Book notes: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime Trevor Noah book summary by Marlo Yonocruz

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Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

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Trevor Noah, one of the comedy world’s fastest-rising stars and host of The Daily Show, tells his wild coming-of-age story during the twilight of apartheid in South Africa and the tumultuous days of freedom that followed. In this Audible Studios production, Noah provides something deeper than traditional memoirists: powerfully funny observations about how farcical political and social systems play out in our lives.

The stories Noah tells are by turns hilarious, bizarre, tender, dark, and poignant – subsisting on caterpillars during months of extreme poverty, making comically pitiful attempts at teenage romance in a color-obsessed world, thrown into jail as the hapless fall guy for a crime he didn’t commit, thrown by his mother from a speeding car driven by murderous gangsters, and more.” -Amazon

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Opening Thoughts:

All I know about Trevor Noah was that he took over as host for The Daily Show on Comedy Central after John Stewart left, that he’s hilarious, and he’s South African. Other than that, I knew nothing about Trevor. I saw the ratings and reviews and was instantly sold. I’ve been looking for a good autobiography to pick up, but thought this would be a separation from the typical books I read about business moguls, high performers, and wealthy people. The last book I read about a comedian was Steve Martin’s book, which was a good time as well.

Key Notes:

  • Being thrown from the car while he was asleep
    • Him and his mom arguing about Jesus’s will:
      • He told his mom to ask Jesus to meet them at their house instead next time because this was not a fun night
  • The apartheid was a purposely created system of racism that the government used by studying what worked and what didn’t work in the world
    • Apartheid was the forced removal of native onto reservations, combined with slavery, followed by segregation all at the same time
  • Born a crime. His parents broke the law of interracial relations when they had him
    • His mother was a rebel in many aspects and took a secretarial course to do typing, even when the only options for black women at the time or factory work and being a maid
  • In a police state, everyone is suspicious of each other and thinks everyone else is the police
    • Many times his mom had to pretend that they weren’t related when in public
  • When he was five and his grandma’s village, he was never allowed to play outside with the kids because of his skin
    • He became used to being by himself and entertaining himself
    • Even today, he has to remember to be with people
  • A kid’s prayer in English to white Jesus gets answered first
  • In America, the dream is to get out of the ghetto
    • In Sueto, since you couldn’t get out of bed, the dream was to improve the ghetto
  • The town had its own economy and everyone had their own shop or sold something out of their homes
    • Nobody had a lot of money to buy a lot of groceries, so they bought their food one day at a time
    • They also build their homes piece by piece, one part at a time as well
  • People in Sueto were hopeful and aspirational
    • They all had driveways but nobody had cars. It’s like having the driveway would will the car into being
  • We all shit the same, no matter how famous you are
    • He thinks there is something purposeful about the way God designed us to shit. You were never more yourself and when you’re taking a shit
  • Language brings with it an identity and a culture, at least the perception of it
    • A shared language says we are the same, a language barrier says we are different
    • The architects of apartheid knew this and separated people physically and also by language
  • Within his family he was considered and treated like a white kid with more privileges
    • He got special treatment growing up, though when he was a little boy he didn’t attributed to color or race
  • His mom made sure his first language would be English, because that would give him a leg up in life and being in Africa
    • His mom used language to cross boundaries, handle situations, and navigate the world
    • Language, even more than color, defines who you are to people
  • Racism exists and people are getting hurt. Just because it’s not happening to you doesn’t mean it’s not happening
    • At some point you have to choose. You might not want to pick a side, but life will eventually make you pick one
  • He requested to be moved from the A class with the white kids to the B class with the black kids
    • He would rather be held back by the kids he liked than to be with kids he didn’t know
  • The black tax: If you are successful, your ancestors have been pillaged for generations so your hard work is used to help them bring them back to zero
  • His mother told him stories of her past but she never complained about it
    • Learn from your past, and be better because of it. But don’t cry about your past, life is full of pain, let your pain sharpen you but don’t hold onto it and be bitter
  • His mother got him a lot of books and he treasured them
  • His mothers one goal was to free his mind. She spoke to him like an adult, treated him like her best friend, told her stories, gave him advice
    • His mom did what school didn’t, teach him how to think. Asking him questions from psalms and asking how he can apply to his life
  • He and his mother felt it was them against the world, they were a team
    • Two him and his mom, the car they had meant freedom. They could choose where to go
  • Food was always the measure of how well they were doing in their lives
    • As modestly as they lived, he never felt poor because their lives were always rich with experiences, out doing something and going somewhere
    • His mother took him places black people never went. She refused to be bound by ridiculous ideas of what Black people couldn’t or shouldn’t do
  • We tell people to follow their dreams but you can only dream of what you can imagine. But depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited
  • Chinese people were labeled black, but Japanese people were given white status in south Africa because they wanted good relationships and trade benefits
  • Kids have a compulsive disorder that makes them do things and they don’t know why they did them
  • What he respected about his mom was that she always made sure he knew why he was getting a beating and her discipline came from love
    • It was never out of anger or rage
  • Trevor was always clever and witty, he was always good at finding the loopholes in arguments
    • They said he would either be a really good criminal or be really good at catching them
  • The weird and kind of amazing thing about his mom is that if she agreed with him that the rule was stupid, she wouldn’t punish him
  • His mom taught him to challenge authority and question the system
    • To her, God was the only authority. The only way it backfired was that he questioned and challenged her
  • Trevor gained a reputation for being naughty after bringing down a white person’s house
  • From his mother, he inherited the trait from his mother the ability to forget the pain in life
    • He remembers the thing that caused the trauma but he doesn’t hold onto the trauma
  • He didn’t know that one of his two dogs was deaf
    • A dog is a great thing for a kid to have, it’s like a bicycle but with emotions
    • He learned about relationships because of his dog in that you don’t own the thing you love
  • Racism never made any sense to his father
  • Although he lost touch with his dad, his mom never spoke ill of his father, and even complemented him
  • His father had kept an album of all of the publications he has been in mention him. Trevor was overwhelmed with emotions
    • Their 10 year gap closed in an instant. He always wondered what his father thought of him, and discovered he had been with him the entire time
    • He had always been proud of him. Circumstance pulled them apart, but he was never not his father
    • Being chosen is the greatest gift you can give to another human being
    • He decided to interview his father, but what he really wanted was a relationship
    • Relationships are built in the silences, you spend time with people, you observe them and interact with them, and you come to know them
  • Growing up and living in a colored community taught him that it is easier to be an insider as an outsider than to be an outsider as an insider
    • You will face a lot of animosity. People are willing to except you if they see you as an outsider trying to assimilate into their world
    • But when they see you as a fellow tribe member attempting to disavow the tribe, that is something they will never forgive
  • What apartheid did was convinced every group that it was because of the other race that they didn’t get in the club
  • His mother thought everything was funny. There was no subject that was too dark or too painful for her to tackle it with humor
  • He felt the sweet revenge when Able, his mother’s boyfriend, took a switch and beat the kid who bullied him
  • His mother would give him nuggets of wisdom here in there about how to treat women and adult relationships, not really kid relationships
  • The weird awkward process of asking this girl to be his valentine and then his first kiss in front of a McDonald’s
  • His mom was the most gas efficient driver on the planet
    • Sometimes he had to get out and push the car inch by inch at a time on the way to school to save money on gas
  • Since he was the fastest kid, he would sell his services to buy food in line to other students
  • He became a Chameleon, popping in and out of different social groups, like the weed dealer who was always welcome but never actually a part of the group
    • Even though he didn’t belong to one group, he could belong to any group that was laughing
    • He wasn’t outsider, and could retreat into a shell and be anonymous, or you can go the other way and protect yourself by opening up
    • You don’t ask to be accepted for everything you are, just the one part of yourself that you’re willing to share. For him it was humor.
  • He doesn’t regret anything he did, but he does regret the things that he didn’t do, because of fear
    • Regret is what we should fear the most
    • Rejection and fear are both answers. But regret and what if is an unanswered question that will haunt you for the rest of your days
  • The cool guys got the girls, and the funny guys got to hang out with the cool guys. He wasn’t a threat to anyone so he was welcomed everywhere
  • He didn’t ask the girl he had a crush on out, and then she moved to America. He found out from their mutual friend that she had the biggest crush on him too
  • His best friend Teddy got arrested for shoplifting, and they didn’t suspect Trevor. They thought it was a white kid on film
  • His buddy Tom lied and said he was a famous rapper from America so he had to pretend to rap at a talent show
  • He wanted a leather coat like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, his favorite movie
    • For the dance, he had his hair straightened and cornrowed and he actually looked good
  • He didn’t realize that his date didn’t speak English, and he realized that when multiple languages are involved, he stores the conversations in his mind as English
  • He was a natural capitalist and handled his own party music distribution business
  • He learned that money gives you choices. People don’t want to be rich, they want to be able to choose
    • The richer you are, the more choices you have. That is the freedom of money
  • People always lecture the poor to take responsibility for themselves and to make something of themselves. But with what raw materials can they do so?
    • Giving someone a fishing rod is important when teaching someone how to fish. You need someone from the privileged world to come to you and say, here’s what you need and here’s how it works
  • Trevor became a DJ with his revolutionary set up of life mixing through his computer. They became a hit and had a reputation and starting to get booked for other parties
  • New music only works at parties people know how to dance to it. Therefore, they decided they needed a dance crew to show people steps
  • People are required to have an English first name next to their African name so that way people could pronounce it
    • All that black people new about Hitler was that he was tough enough to get the white people to ask black people for help in the war. Therefore, naming your dog or your kids Hitler was a way to make them be tough
  • Everybody believes that the atrocities that affected them the most were the worst
    • In reality, it’s all relative because different people and nations consider different people to be the worst
    • Cheering on their best dancer Hitler at a school hip hop performance for all Jewish kids
  • The hood in Alexandra was a hive of energy and a sensory overload. However, amid the chaos there was order, a system, social hierarchy based on where you lived
    • There are shades of crime in the hood
  • With all the cash on hand from selling music, they started to loan money for interest
  • In the hood, someone is always buying, someone is always selling. The hustle is trying to be in the middle of the whole thing
    • Their operations in the hood evolved from music and djing to capitalizing on payday lending and pawn shop operations
  • There’s a sense of community in the hood. Everyone knows everyone, and if a mom asks you for a favor, you have to say yes
    • The biggest thing is you have to share. You can’t get rich in your own. You have money, why aren’t you helping people? Spread the wealth
    • Everyone must know your success benefits the community in one way or another, or you become a target
  • The township also polices itself, from theft to rape. But hitting or abuse they don’t get involved because there are too many questions to ask to understand
  • The hood was strangely comforting, but comfort can be dangerous
    • Comfort provides a floor, but also a ceiling
    • The hood has a gravitational pull, it never leaves you behind but it also never lets you leave
    • As soon as things start going well for you in the hood, it’s time to go
  • 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
  • His mom like most parents give tough love and discipline because it’s a way to teach them before the system does
    • What his mom hated about the hood and his hood friends was what they represented. They didn’t pressure him to become better
  • He stole one of the junkyards from his stepfather’s shop and put false plates on them. Then he got pulled over and arrested by a cop
    • In South Africa, everyone knows that colored gangsters are the most ruthless
  • The story of the menacing large man is familiar to Trevor for South Africans post-apartheid. The world is taught to be scared of him but in reality, he’s scared of the world because he has none of the tools necessary to cope with it. So what does he do? He takes things and becomes a petty criminal
    • The law isn’t rational, it’s a lottery
  • He had to choose in the prison holding area which racial group to sit with. He had to pick because racism exists and you have to pick a side, and eventually life will force you to pick a side
    • He found out that his mom paid the lawyer and the bail
  • The Zonga culture is very patriarchal and strong gender roles
    • His mom mocked the system
  • When his mom tried to file a report against her husband, the cops took his step father’s side
    • At 9 years old he still thought the cops were the good guys. Then, he discovered that they were men first, cops second
  • His mother had an extremely giving nature. Though she refused to be subservient to Abel at home, she did want him to succeed as a man
    • If she could make their marriage a true marriage of equals, she was willing to pour herself into it completely
    • At 11 years old, he was consumed with the family auto business
  • 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
    • His mother created a new world for him, gave him a new understanding of the world, and created a new world for her
  • When Abel disciplined him, it wasn’t a place of love, it was rage
    • Growing up in a home of abuse, you struggle with the notion you can love a person you hate, or hate a person you love
  • He was waiting until his little brother Andrew turned 18 for them to be free, but then she got pregnant again with his brother Isaac
  • Eventually his mom moved out and met someone else and moved on
    • At the time, Trevor didn’t understand what it was like to be a woman in a society that except abuse in the home
  • She got a call from Andrew on a Sunday morning because Abel shot his mom
    • When he found out his mom a shot in the head, he had the most painful cries ever had in his life
    • After his mother got shot, he found out that she canceled her health insurance. The nurse recommended he not pay with his credit card because it could cost him thousands and thousands of dollars. He paused and actually thought about it
    • The bullet through his mother went in and out clean. It was nothing short of a miracle, and the doctor even admitted it
  • His mom cracked a joke about him being the best looking person in the family now while in the ICU

Closing Thoughts:

Unbelievable. Such a fantastic story, masterful storytelling, insightful lessons, unique perspectives, and strong themes. Definitely one of my top 20 favorite books, and definitely my top 3 biographical books. This one already in my “to read again” list.

I absolutely loved the strong themes of love, faith, finding the humor, not holding onto the pain, appreciation and gratitude, thinking for yourself, race and segregation, the power of language, relationships, and family. This is one of those books or stories that you cannot help but connect with. Despite having such a different upbringing compared to typical Americans, Trevor’s story definitely connects to you on a whole other level.


Trevor tells his story of growing up in post-apartheid South Africa as a mixed kid in the hood.



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