Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

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

Publisher’s 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.

Primary Source Pairing:
As author Trevor Noah explains, due to apartheid, his very existence broke the law and put him into a category that was considered illegal in South Africa. Noah writes, “The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate, is what it was” (pg. 1). When Trevor Noah was nearly six years old, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and apartheid legislation was repealed in 1991. The discussion of apartheid, its rise and fall, and the impact it had on the people of South Africa is a strong theme of the book.

For this primary source pairing, invite students to study two images. The first one is a photograph of a sign in South Africa posted during apartheid stating the premises were for white people only. The second one is an image of a poster made by an American artist Rachael Romero to garner support for the anti-apartheid movement in 1975. Challenge students to discuss the contrast of these images and how the images relate to the what students read in Born A Crime.

Questions for Discussion:

  • Describe what you see.
  • What do you notice first?
  • How much of the text can you read? What does it say?
  • What do you see that looks strange or unfamiliar?
  • What other details can you see?
  • What can you learn from examining this?
  • If someone created something like this today, what would be different?
  • What would be the same?
  • Make a connection to these images and what you read about Trevor Noah’s experiences growing up in South Africa.

Book Cover and Summary: Follett
“Apartheid No” Poster, created by Rachel Romero: Library of Congress
Rachel Romero website:
Apartheid sign: Wikimedia Commons
South Africa in Africa Map: Wikimedia Commons

Additional Primary Source Pairing:
Nelson Mandela, Written and Illustrated by Kadir Nelson
In this lush, acclaimed book, award-winning author-illustrator Kadir Nelson tells the story of global icon and Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela in poignant free verse and glorious illustrations.

It is the story of a young boy’s determination to change South Africa, and of the struggles of a man who eventually became the president of his country. Mandela believed in equality for all people, no matter the color of their skin. Readers will be inspired by Mandela’s triumph and his lifelong quest to create a more just world.