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Born a Crime: Being a Pariah in The Apartheid Era

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Trevor Noah’s memoir, Born A Crime, describes how the impromptu intellectual and, occasionally, spiritual lessons of his youth led him to become a successful comedian. Noah was born and raised near Johannesburg, South Africa at the peak of apartheid to a white father and black Xhosa mother. Interracial relationships were illegal during this period, hence Trevor Noah, being of mixed race, really was born a crime. His autobiography gives readers a culture shock as he facilitates how South Africa’s modern-day segregation was so influential. Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime is analysed in the essay. Here we will see how Noah brings to light his experiences of being a pariah in the apartheid era. The author also exemplifies how the value of language and misbehavior of all sorts shaped his character.

Prior to each chapter, the author delivers a brief historical context. At the very start of the book, a page is dedicated to the Immorality Act of 1927. This legislation revolves around the punishments for interracial sex and relationships. Yet, the reality of the law is that the black person in the affair would receive a much greater punishment than the white person. Both people would be liable for imprisonment, though the black person would have been more harshly sentenced. The white person might receive a warning, and would rarely have to serve time in jail. This is shown when Noah recounts the meeting of his mother and father. However, in other domestic affairs regarding only black people, the law, if any, was disregarded and the cases were almost always ignored.

Noah begins his autobiography by explaining how he never truly fit into the societal norms. Noah is classified as “colored” via the laws of apartheid. This not only separates him from his parents and his community, but it also puts his well being in jeopardy. For the majority of the first part of the book, Noah expresses the difficulty with his identity in an extremely racially polarized nation since he does not resemble any of his family members nor his neighbors. “The only time I could be with my father was indoors. If we left the house, he’d have to walk across the street from us. I couldn’t walk with my mother, either; a light-skinned child with a black woman would raise too many questions”. Noah’s naive mind is confused and perceives this treatment as neglect. These were difficult concepts to comprehend as a child because of societal discrimination. In a way, Noah is almost denied the right of having a family as he never had a decent father figure around. Though his mother was exceptionally loving and passionate, publicly, she had to be extremely cautious of her affection. The author very openly admits how this form of rejection negatively affected him.

Later, Noah recalls how he was instantly ignored and discarded like he “was a bag of weed” if police officers appeared threatening. While at home, Noah was treated like every other kid, with love and affection, but publicly he was invisible to those he loved. It was so perilous for him to even exist, that he often wished he was just black. Noah is now able to make jokes regarding the ridiculousness of apartheid but at the time, the circumstances which impacted his life were so prevalent. He later discovered that comedy was the perfect coping mechanism for his mentally traumatizing adolescence.

The author finds himself regularly feeling isolated and ashamed of his mixed heritage. Noah writes about being verbally teased for acting either too white or too black for a person of color. Once again, Noah’s racial identity is intently questioned by both his peers and himself. He struggles to find the means to conform to a society that had already purposefully instituted a racial-prejudice foundation against him. The people who cared for and about him, feel powerless and saddened in this circumstance because Noah, himself, is just a reminder of the danger and criminality they all faced at this time.

Noah is cautious when advocating for himself in dire situations. Noah’s ingenuity benefits him significantly throughout the story. When being confronted by a childhood bully, he decides to ask his stepfather, Abel, for advice. “I could see the anger building up inside him [Abel]. He started whipping him. He wasn’t doing this to teach the kid a lesson. He was just beating him’. Abel’s outrage toward the child, in Noah’s eyes, was completely ill-intentioned. The torment imposed was not deserving regardless of what Noah had faced. To this day, the author feels unfathomably guilty and is scarred from the unnecessary pain inflicted on the child. The brutality towards the child directly mirrors the corrupt police brutality of people of color during apartheid. His stepfather doesn’t quite teach him how to face discrimination head-on, but Noah eventually learns how to, independently.

Noah accentuates his vigilancy towards the abuse from his stepfather and often questions the authenticity of the relationship between his mother and Abel. Noah’s mother, Patricia, was a prominent supporter of the family and was not easily manipulated by her husband. Abel’s violence continued to have an effect on Noah’s life until his mother’s critical head wound. With that, Noah ultimately loses all respect for his stepfather. The author epitomizes how violence in any means, regardless of the situation is just a recipe for disaster.

Noah continuously incorporates his mother’s impact on his life. Patricia Noah always gave Noah the confidence he needed to live in his divided world. She encouraged Noah to become multilingual. For the most part, it is advantageous to him as it gets him out of trouble. Noah’s inspiration is based on Nelson Mandela’s saying, “‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart’”. This directly influences Noah when he is in jail with another man and attempts to translate for him. South Africa’s demographics were comprised of various different tribes and of migrants from all over. The demographics and languages influenced the internal segregation between the groups, as there was not an official language of the nation. Noah’s mother emphasizes that being able to respect and understand the viewpoints of one another is more important than the outrageous reality they lived in. A bit earlier, a relevant idea is expressed. Noah describes apartheid as perfect racism because it did efficiently separate the different races. Nevertheless, it created an intense hatred towards the ethnic groups.

In the third part of the book, Trevor Noah reinstates how he transitioned from a delinquent lifestyle to be able to broaden his understanding of others’ perspectives. Noah and his friend Siwze were involved in DJing at events and selling pirated goods. Noah had little, if any, encounters with law enforcement prior to being caught driving a stolen automobile. He is arrested, put in jail and, unbeknownst to him, translates for an inmate whom he learns a valuable life lesson from. “[The man] finds his way to Johannesburg, looking for work, trying to feed his children back home. The world has been taught to be scared of him, but the reality is that he is scared of the world because he has none of the tools necessary to cope with it. So what does he do? He takes shit. He becomes a petty thief”. This realization is crucial for the growth of his character. This aspect of criminal behavior easily corresponds to the idiom don’t judge a book by its cover. One cannot judge nor understand what another person is going through simply by their actions. Though the man in the cell, was committing a crime, he was doing it for the greater good for him and his family. The law will only highlight the illegal deed whether or not the intentions or results were innocuous.

Racism continues to be a universal social issue today. The shock factor of Born a Crime is that it reminds us that even in the late 20th century, the world was educated about the horrors of apartheid, however, nations decided to turn a blind eye. Civic human rights were being disenfranchised and violated, and families and friends were divided. Though the horrors of apartheid have ended, some South Africans are adamant in the belief that it brought prosperity and benefitted the country. Others disagree. This story provides us with another perspective of history. As mentioned at the beginning of the autobiography, when the Europeans came to Africa to claim land and slaves, they left no records of the natives living there; and the native tribes were killed and their versions of history were silenced.

Trevor Noah compares this to how people approach the Holocaust. Documentation of the Jews was kept and how its records are treated. He agrees that both acts were inherently bad, but the events that go unannounced are often forgotten or oppressed. The apartheid story is even similar to the Rohingya genocide happening in Myanmar. The crises were not dealt with in a timely manner or treated with the urgency that was required. Later, people began to boycott businesses that traded with South Africa as a way to illuminate the circumstances. The publicity of both issues was scarce in America, especially. Born a Crime opens the eyes and mind of the readers by indulging in how racism, specifically, diversity in language, and all of the other relevant themes in this memoir impact the world. One is enlightened by how apartheid affected the globe indirectly and how racism affects the globe directly.

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Born a Crime: Being a Pariah in the Apartheid Era. (2023, February 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 21, 2023, from
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