Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Born a Crime

Go To

“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:

  • 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.
  • Action Mom: When he was young boy, Trevor went with his mother and baby brother to three churches on Sunday (his mother was very religious). One Sunday her car wouldn't start, so she used minibuses to get around. It was an informal sort of public transportation for the Black areas, and was rather corrupt and dangerous, but better than nothing. At one point they were picked up by a minibus driven by a Zulu man (Noah and his mother are from the rival Xhosa tribe), who started threatening them. When the van slowed down at a light, Patricia threw Noah (who was asleep) out of the van, then jumped out herself, cradling her baby, and they ran for it.
  • Advertisement:
  • The Alcoholic: Abel was an excellent mechanic, but he could never make money because he kept drinking his profits. His drunkenness also made him rude and violent.
  • Alleged Car: Noah’s mother buys a car that constantly breaks down, forcing Noah and her to often have to hitchhike.
  • 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.
  • Bilingual Backfire: Noah and his mother speak multiple languages, allowing them to pull this. For instance, they were once in a shop where the white owner told an employee in Afrikaans to "watch those two blacks, they might steal something", whereupon his mother asks him in Afrikaans to help her find what she needs, prompting him to immediately apologize. Another time, Noah was out walking when he heard a group of young men conversing in Zulu about how they planned to mug this 'white' kid. He turned around and asked, in Zulu, if he could join them in jumping the white kid. They then laughed it off.
  • 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.
  • Chain of Deals: A lot of Noah's activity in Alexandra involved buying and selling stuff, acting as a middleman, as well as an informal pawnbroker and loan shark (though he admitted he and his friends could never actually beat people up). They'd make deals and favors for repayment, everything from free rides in a minibus to asking a mother to allow her daughter to go on a date with somebody.
  • 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.”
  • Divine Intervention: Patricia believes this is the reason that Abel's gun misfired four times as he stood over her, allowing her to attempt an escape.
  • 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.
  • Fell Off the Back of a Truck: While he doesn't admit to stealing anything, a lot of the goods that Noah dealt in were clearly stolen. He also points out the hypocrisy of his mother, admonishing him for hanging around hoodlums, while she herself bought a big case of beef patties from a restaurant from some guy who 'acquired' them.
  • 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.”
  • Funny Afro: When he was young, Noah didn't have money to go to a hairdresser. He said that while he wanted his resulting natural Afro to look like something from The Jackson 5, in reality it looked more like Buckwheat.
  • 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.
  • Give a Man a Fish...: Deconstructed. Trevor says that while it is a good thing to teach someone to fish for themselves, the knowledge ultimately becomes useless when they don't have the materials to utilize it properly. It is best said in this quote: "People love to say, 'Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime.' What they don't say is, 'And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.'"
  • Good Guns, Bad Guns: Invoked by Noah's description of Abel's gun, sleek and black and menacing, not like the shiny guns from cowboy movies.
  • 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.
  • Heel Realization: A lot of Noah's hustling as a young man in Alexandra involved trading stolen goods, but he never really thought of it as serious crime, particularly in thinking "White people have insurance". That is, until a guy who worked at the airport and stole from luggage sold him a digital camera containing a White family's vacation photos. Noah realized that it wasn't just stolen property, but stolen memories.
  • Hiding Your Heritage: Noah had to do this throughout much of his childhood, since being of mixed ancestry was itself a crime.
  • High-School Hustler: Noah was extremely fast as a kid, and would often make it to the Tuck Shopnote  in his high school before everybody else. He parlayed this into buying things for other people so they wouldn't have to wait in line, taking a commission on each purchase. He then moved into selling bootleg music CDs.
  • 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.
  • Insane Troll Logic: Noah points out that Apartheid (or any form of racism) makes very little sense when you approach it from a rational standpoint. For instance, a Colorednote  person could be arbitrarily reclassified as Black, or could apply (and sometimes succeed) in getting turned White, based on little more than the subjective whim of a single government official. Similarly, there weren't enough Asian people in South Africa to warrant their own category, so Chinese (who were usually brought in as laborers) were classified as Black...but Japanese were classified as White, because the Government wanted imported Japanese goods and technology. Noah imagines a police officer seeing an Asian person sitting on a Whites Only bench and wondering how to tell if that person is Japanese or Chinese.
  • Internalized Categorism: Noah describes how the apartheid system led African and colored people to hate themselves more than they did the Afrikaners who were actually oppressing them, as well as how every race of people started to hate everyone else because of the apartheid system. Trevor compares it to a bouncer in a club keeping people out, then the people outside the club getting more angry at each other than the bouncer who wouldn't let them into the club in the first place.
  • Karma Houdini: Noah explains that, even when Patricia called the police on Abel for hitting her, he never got in trouble. The police would simply assume Patricia did something to anger him because "you know how women can be". When Abel actually tried to shoot her to death, he was only sentenced to three years' probation, partially because he didn't have any prior convictions.
  • 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.
    • Actually, that's not a spoiler, as Noah reveals it in the first chapter of the book. The spoiler is that she survives.
  • 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 
    • Zig-zagged with Abel, Trevor's abusive stepfather. His English name inverts this, referring to the favored brother from the Book of Genesis, but his Tsonga name, Ngisaveni, plays this straight, meaning "Be afraid".
  • Mistaken for Gay: Before heading out to the matric dance, Noah went to a salon and got his puffy Afro straightened and styled. When he came home, his mother said he was way too pretty and asked if this was his way of telling her that he was gay. Although it's quite possible that his mother was just screwing with him.
  • 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.
  • 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 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, whose 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".
  • Reduced to Ratburgers: With Abel's auto repair business losing so much money, Noah and his mother had difficulty buying food, to the point that they actually ate caterpillars.
  • 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.
  • Shot in the Ass: One of the bullets Abel fired at Patricia hit her in the buttock and passed out the other side.
  • 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. Explanation  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!
    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!
  • What Does She See in Him?: Noah couldn't understand how his mother could stay with Abel. Looking back, he attributes it to a combination of her Christian belief in forgiveness, her fear that he'd kill her if she tried to leave which turns out to be a very valid fear, and the brutal reality that she could easily end up in an even worse situation.
  • 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.