Chapters 1 & 2
Summary: Chapter 1: Run
Before apartheid segregated South Africa’s people by color, Black South Africans were divided into tribes. These tribes had a long history of conflict, particularly between the two dominant groups, the Zulu and the Xhosa. The Zulu, a warrior people, fought back against European invaders and were decimated. The Xhosa people, by contrast, tried to learn from the Europeans and resisted their invasion with strategy instead of violence. Resentment between the two tribes grew during apartheid, and it escalated into war once apartheid was ended. Nelson Mandela was Xhosa, like Trevor Noah’s mother.
Trevor Noah, the comedian and the author of Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood was born into apartheid in South Africa in 1984. In telling stories of growing up during the years shortly before and after the end of apartheid, he weaves in insights about his home country’s history, culture, and traditions.
Even though Christianity had been forced on native South Africans by the Europeans, Trevor’s mother was a devout Christian who took her family to multiple churches every Sunday. Each church offered something different and catered to a different racial demographic—mostly white, mostly Black, or mixed. Trevor truly enjoyed attending church, but not the logistics of commuting to these churches. The family would have to take a complex succession of minibuses on the mornings when their secondhand car wasn’t working. Trevor’s mother was never easily intimidated and her faith in God was unwavering. One morning when Trevor was nine years old, a bus driver began to speak menacingly to Trevor’s mother, criticizing her for traveling without a man. She threw Trevor out of the bus at an intersection and then jumped out herself. Trevor, bleeding and confused, didn’t realize at the time that his mother had likely just saved his life, because bus drivers typically had ties to race gangs. His mother thanked God for saving them both, but Trevor asked if the next time their car broke down, God could meet them at home instead.
Summary: Chapter 2: Born a Crime
In 1652, Dutch colonizers came to Cape Town under British rule and gradually developed their own culture and language. These colonizers, Afrikaners, took over the South African government when British rule ended in the 1800s. The Afrikaners formulated and formalized an advanced system of racial oppression that became known as apartheid. It was an authoritarian state that removed native peoples from their land and forced them into slavery.
Trevor grew up during apartheid, with a white father and a Black mother when sexual relationships between races were against the law. Officers had a hard time enforcing this law, and many mixed-race children were born during this time. When Trevor’s mother, Patricia, ran away from home to live and work in Johannesburg, it was illegal for Black people to live within the city limits. Patricia became friends with a Swiss man who had an apartment in the city, someone she felt she could trust not to turn her over to the police. One day, Patricia told the Swiss man she wanted him to give her a child. Eventually, the man agreed, and so Patricia gave birth to a mixed-race child in 1984.
Trevor’s existence was against the law, so Patricia had to evade questions about her son’s light skin. It was dangerous for both Trevor’s parents to be seen in public with their son. When Trevor visited Patricia’s family in Soweto, his grandmother wouldn’t let him play outside with his cousins, lest he be taken by the police. Trevor became good at entertaining himself alone indoors. Years later, Noah met mixed-race South Africans who had fled the country before Nelson Mandela was elected. When Trevor asked Patricia why she had not taken him to another country, like Switzerland, she replied that South Africa was her country. She didn’t want to leave.
Analysis: Chapters 1 & 2
Before sharing any details about his own life, Noah introduces and describes the dominant tribes of South Africa to lay the groundwork for understanding his country’s history and how it shapes the present. When he describes the characteristics of the Xhosa people and contrasts them with those of the Zulu people, he also sets the stage for subsequent discussions of his family members: his mother, Patricia, and her husband, Abel (who will later be introduced). This expository information confirms that Patricia is fully Xhosa and sheds light on why her relationship with Abel, who is Zulu, is such a tumultuous one.
This primer on South African history, which Noah will continue to intersperse amongst his personal stories, is important for understanding the political and cultural climate that prevailed during his childhood. Noah includes this discussion of history not just as a framework in which to place his life story, but because he wants to outline the complexities of South Africa for his readers. The Europeans who invaded South Africa did not seek to understand its people, class structure, traditions, languages, or geography. Noah takes pains to ensure that the reader has the tools to comprehend these issues, which also allows for better understanding of his story.
Noah juxtaposes his mother’s devoutness with his own pragmatic relationship with God, giving necessary information about his birthplace via a personal anecdote. When the Europeans sought to remake South Africa according to their own vision, they used Christianity as a primary means of reshaping its people. Patricia’s Christian faith is as much a part of who she is as her Xhosa heritage, though the former was imposed on her people by the government. Young Trevor points out that if it weren’t for the church, his family would not have been in such a dangerous situation in the first place. This proclamation highlights his critical thinking and foreshadows the businessman that he will become as a young man.
Patricia looks to her faith for direction in every aspect of her life, but it is evident that she is not likewise beholden to the laws limiting South Africans. When she decides that she wants a child, she brings to the task the same perseverance and ability to circumvent the law that she used to achieve her professional goals. She knows the risk involved with having a mixed-race child, but nonetheless persuades a Swiss man to give her one. Her pregnancy is the result of deliberate planning and is a testament to her resolve and powers of persuasion. Ironically, the same level of devotion Patricia applies to the divine is seen in her devotion to navigating and evading human laws.
Noah describes how the Afrikaners removed people from their native lands as one way of oppressing them and frames Patricia’s choice to remain in her country at all costs as an act of defiance as bold as her decision to have a racially mixed child. Patricia takes Trevor to Soweto to visit her family because just as her family belongs to her, so does her country. There is no risk so great that it would push Patricia to consider leaving South Africa. Her homeland is as essential to her as the devotion she holds to her faith.