Noah’s memoir is in large part an ode to his mother, Patricia, whose fearlessness and sense of purpose he largely credits with his eventual success. Since they grow up together, just the two of them, Noah long considers himself and his mother a “team.” Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah—whose middle name is Xhosa for “she who gives back”—at once shows Noah that many rules are based on nonsense and that he must be careful about breaking them. And when he does break them—which he does all the time—she punishes him harshly, something he initially disdains but later comes to understand. In fact, throughout the book he realizes how little he understood about love in his childhood, even though his mother’s love was the absolute key to his ability to escape poverty and violence. Retroactively, Noah realizes his mother’s wisdom and sees how love can foster growth by teaching lessons through pain and, far more importantly, by creating an environment of genuine accountability and commitment.
Although Noah is inseparable from his mother for much of his childhood, they also have a love-hate relationship because Noah is as disobedient as his mother is strict. At first, her love seems to be a barrier to their getting along, and Noah does not understand why she is so hard on him, even if he admits he is something of a nightmare child. She does not let him listen to nonreligious music and makes sure he constantly reads the Bible; she assures him that, if he ever lands himself in jail, he will have to deal with it on his own because she wants him to learn his lesson. She also punishes him physically; he receives frequent “ass-whooping[s]” and is chased down whenever he tries to evade them. In contrast, he finds his Catholic school’s corporal punishment so weak that he laughs his way through a spanking from his principal. However, this could not contrast more with the way Abel, Noah’s stepfather, combines love with violence. When Abel beats him up in a closet, Noah realizes that Abel’s violence comes from rage, whereas his mother’s comes from love.
Four of Noah’s chapters focus on his love affairs of various sorts, showing both how little he understood about love at the time and how love taught him some of his greatest lessons in life. The first of these chapters is about his love for his dog Fufi, whom he finds out is visiting another boy’s home during the day. This teaches him that “you do not own the thing that you love.” The second is about getting rejected on Valentine’s Day by the school’s only colored girl, who picks a popular white boy over him; he learns how much people’s romantic behavior (his interest in the girl and the girl’s interest in the white boy) follows social scripts and models social hierarchies, rather than truly following individual feelings and needs. The third is about his high school crush on a popular girl named Zaheera, who also likes him—but they are both too shy to say anything, and she soon moves to the United States. He learns that rejection is better than not acting at all, as inaction leads to uncertainty and regret. And the fourth is about taking Babiki to the dance—she refuses to go in with him but kisses him good night later, which shows him how little he understands romance and how much more he has to learn (it turns out that she does not speak English and has no idea what was happening all night).
In retrospect, Noah finally comes to understand his mother’s motivations for parenting him as she did: she wanted to push him toward growth in a way that only loving relationships can. He eventually realizes that his mother was trying “to discipline [him] before the system does.” After Noah’s brief stint in jail, his mother explains, “when I beat you, I’m trying to save you. When they beat you, they’re trying to kill you.” Although he distanced himself from the family for years before his mother was shot, Noah ultimately recognizes that her love for Abel was much more complex than he ever could have known. Even though Patricia does end up leaving Abel, Noah also realizes that he cannot blame her for failing to do so for so long, due to the complex interplay of their love and her fear that he would grow far more violent if she left (as he ultimately did). Noah ultimately comes to see love, not violence, as the solution to the sort of adversity he faced. Through reflecting on his relationship with his mother, he decides that love allows people to “create a new world” for another person—to create safety and force accountability in a world that seems otherwise completely defined by violence. And in turn he “create[s] a new world” for his mother, who decides to stop using physical discipline on her younger children.
As Noah learns the wisdom behind his mother’s attitude toward him throughout his childhood, he comes to realize that she has always held him to extraordinarily high standards only as a way to “create a new world” for him by showing him the potential that the rest of the world refused to see in him. More broadly, however, he shows how love can foster growth by teaching people enduring lessons about others’ humanity and creating relationships in which people hold themselves to fulfilling their potential. Whereas violence is almost always zero-sum, helping some advance only at others’ expense, love can be a means to mutual growth, especially when it forces people to confront failure.
Love and Personal Growth ThemeTracker
Love and Personal Growth Quotes in Born a Crime
In any society built on institutionalized racism, race-mixing doesn't merely challenge the system as unjust, it reveals the system as unsustainable and incoherent. Race-mixing proves that races can mix—and in a lot of cases, want to mix. Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race-mixing becomes a crime worse than treason.
So many black families spend all of their time trying to fix the problems of the past. That is the curse of being black and poor, and it is a curse that follows you from generation to generation. My mother calls it “the black tax.” Because the generations who came before you have been pillaged, rather than being free to use your skills and education to move forward, you lose everything just trying to bring everyone behind you back up to zero. Working for the family in Soweto, my mom had no more freedom than she'd had in Transkei, so she ran away. She ran all the way down to the train station and jumped on a train and disappeared into the city, determined to sleep in public restrooms and rely on the kindness of prostitutes until she could make her own way in the world.
When it was time to pick my name, she chose Trevor, a name with no meaning whatsoever in South Africa, no precedent in my family. It's not even a Biblical name. It's just a name. My mother wanted her child beholden to no fate. She wanted me to be free to go anywhere, do anything, be anyone.
My mom raised me as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do. When I look back I realize she raised me like a white kid—not white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was my oyster, that I should speak up for myself, that my ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered.
Fufi was my first heartbreak. No one has ever betrayed me more than Fufi. It was a valuable lesson to me. The hard thing was understanding that Fufi wasn’t cheating on me with another boy. She was merely living her life to the fullest. Until I knew that she was going out on her own during the day, her other relationship hadn't affected me at all. Fufi had no malicious intent.
I believed that Fufi was my dog but of course that wasn't true. Fufi was a dog. I was a boy. We got along well. She happened to live in my house. That experience shaped what I've felt about relationships for the rest of my life: You do not own the thing that you love.
While I was eating he got up and went and picked up this book, an oversized photo album, and brought it back to the table. “I've been following you,” he said, and he opened it up. It was a scrapbook of everything I had ever done, every time my name was mentioned in a newspaper, everything from magazine covers to the tiniest club listings, from the beginning of my career all the way through to that week. He was smiling so big as he took me through it, looking at the headlines. “Trevor Noah Appearing This Saturday at the Blues Room.” “Trevor Noah Hosting New TV Show.”
I felt a flood of emotions rushing through me. It was everything I could do not to start crying. It felt like this ten-year gap in my life closed right up in an instant, like only a day had passed since I'd last seen him. For years I'd had so many questions. Is he thinking about me? Does he know what I'm doing? Is he proud of me? But he'd been with me the whole time. He'd always been proud of me. Circumstance had pulled us apart, but he was never not my father.
I don’t regret anything I've ever done in life, any choice that I've made. But I'm consumed with regret for the things I didn’t do, the choices I didn’t make, the things I didn't say. We spend so much time being afraid of failure, afraid of rejection. But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to. “What if . . .” “If only . . .” “I wonder what would have . . .” You will never, never know, and it will haunt you for the rest of your days.
In society, we do horrible things to one another because we don't see the person it affects. We don't see their face. We don't see them as people. Which was the whole reason the hood was built in the first place, to keep the victims of apartheid out of sight and out of mind. Because if white people ever saw black people as human, they would see that slavery is unconscionable. We live in a world where we don’t see the ramifications of what we do to others, because we don't live with them. It would be a whole lot harder for an investment banker to rip off people with subprime mortgages if he actually had to live with the people he was ripping off. If we could see one another's pain and empathize with one another, it would never be worth it to us to commit the crimes in the first place.
“I know you see me as some crazy old bitch nagging at you,” she said, “but you forget the reason I ride you so hard and give you so much shit is because I love you. Everything I have ever done I've done from a place of love. If I don't punish you, the world will punish you even worse. The world doesn't love you. If the police get you, the police don't love you. When I beat you, I'm trying to save you. When they beat you, they're trying to kill you.”
I grew up in a world of violence, but I myself was never violent at all. Yes, I played pranks and set fires and broke windows, but I never attacked people. I never hit anyone. I was never angry. I just didn't see myself that way. My mother had exposed me to a different world than the one she grew up in. She bought me the books she never got to read. She took me to the schools that she never got to go to. I immersed myself in those worlds and I came back looking at the world a different way. I saw that not all families are violent. I saw the futility of violence, the cycle that just repeats itself, the damage that's inflicted on people that they in turn inflict on others.
I saw, more than anything, that relationships are not sustained by violence but by love. Love is a creative act. When you love someone you create a new world for them. My mother did that for me, and with the progress I made and the things I learned, I came back and created a new world and a new understanding for her. After that, she never raised her hand to her children again. Unfortunately, by the time she stopped, Abel had started.
When he said that, my body just let go. I remember the exact traffic light I was at. For a moment there was a complete vacuum of sound, and then I cried tears like I had never cried before. I collapsed in heaving sobs and moans. I cried as if every other thing I’d cried for in my life had been a waste of crying. I cried so hard that if my present crying self could go back in time and see my other crying selves, it would slap them and say, “That shit's not worth crying for.” My cry was not a cry of sadness. It was not catharsis. It wasn't me feeling sorry for myself. It was an expression of raw pain that came from an inability of my body to express that pain in any other way, shape, or form. She was my mom. She was my teammate. It had always been me and her together, me and her against the world. When Andrew said, “shot her in the head,” I broke in two.
“My child, you must look on the bright side.”
“What? What are you talking about, ‘the bright side’? Mom, you were shot in the face. There is no bright side.”
“Of course there is. Now you're officially the best-looking person in the family.”
She broke out in a huge smile and started laughing. Through my tears, I started laughing, too.