Trevor Noah was born in South Africa in 1984 during the last few years of Apartheid to a black South African mother and a white European father. Trevor is “Born a Crime” because under Apartheid ruling interracial relationships are not allowed. In Born a Crime, Trevor Noah tells the story of growing up in South Africa as the marginalized group under Apartheid. He shows all of the racism, violence and crime that comes with colonization. Trevor shows how he and his mother Patricia Noah tackle their difficult situation by using humour, language, and faith.
During Apartheid there was a lot of racial segregation as the Apartheid law separated South Africa’s white minority and non-white majority. However, the segregation went beyond just the two cultures as even withing the non-white majority there were two major opposing groups, the Xhosa and the Zulu. Both the Xhosa and the Zulu were of the same race so they were separated by language rather than ethnicity or skin colour “The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate, is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all” (Noah 1). Trevor’s mother was of the Xhosa group, she was also a very religious woman using religion to cope with the oppression she was facing. This was very common during Apartheid for many black South Africans, the white minority pushed religion onto the blacks which ended up creating positive hybridity as the blacks used religion to help endure their tough situation “The white man was quite stern with the native. “You need to pray to Jesus,” he said. “Jesus will save you.” To which the native replied, “Well, we do need to be saved—saved from you, but that’s beside the point. So let’s give this Jesus thing a shot.” (Noah 6). Patricia would drag Andrew and Noah to 3 different churches every Sunday, White Church, Mixed Church, and Black Church. On one particular Sunday when their car had broken down they were stranded and couldn’t find any minibusses so they decided to hitchhike, just as a car stopped to help them out and they got in, a minibus swerves in front of the car and an angry Zulu man with a club jumps out threatening the driver for stealing his customers as this is his block. Once in the bus, the Zulu driver scolds Noah’s mother for entering a strangers car saying she perfectly fits the stereotype of Xhosa women as being promiscuous and unfaithful and saying that she is going to learn her lesson, with the driver refusing to stop Patricia decides to push Trevor out of the bus and jumps out after him with Andrew. The way Trevor and his mother reacted to the situation proves how common something like that was but it also shows how dedicated his mother is to her faith as these sorts of encounters don’t stop her from going to church. After they call the police to pick them up and give them a ride home Trevor jokes saying to his mother “Look, Mom. I know you love Jesus, but maybe next week you could ask him to meet us at our house” (Noah 17) the two of them break out in laughter despite being covered in blood and dirt, their use of humour allows them to forget everything that just happened and to look ahead into the future. Being a mixed child Trevor experienced a lot of racial segregation himself and had a hard time fitting in, even at home. Whenever Trevor and his cousins get into trouble his grandmother will beat everyone but him as she doesn’t know how to hit a white child, he will always get off easy when he gets in trouble except for when it involves his mom. Trevor sees himself as a black kid as he most closely identifies with his black family in Soweto, being a mixed child allows him to get a sense of what it’s like to be on both sides. Trevor doesn’t realize all of this is a racial thing until he is older as he thinks he is just famous because all the kids call him “white man” and use him as a landmark for directions. The kids are just as oblivious to racism as Trevor is, although they refer to him based on his skin colour it doesn’t mean anything to them as they just aren’t used to seeing white people “As a kid I understood that people were different colors, but in my head white and black and brown were like types of chocolate. Dad was the white chocolate, mom was the dark chocolate, and I was the milk chocolate. But we were all just chocolate. I didn’t know any of it had anything to do with “race.” I didn’t know what race was. My mother never referred to my dad as white or to me as mixed. So when the other kids in Soweto called me “white,” even though I was light brown, I just thought they had their colors mixed up, like they hadn’t learned them properly. “Ah, yes, my friend. You’ve confused aqua with turquoise. I can see how you made that mistake. You’re not the first.” (Noah 54). To bridge the racial gap Trevor learns English, Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans, and German. Whenever he is on the street and someone asks where he is from he responds in the same language and accent, like when a group of Zulus talked about planning to “get this white guy” he turned around and proposed in Zulu that they all mug someone together which in return caused the Zulu guys to apologize saying they thought he was something else. This shows how much more powerful language is than someone’s skin colour, despite the Zulu guys making a judgment on who he was based on his skin colour he was able to completely change their perception by speaking their language or a language that is not associated with white people, he is able to trick even the Xhosa’s rival group into thinking he is one of them as he has no distinguishable race. In the sixth grade near the end of apartheid, Trevor moves to a government school, where he gets placed in advanced classes that are predominantly white “I was eleven years old, and it was like I was seeing my country for the first time. In the townships you don’t see segregation, because everyone is black. In the white world, any time my mother took me to a white church, we were the only black people there, and my mom didn’t separate herself from anyone. She didn’t care. She’d go right up and sit with the white people. And at Maryvale, the kids were mixed up and hanging out together. Before that day, I had never seen people being together and yet not together, occupying the same space yet choosing not to associate with each other in any way. In an instant I could see, I could feel, how the boundaries were drawn. Groups moved in color patterns across the yard, up the stairs, down the hall. It was insane. I looked over at the white kids I’d met that morning. Ten minutes earlier I’d thought I was at a school where they were a majority. Now I realized how few of them there actually were compared to everyone else”. He asks his counselor to switch over to the B classes where all the black students were, however, she said that the black kids would hold him back and that it would impact the opportunities that he will have open for him for the rest of his life. Trevor is adamant though and decides he would rather be held back with people he liked then move ahead with people he didn’t know, all the black kids accept him despite seeing him as white because he speaks their language, again showing how powerful language can be. These were Trevor’s first encounters with racism and racial segregation, as he grew older he started to understand what was going on and was able to make sense of it all. Going through all the hardships made him the person that he is today, I believe being under apartheid had a positive effect on Trevor Noah in the long run as he is now a successful comedian who is a host on the Daily Show and has even published this book, he is able to use his witty sense of humour to tell stories about his past that are heart-wrenching but also still funny at the same time. During apartheid ruling, Trevor has not only experienced racism but has also seen his fair share of violence which has also had a huge factor in shaping the person he is today.
Growing up in South Africa it wasn’t too uncommon to see husbands physically abusing their wives or parents hitting their children as a form of discipline, this is something Trevor had to experience quite a lot during his childhood.“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.” (Noah 243) Trevor was more afraid of his mother than the law itself, Patricia was very big into physical discipline but she claimed that she always did it out of love. His mother’s beatings were the only real violence he knew until he grew older and started to get bullied a lot due to his skin colour, he had kids throw mulberries at him and people steal his bike, he was used to the bullying so everything was fine until Abel came along. Abel was Patricia’s then boyfriend, he was a very charming and handsome car mechanic and Trevor described him as a very likable man. Eventually, once Patricia and Abel get married they find out that he is a controlling alcoholic as he prevents Trevor and his mother from having any contact with Trevor’s dad. The first time Trevor ever witnesses Abel’s temper is when he tells them about the kids that threw the mulberries at him, Abel made Trevor take him to the boys where Abel beat their leader with a stick and made him apologize. After Patricia makes Abel stop smoking weed he becomes more of an alcoholic, drinking at work and driving home drunk, during one encounter when Abel hits Patricia a few times she goes to the police station to report it however the police just tell her to calm down and that stuff like this just happens and it’s not Abel’s fault. Over time Abel got worse and worse and even started abusing Trevor “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.” (Noah 262). All of the violence inflicted by Abel goes unnoticed as him and the police are good friends and they ignore any charges filed against him. The police deal with crime in the same way they do any sort of physical abuse or violence, by just pretending nothing ever happened.
There is a lot of crime in a country that is divided into many groups, especially when the police themselves are picking sides. In Soweto where Trevor grew up, there was a high poverty rate resulting in a lot of crime, a lot of crime that went unnoticed that was. There was no real sense of justice, during Trevor’s first encounter with the police they tried to get him to bribe them, most of them had chosen sides based on their ethnicity and acted on their best interests instead, resulting in chaos. “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.” (Noah 221-222). The only way the township was intact was because the people dealt with any problems within “The township polices itself as well. If someone’s caught stealing, the township deals with them. If someone’s caught breaking into a house, the township deals with them. If you’re caught raping a woman, pray to God the police find you before the township does. If a woman is being hit, people don’t get involved. There are too many questions with a beating. What’s the fight about? Who’s responsible? Who started it? But rape is rape. Theft is theft. You’have desecrated the community.” (Noah 219). Nobody was really referred to as a criminal as everyone just had crime in their life, they were born into it like a curse that they couldn’t escape from. Years later after apartheid has ended and Patricia is remarried, she comes home from church to find an angry Abel with a gun, he threatens to shoot everyone and Patricia steps in front taking a bullet in the leg and then later, one in the head. Miraculously she survives however Abel manages to get bail and is free within a month because none of the previous charges went through so he has a clean criminal record. This shows how deeply flawed South Africa’s criminal justice system continues to be even after apartheid, showing how big the effects of apartheid were.
Despite all that Trevor and his mother went through they still manage to stay positive, they use humour, faith, and language to get them out of any tough situation. No matter what just happened they always manage to look on the bright side “ 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.” (Noah 281). Trevor was seen as the “other” whilst growing up in a country that was being decolonized, the whole world was pretty much against him yet he persevered and worked hard and was able to make it where he was today.
- Noah, Trevor. Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. Spiegel & Grau, an Imprint of Random House, 2019.