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Literature / Born a Crime

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“Where most children are proof of their parents’ love, I was proof of their criminality.”

Born a Crime is the first book and autobiography of Trevor Noah, a South African comedian and host of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. As the title implies, he deals with his childhood and youth during and after The Apartheid Era growing up in South Africa as the child of a black Xhosa mother and white Swiss-German father - a relationship that was illegal under South African law at the time of his birth.


The book includes examples of the following tropes:

  • Alleged Car: Noah’s mother buys a car that constantly breaks down, forcing Noah and her to often have to hitchhike.
  • A Boy and His X: Subverted and played with in the chapter about Fufi. When Trevor and his mother got two dogs, he was immediately attracted to Fufi, the seemingly stupid dog who they found out to be deaf after she was put down. Rather than display the typical doggie loyalty to Trevor, Fufi constantly ran off and was eventually taken in by another family who claimed her as their dog and refused to give her back to the Noahs until Patricia just bought the dog back. Trevor was completely devastated when that happened and describes Fufi as his first heartbreak. As Trevor put it at the end of the chapter, Fufi did not intentionally hurt him, she was just living her life.
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  • Big Damn Kiss: His matric (prom) date Babiki gives Noah one… but after she refuses to enter the matric dance with him. Noah is understandably confused.
  • Brainless Beauty: Noah describes Lorenzo as this, who is the guy Noah’s “girlfriend” Maylene dumps him for.
  • Breakout Character: Noah has said in interviews that he realized writing the book that his mother was the hero of his story - something he neither intended nor anticipated beforehand.
  • Child of Two Worlds: Noah’s Mixed Ancestry allows him to be comfortable in both the African and white world. He ironically faces the most discrimination from other colored people.
  • Chocolate Baby: Noah states that some colored couples are white enough to be able to register as white. However, they may suffer a Pass Fail by having a darker child.
    “Those mixed bloodlines were always lurking, waiting to peek out, and fear of losing their status kept white people in line. If two white people had a child, and the government decided that the child is too dark, even if both parents produced documentation proving they were white, the child could be classified as colored, and the family had to make a decision. Do they give up their white status to live as colored people in a colored area? Or would they split up, the mother taking the colored child to live in the ghetto while the father stayed white to make a living to support them? Many colored people lived in this limbo, a true purgatory, always yearning for the white fathers who disowned them, and they could be horribly racist to one another as a result.”
  • Computer Equals Monitor: A police officer shoots the monitor of Noah’s computer in order to stop it from playing music. It doesn’t stop the music from playing, but the explosion from shooting the monitor ultimately fries the hard drive, ending Noah’s DJ and CD business.
  • Cunning Linguist: Discussed several times. In South Africa, there are a whole lot of different languages and dialects, which frequently make it difficult for people from different places to communicate. As a result of his background, Noah became conversant in quite a few of them. He realizes how much more comfortable people become when approached in their native tongue. A couple of times, thugs and criminals he was afraid of quickly become friendly when he talks to them in their own language.
  • Disappeared Dad: Noah’s father Robert was barely in Noah’s life due to apartheid, but this was exacerbated when Noah's stepfather didn’t want his wife having anything to do with her ex-lover. Noah went through his teenage years and early twenties without seeing his father until they reconnected when he was an adult.
    “Circumstances pulled us apart, but he was never not my father.”
  • Disproportionate Retribution: When Trevor told Abel about the bullies who pelted him with mulberries, Abel made Trevor point him to the bullies. Trevor expected him to simply reprimand the kids and make them feel guilty. Instead, Abel's response was to whip the ringleader bloody.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: At one point, a friend sets him up with Babiki, who Noah describes as "the most beautiful girl I've ever seen in my life." That may help to explain why it took several months to realize that they had no language in common outside of the four words of English she spoke. They'd always spent time in groups where other people could translate for her, and he somehow didn't register that she never spoke directly to him.
  • Divide and Conquer: Noah describes how the apartheid system kept all the other races fighting with each other, as opposed to the Afrikaners in power.
    “That’s what apartheid did: It convinced every group that it was because the other race that it didn’t get into the club. It’s basically a bouncer at the door telling you, “We can’t let you in because of your friend Darren and his ugly shoes.” So you look at Darren and say, “Screw you, Black Darren. You’re holding me back.” Then when Darren goes up, the bouncer says, “No, it’s actually your friend Sizwe and his weird hair.” So Darren says, “Screw you, Sizwe,” and now everyone hates everyone. But the truth is that none of you were ever getting into the club.”
  • Epigraph: Before the chapter list, Trevor drops an excerpt from the 1927 Immorality Act that criminalized the very conception of mixed-race people like him:
    '''To prohibit illicit carnal intercourse between Europeans and natives and other acts in relation thereto.
    BE IT ENACTED by the King's Most Excellent Majesty, the Senate and the House of Assembly of the Union of South Africa, as follows:—
    1. Any European male who has illicit carnal intercourse with a native female, and any native male who has illicit carnal intercourse with a European female ... shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years.
    2. Any native female who permits any European male to have illicit carnal intercourse with her and any European female who permits any native male to have illicit carnal intercourse with her shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to imprisonment for a period not exceeding four years. ...
  • Failed a Spot Check: When Trevor and one of his friends were caught shoplifting, he managed to escape the guards. The security footage was shown to their principal, but the exposure of the film and the contrast of his friend's darker skin made Trevor look white in the footage, so no one identified him. Trevor describes being shown a video of his own face, and being asked if he knows who that white kid is.
  • Foreign Ruling Class: Afrikaaners. Deconstructed by Robert, Trevor’s dad, who points out the absurdity of moving to a foreign land but hating the native population.
    “‘Africa is full of black people,’ he would say. ‘So why would you come to Africa if you hate black people? If you hate black people, why did you come into their house?’ To him it was insane.”
  • Gang of Bullies: Noah describes being attacked by a gang of colored kids, who pelted him with mulberries.
  • Germanic Depressive: Noah portrays his Swiss father as very low-key, tidy, efficient, and secretive, but also as affectionate and kind.
  • Good Parents: Trevor's mother Patricia. She always genuinely wanted a child and worked to provide a good life for Trevor. She never talked down to her son, was straight with him, enlightened him, and knows him as a person. Even though all of the beatings that she put Trevor through are questionable for western audiences, Trevor states that they were reserved for serious infractions and to Patricia were nothing more than Tough Love. He even dedicates the book to her:
    For my mother. My first fan.
    Thank you for making me a man.
  • Half-Breed Discrimination: The apartheid system itself. Ironically, Noah faced this most from other half-breeds.
  • Hiding Your Heritage: Noah had to do this throughout much of his childhood, since being of Mixed Ancestry was itself a crime.
  • Hitler's Time Travel Exemption Act: Noah discusses and deconstructs the motive for this trope: trying to stop the horrors of World War II and The Holocaust. Noah argues that these atrocities are not that different from the European imperialism and colonialism inflicted on much of the world, particularly Africa. Westerners only consider Hitler to be the worst historical monster, because he inflicted atrocities on them and because the Nazis kept such meticulous records of their atrocities.
  • Internalized Categorism: Noah describes how the apartheid system led African and colored people to hate themselves more than they did the Afrikaners who were oppressing them.
  • Late-Arrival Spoiler: If you have listened to more than a few of his interviews or some of his stage acts, you know that his mother gets shot by her ex-husband.
  • Loophole Abuse: Trevor frequently invokes it in his childhood whether he is arguing with his mother or school authority figures.
  • Meaningful Name: Trevor mentions that Xhosa families often give these to their children, and that they tend to be self-fulfilling, such as with Trevor's cousin Mlungisi, "The Fixer". He cleaned up after his siblings' messes and was always doing chores and pitching in around the house. Trevor's uncle, Velile, "He Who Popped Out Of Nowhere", was born as an unplanned pregnancy, and for the rest of his life he did little but disappear and reappear, vanishing into a drinking binge to reappear a week or so later. Trevor's mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, "She Who Gives Back", was giving and charitable for her whole life, even when she was barely older than a toddler, supervising and feeding unchaperoned kids whose "fathers were gone and [...] mothers were drunks". She later sought to defy this trope altogether when it was time to name her firstborn:
    "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."note 
  • Mood Whiplash: Descriptions of the horrors of Apartheid, violence on the streets or other definitely un-funny stuff are pared with laugh-out-loud funny jokes by Noah's mother or the narrator.
  • Murphy's Law: To save money, Noah's mom started buying his clothes three sizes too big, since he grew out of them too fast. Of course, the year she started doing that was the year he stopped growing.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Quoted directly by Noah after his stepfather whips a kid who bullied him. Noah wanted retribution but not that bad.
  • Once More, with Clarity!: Only when he gets to the the matric dance does Noah realize that his date Babiki doesn’t speak English! When he looks back on all their interactions, Noah realizes their mutual friend Tom was always translating between them, and the only English words Babiki knows are “Hi”, “Bye”, “Yes” and (the one English word Babiki uses when they get to the dance) “No!”. Noah himself lampshades this, comparing it to when Edward Norton in Fight Club realizes that he is Tyler Durden.
  • The One That Got Away: Zaheera, who’s family moves to America before Noah can tell her his true feelings for her.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Rare real life example. Trevor's mother was shot in the head by her alcoholic ex-husband and was just fine. The bullet went in the back of her skull, barely missed the spinal column, passed under her brain, somehow missing every major vein, artery and nerve, and popped out the front underneath her eye. The only surgery she needed was stitching up the entry and exit wounds, and she was back at work in a week.
  • Patient Childhood Love Interest: This was Noah’s strategy to win over Zaheera, because he saw himself as the Plucky Comic Relief in relation to more popular guys. Noah actually proves to be Wrong Genre Savvy, as Zaheera always preferred him to Gary, the popular guy she was dating. Sadly, he only finds this out after her family emigrates to America.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: This is how Trevor describes his mother and father, mentioning that "he was quiet and reserved; she was wild and free".
  • Rise of Zitboy: Noah developed terrible acne during puberty, which only further hurt his attractiveness to girls, and was a major reason he assumed Zaheera wasn’t really into him.
  • The Unapologetic: Noah expresses no remorse for accidentally burning down the house of Abel's employers and costing Abel his job.
  • Unfortunate Name: Noah’s friend, Hitler, who is also the best dancer in his DJ/dance crew. This especially becomes a problem when they perform at a Jewish school. It's made all the worse, because they are bouncing their hands up and down, which looks like the Nazi salute! This did not go over well.
    Noah: Are you guys ready?!
    Students: Yeeeaaahhhhh!
    Noah: All right! Give it up and make some noise for HIIIITTTTTLLLLEEEERRRRR!!! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Put your hands in the air for Hitler, yo!
  • Would Hurt a Child: While that is normal discipline for African parents, it gets taken Up to Eleven when Abel whips Trevor's bully, a child that he did not even know.
    • As Trevor later learns, Abel doesn't limit that to bullies. He states that he soon learned never to let Abel get between him and a door.


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