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Freshman Book Series

This guide provides resources supporting each year's common read.

Born a Crime

The Freshman book selected for the Class of 2024 is Born a Crime by Trevor Noah.Cover of the book Born a Crime - Illustrated image of Trevor Noah painted on a wall with a pedestrian in front

Summary

Trevor Noah’s unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents’ indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the earliest years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, steal him away. Finally liberated by the end of South Africa’s tyrannical white rule, Trevor and his mother set forth on a grand adventure, living openly and freely and embracing the opportunities won by a centuries-long struggle.

Born a Crime is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. It is also the story of that young man’s relationship with his fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother—his teammate, a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that would ultimately threaten her own life.

The stories collected here are by turns hilarious, dramatic, and deeply affecting. Whether subsisting on caterpillars for dinner during hard times, being thrown from a moving car during an attempted kidnapping, or just trying to survive the life-and-death pitfalls of dating in high school, Trevor illuminates his curious world with an incisive wit and unflinching honesty. His stories weave together to form a moving and searingly funny portrait of a boy making his way through a damaged world in a dangerous time, armed only with a keen sense of humor and a mother’s unconventional, unconditional love.

** From Amazon

Themes

The book looks at the following themes:

  • Code-Switching, Dueling Identities, and Double-Consciousness
  • Identity and Blackness
  • Institutional and Structural Racism 
  • Family, Community, and Belonging
  • The Power of Language 
  • The Cycle of Poverty and Racism
  • Injustice and Social Action
  • Struggle and Perseverance
  • Love and Personal Growth
  • Hustle, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship
  • Religion and Community
  • Humor
  • Education

Author Information

Portrait photograph of Trevor Noah wearing a suitTrevor Noah is the most successful comedian in Africa and is the host of the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning The Daily Show on Comedy Central. 

Born in South Africa to a black South African mother and a white European father, Noah has hosted numerous television shows including South Africa’s music, television and film awards, and two seasons of his own late-night talk show, Tonight with Trevor Noah.

In November 2016, Trevor released his first book Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, which was an instant New York Times bestseller. It was nominated for two NAACP Image Awards, one for Outstanding Literary Work by a Debut Author and another for Outstanding Literary Work in the Biography/Auto-Biography category.

The book is a collection of personal stories about growing up in South Africa during the last gasps of apartheid and the tumultuous days of freedom that came with its demise. Already known for his incisive social and political commentary, here Noah turns his focus inward, giving readers an intimate look at the world that shaped him. These are true stories, sometimes dark, occasionally bizarre, frequently tender, and always hilarious. Whether subsisting on caterpillars during months of extreme poverty or making comically hapless attempts at teenage romance, from the time he was thrown in jail to the time he was thrown from a speeding car driven by murderous gangsters, the experiences covered in this book will shock and amaze, even as they leave you rolling on the floor with laughter.

From TrevorNoah.com

Book Discussion

Discussion Questions

Born a Crime is a gripping memoir that provokes a lot of discussion about institutional racism, family, and perseverance among other topics. Here are a few discussion questions to get you started talking about the book.

  • What role does religion play in Trevor's life? How does Trevor view the importance of religion versus his mother's views?
  • Why do you think Patricia, Trevor's mother, used "tough love" when parenting Trevor? What impact does a parenting style have on a person's life?
  • Trevor often discusses swapping languages to fit in. What impact does this code-switching have on his life? How does his code-switching differ or is similar to code-switching in your life?
  • Trevor has two different father figures in his life. How are they different? What impact does that have on Trevor?
  • Trevor prefaces each chapter with history or insights on apartheid and living in South Africa, how does this structure impact your understanding of his life?
  • How does your previous awareness of Trevor and his life story impact your reading of the book?
  • How does apartheid in South Africa compare to institutional racism in the United States and elsewhere?
  • What role does domestic abuse and violence play in Trevor's narrative?
  • What is the difference between discipline and abuse throughout the book? Is there a difference?
  • What moment in the book had you laughing out loud? Why?
  • What is your opinion on the way Trevor balanced humor and serious topics throughout the book?
  • Trevor spends a lot of time with his family. What role does family play in his upbringing?
  • Trevor often refers to his skin color and how he doesn't fit into any group. What color does skin color variation play throughout the book? How is that mirrored in your experiences?
  • Trevor often hustles throughout the book to make money? Why? What role does hustle play in your experience? How is hustling the same or different as being an entrepreneur?
  • Why do you think Trevor's mom chose to stay in South Africa? What would you have done?
  • Trevor often talks about being an outsider or "the only." What role do you think that played in his life? How have you experienced that?
  • The book discusses how groups are divided to fight against each other to serve an in power minority. How is that still replicated today? 
  • Trevor’s mom adapted to live her life in a city that didn’t want her to live there. Is this a type of code switching? What are other ways people have adapted to live in areas that are determined to keep them out? 
  • What were you most shocked to read or learn? Why?

You can find even more discussion questions in the links below.

Related Books at UDC

Research Resources

You can further explore the events, themes, and ideas in Born a Crime in these recommended library databases.

Instructor Resources

The ideas in the tabs above act as prompts to help you develop discussions, projects, or assignments related to Born a Crime. They offer suggestions for ideas to include in your class or on your syllabus.

 

Here are some tips for leading a successful book discussion:

Before the Discussion

  • Read the book completely and take notes about the themes, motifs, and topics. Write down important page numbers and highlight important passages.
  • Come up with eight to ten questions about the book. You can also see a list of discussion questions for this title here.

During the Discussion

  • Ask your question and let others answer first.
  • Make connections between comments.
  • Ask follow-up questions.
  • Bring the conversation back to the discussion if people go off on tangents.
  • Don't feel obligated to ask all your questions.
  • Don't end a conversation if people are on-topic and really enjoying what they are sharing.
  • Wrap up the discussion by highlighting key points.
  • Thank the participants.

You can find some sample discussion questions elsewhere in this guide.

  • Create a vision board or collage of your different identities.
  • Write a comedy bit related to the themes of the book and your personal experience.
  • Have students discuss the meaning of their names and how they think that meaning shows in their personality.
  • Create a vocabulary list of words and definitions you use that are not common.
  • Create a work of art expressing Trevor's statement “Love is a creative act.” (page 262, paperback)
  • Write lyrics for a hip hop song about the book or that Trevor could have used during his DJing.
  • Write a business plan for one of Trevor's hustles (tuck shop runner, CD burner, DJ, etc.)

The following may be used as writing prompts for Born a Crime:

  • What is code-switching? What role does it play in the book and in your personal life?
  • What role does history have on how communities view institutional racism?
  • What role does religion play in the book and in your personal life?
  • Discuss your opinions on discipline and physical abuse as it relates to parenting and family.
  • What role does language play in the book and in your life?
  • Discuss institutional racism. What is it? What impacts does it have on your life?
  • Discuss "the pencil test." What is it and how did reading about that make you feel?
  • In what ways are you "the only?" How does the impact your life?
  • How do you define yourself versus how others see you or stereotype you?