Born a Crime [Book Review] #BlackHistoryMonth

February 21, 2020

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

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (cover)

Genre/Categories: Nonfiction, Memoir, South Africa

*This post contains Amazon affiliate links.


Compelling, humorous, gritty, and inspiring…

Trevor Noah’s life in Apartheid South Africa began with a crime. He was born to a white father and a black Xhosa mother. This had to be kept a secret because the relationship was punishable by five years in prison. In a racially divided country, Trevor spent most of his early childhood living behind closed doors because his light color would certainly give away the circumstances of his birth and place his parents (who were living separately) in danger. If the government discovered the circumstances of his birth, they could even take him away from his mother. At the end of Apartheid and later in his childhood, Trevor Noah faced the challenge of deciding with which group he would identify: white, black, or colored (mixed). He felt like an outsider for most of his childhood and young adult years. Trevor enjoyed a close relationship with his risk-taking, rebellious, and spiritual mother. He was intuitive and street smart but also incredibly mischievous. The essays that document his coming of age are humorous, insightful, honest, and at times disturbing.

Amazon Star Rating (February): 4.8 Stars

My Thoughts:

“Language, even more than color, defines who you are to people.”

Lots to Love: I was starting to fear I’d be the last person to read this! A few things I loved about reading Born a Crime include Noah’s relationship with Mom, Noah’s insight into the importance of language, his descriptions of his mother’s church attendance, his mother’s determination to feed her son’s mind, soul, and body, and Trevor’s honesty and insightful reflections.

  • Language, Trevor discovered, could unify people, defuse tense situations, and reduce fear. He used his ability to speak multiple languages to move easily between different groups of people.
  • Trevor’s mom supplied books, church, and food. Even though times were tough she fed him something even if it was bone marrow from dog bones. She made sure his first language was English, gave him a nonethnic name, taught him to look forward and not to be angry about the past or life’s circumstances, and taught him to think by having real conversations with him. She always prepared him to live a life of freedom, and she didn’t consider material possessions very important in raising Noah. She refused to be bound by ridiculous ideas about what blacks could or could not do.  Noah’s description of the three different types of churches they attended (all in one day!) was entertaining! Despite her difficult circumstances, she never lost her faith. One of her biggest mistakes, however, was marrying an abusive, violent, alcoholic man later in Noah’s childhood.
  • Trevor’s mother’s greatest fear was that he would end up paying the black tax (giving back to the family) and that he would get trapped by the cycle of poverty and violence that was a family inheritance. She always promised him that he would be the one to break the cycle, to move forward and not back. She is fascinating in her ability to pursue two goals simultaneously: to live practically and make the best of her circumstances and to dream of a future for her son and teach him to be a man.
  • I greatly appreciate Trevor’s explanations of Apartheid conditions and South African culture and his detailed descriptions of every day life. I learned a great deal. For example, I didn’t know that “colored” in Apartheid South Africa refers to a person of mixed race. His explanation of crime in poor communities was especially enlightening.

Themes: A few thought-provoking themes include unconditional love, a strong mother/son relationship, unwavering faith, survival, living and thriving in dangerous times, giving a child power to rise above his circumstances, crime in poor communities, and overcoming hardship.

Fun Idea: If you have middle school children, it might be fun to buddy read with them using the version for young readers. I haven’t looked at it, so check out the appropriateness for your child first.

The Full Picture: Despite everything I loved, I felt just a little underwhelmed with Born a Crime for three primary reasons: 1) this often happens with super hyped books, 2) the writing was a bit repetitive, and 3) I read a physical copy and ignored everyone’s admonition to listen to the audio. I had placed both the physical copy and audio version on hold at the library. The physical copy became available first and I jumped into it. Every review I’ve read recommends listening to audio! So, I still have the audio on hold and I’m eager to listen to some of it when it becomes available in a couple of months to experience that format and compare.

Recommend: I’m recommending Born a Crime for memoir enthusiasts, for fans of Trevor Noah (comedian), for those who are looking for an engaging, nonfiction, diverse read for Black History Month, and definitely for book clubs. Please consider the audio version!

Content Considerations: some profanity, an instance of animal cruelty, domestic violence

Trevor Noah in person.

My Rating:  4  Stars


Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (cover)

Born a Crime Information

Born a Crime for Young Readers

Born a Crime for young readers (middle grade)

Meet the Author, Trevor Noah

Author, Trevor Noah

TREVOR NOAH is the host of the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning The Daily Show. Noah rose improbably to stardom with The Racist, his one-man show at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He made his US television debut that year on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and has also appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, becoming the first South African stand-up comedian to appear on either late-night program.

I’m linking up today with The 2020ReadNonFic Challenge hosted by Book’d Out.


Have you read Born a Crime or is it on your TBR?

Happy Reading Book Buddies!

“Ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.”
~Rainer Maria Rilke

“I love the world of words, where life and literature connect.”
~Denise J Hughes

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~Madeleine Riley, Top Shelf Text

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Unless explicitly stated that they are free, all books that I review have been purchased by me or borrowed from the library.

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  1. […] ***UPDATE: 4 Stars. With candor and insight, Trevor Noah shares honestly about the realities of living as a mixed race person during the Apartheid years. It was informative to experience life through his eyes, and he forced me to think about issues I’ve never thought about before. (Some profanity, abuse, and animal cruelty) Full Review Here. […]

  2. Good review, Carol. However, I have to admit I’m definitely an outlier on this book. I started it on audio and actually DNF’d it. For me it just seemed too repetitive. He kept repeating the same things over and over, and I finally felt like he wasn’t getting anywhere. I know memoirs aren’t plot driven, but they also shouldn’t be cyclical. Who knows, maybe I’ll come back and try again at some point.

    • It did jump around a lot! I found myself left behind a few times when he jumped to a different time period and I failed to track! I was definitely underwhelmed as I compared my reading experience to the hype. There were some things I really appreciated about it though! I’m glad I read it but it won’t make my favorites list! Thanks for commenting Debi!

  3. Great review Carol. I guess I was so taken in by the narration, I wasn’t bothered by the repetition. You are correct some of the bouncing around took a minute to reconcile itself.

  4. Fantastic review, Carol! I have been eyeing this one ever since its release but never got my hands on a copy or found it in me to plug it into my schedule. It sounds exactly like what I thought it would be: a thought-provoking and almost relatable story. I love the mention of the black tax too. Super insightful stuff that I know way too well from similar experiences! Thanks for sharing! 😀

  5. […] Genre: nonfiction, memoir This was on my TBR quite a while before I read it because I typically avoid celebrity memoirs. By the time I read it, it had received so much hype that I became nervous that it wouldn’t meet my expectations. I love thoughtful memoir and it exceeded my expectations. I’ve heard that the audio version is fabulous. There’s also a YA version. My review of Born a Crime here. […]

  6. Great review!
    I don’t have TV. After reading the book 5 years ago, I checked some of the author’s videos on YouTube and couldn’t stand his humor. BUT the book is so good. Even though I’m puzzled that he left for education (fine), but so far (I think) hasn’t gone back to his country to give back there what he has received. His Mum is such a great woman!
    If you are interested, here is the thread with our book discussion on the book:

    • I loved Mom! It is interesting that he hasn’t been back. I commented on your discussion post but it doesn’t look like it went through?

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