa, a response to the 1913 Natives’ Land Act that prohibited blacks from owning land and one of the earliest books to expose colonialism’s devastating impacts on South Africa’s native population.
Key Facts about Born a Crime
  • Full Title: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
  • When Written: 2010s
  • Where Written: New York City
  • When Published: 2016
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Popular memoir
  • Setting: South Africa, primarily Johannesburg in the 1980s-1990s
  • Climax: Trevor rushes to the hospital after his stepfather, Abel, attacks the family and shoots Trevor’s mother, Patricia, in the head.
  • Antagonist: Apartheid, poverty, racism, Trevor’s stepfather Abel
  • Point of View: First-person

Extra Credit for Born a Crime

Film Adaptation. As of February 2018, Born a Crime has been slotted for a movie adaptation, with acclaimed Kenyan-Mexican actress Lupita Nyong’o set to play Trevor Noah’s mother, Patricia.

Second Book. Also as of early 2018, Trevor Noah is reportedly working on a sequel to Born a Crime, a second memoir that will follow his career and life after leaving South Africa.