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Born a Crime

Written by TREVOR NOAH
Format: Hardcover, 304 pages
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
On Sale: 11/15/2016
Price: $28.00
ISBN: 978-0-399-58817-4
open close ABOUT THE BOOK
Selected for common reading at...

High Schools:
South Pasadena High School
The Taft School

Aurora University
North Lake College
Rider University
St. Edward's University
Syracuse University

Winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor

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.

Praise for Born a Crime

 “[A] compelling new memoir . . . By turns alarming, sad and funny, [Trevor Noah’s] book provides a harrowing look, through the prism of Mr. Noah’s family, at life in South Africa under apartheid. . . . Born a Crime is not just an unnerving account of growing up in South Africa under apartheid, but a love letter to the author’s remarkable mother.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“[An] unforgettable memoir.”Parade

 “What makes Born a Crime such a soul-nourishing pleasure, even with all its darker edges and perilous turns, is reading Noah recount in brisk, warmly conversational prose how he learned to negotiate his way through the bullying and ostracism. . . . What also helped was having a mother like Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. . . . Consider Born a Crime another such gift to her—and an enormous gift to the rest of us.”—USA Today

“[Noah] thrives with the help of his astonishingly fearless mother. . . . Their fierce bond makes this story soar.”—People

“[Noah’s] electrifying memoir sparkles with funny stories . . . and his candid and compassionate essays deepen our perception of the complexities of race, gender, and class.”Booklist (starred review)

“A gritty memoir . . . studded with insight and provocative social criticism . . . with flashes of brilliant storytelling and acute observations.”Kirkus Reviews
Trevor Noah is a comedian from South Africa.

From the eBook edition.
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Sometimes in big Hollywood movies they’ll have these crazy chase scenes where somebody jumps or gets thrown from a moving car. The person hits the ground and rolls for a bit. Then they come to a stop and pop up and dust themselves off, like it was no big deal. Whenever I see that I think, That’s rubbish. Getting thrown out of a moving car hurts way worse than that.

I was nine years old when my mother threw me out of a moving car. It happened on a Sunday. I know it was on a Sunday because we were coming home from church, and every Sunday in my childhood meant church. We never missed church. My mother was—­and still is—­ a deeply religious woman. Very Christian. Like indigenous peoples around the world, black South Africans adopted the religion of our colonizers. By “adopt” I mean it was forced on us. The white man was quite stern with the native. “You need to pray to Jesus,” he said. “Jesus will save you.” To which the native replied, “Well, we do need to be saved—­saved from you, but that’s beside the point. So let’s give this Jesus thing a shot.”

My whole family is religious, but where my mother was Team Jesus all the way, my grandmother balanced her Christian faith with the traditional Xhosa beliefs she’d grown up with, communicating with the spirits of our ancestors. For a long time I didn’t understand why so many black people had abandoned their indigenous faith for Christianity. But the more we went to church and the longer I sat in those pews the more I learned about how Christianity works: If you’re Native American and you pray to the wolves, you’re a savage. If you’re African and you pray to your ancestors, you’re a primitive. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water into wine, well, that’s just common sense.

My childhood involved church, or some form of church, at least four nights a week. Tuesday night was the prayer meeting. Wednesday night was Bible study. Thursday night was Youth church. Friday and Saturday we had off. (Time to sin!) Then on Sunday we went to church. Three churches, to be precise. The reason we went to three churches was because my mom said each church gave her something different. The first church offered jubilant praise of the Lord. The second church offered deep analysis of the scripture, which my mom loved. The third church offered passion and catharsis; it was a place where you truly felt the presence of the Holy Spirit inside you. Completely by coincidence, as we moved back and forth among these churches, I noticed that each one had its own distinct racial makeup: Jubilant church was mixed church. Analytical church was white church. And passionate, cathartic church, that was black church.

Mixed church was Rhema Bible Church. Rhema was one of those huge, super­modern, suburban megachurches. The pastor, Ray McCauley, was an ex-bodybuilder with a big smile and the personality of a cheerleader. Pastor Ray had competed in the 1974 Mr. Universe competition. He placed third. The winner that year was Arnold Schwarzenegger. Every week, Ray would be up onstage working really hard to make Jesus cool. There was arena-­style seating and a rock band jamming out with the latest Christian contemporary pop. Everyone sang along, and if you didn’t know the words that was okay because they were all right up there on the Jumbotron for you. It was Christian karaoke, basically. I always had a blast at mixed church.

White church was Rosebank Union in Sandton, a very white and wealthy part of Johannesburg. I loved white church because I didn’t actually have to go to the main service. My mom would go to that, and I would go to the youth side, to Sunday school. In Sunday school we got to read cool stories. Noah and the flood was obviously a favorite; I had a personal stake there. But I also loved the stories about Moses parting the Red Sea, David slaying Goliath, Jesus whipping the money changers in the temple.

I grew up in a home with very little exposure to popular culture. Boyz II Men were not allowed in my mother’s house. Songs about some guy grinding on a girl all night long? No, no, no. That was forbidden. I’d hear the other kids at school singing “End of the Road,” and I’d have no clue what was going on. I knew of these Boyz II Men, but I didn’t really know who they were. The only music I knew was from church: soaring, uplifting songs praising Jesus. It was the same with movies. My mom didn’t want my mind polluted by movies with sex and violence. So the Bible was my action movie. Samson was my superhero. He was my He-­Man. A guy beating a thousand people to death with the jawbone of a donkey? That’s pretty badass. Eventually you get to Paul writing letters to the Ephesians and it loses the plot, but the Old Testament and the Gospels? I could quote you anything from those pages, chapter and verse. There were Bible games and quizzes every week at white church, and I kicked everyone’s ass.

Then there was black church. There was always some kind of black church service going on somewhere, and we tried them all. In the township, that typically meant an outdoor, tent-­revival-­style church. We usually went to my grandmother’s church, an old-­school Methodist congregation, five hundred African grannies in blue-­and-­white blouses, clutching their Bibles and patiently burning in the hot African sun. Black church was rough, I won’t lie. No air-­conditioning. No lyrics up on Jumbotrons. And it lasted forever, three or four hours at least, which confused me because white church was only like an hour—­in and out, thanks for coming. But at black church I would sit there for what felt like an eternity, trying to figure out why time moved so slowly. Is it possible for time to actually stop? If so, why does it stop at black church and not at white church? I eventually decided black people needed more time with Jesus because we suffered more. “I’m here to fill up on my blessings for the week,” my mother used to say. The more time we spent at church, she reckoned, the more blessings we accrued, like a Starbucks Rewards Card.

Black church had one saving grace. If I could make it to the third or fourth hour I’d get to watch the pastor cast demons out of people. People possessed by demons would start running up and down the aisles like madmen, screaming in tongues. The ushers would tackle them, like bouncers at a club, and hold them down for the pastor. The pastor would grab their heads and violently shake them back and forth, shouting, “I cast out this spirit in the name of Jesus!” Some pastors were more violent than others, but what they all shared in common was that they wouldn’t stop until the demon was gone and the congregant had gone limp and collapsed on the stage. The person had to fall. Because if he didn’t fall that meant the demon was powerful and the pastor needed to come at him even harder. You could be a linebacker in the NFL. Didn’t matter. That pastor was taking you down. Good Lord, that was fun.

Christian karaoke, badass action stories, and violent faith healers—­man, I loved church. The thing I didn’t love was the lengths we had to go to in order to get to church. It was an epic slog. We lived in Eden Park, a tiny suburb way outside Johannesburg. It took us an hour to get to white church, another forty-­five minutes to get to mixed church, and another forty-­five minutes to drive out to Soweto for black church. Then, if that weren’t bad enough, some Sundays we’d double back to white church for a special evening service. By the time we finally got home at night, I’d collapse into bed.

This particular Sunday, the Sunday I was hurled from a moving car, started out like any other Sunday. My mother woke me up, made me porridge for breakfast. I took my bath while she dressed my baby brother Andrew, who was nine months old. Then we went out to the driveway, but once we were finally all strapped in and ready to go, the car wouldn’t start. My mom had this ancient, broken-­down, bright-­tangerine Volkswagen Beetle that she picked up for next to nothing. The reason she got it for next to nothing was because it was always breaking down. To this day I hate secondhand cars. Almost everything that’s ever gone wrong in my life I can trace back to a secondhand car. Secondhand cars made me get detention for being late for school. Secondhand cars left us hitchhiking on the side of the freeway. A secondhand car was also the reason my mom got married. If it hadn’t been for the Volkswagen that didn’t work, we never would have looked for the mechanic who became the husband who became the stepfather who became the man who tortured us for years and put a bullet in the back of my mother’s head—­I’ll take the new car with the warranty every time.

As much as I loved church, the idea of a nine-­hour slog, from mixed church to white church to black church then doubling back to white church again, was just too much to contemplate. It was bad enough in a car, but taking public transport would be twice as long and twice as hard. When the Volkswagen refused to start, inside my head I was praying, Please say we’ll just stay home. Please say we’ll just stay home. Then I glanced over to see the determined look on my mother’s face, her jaw set, and I knew I had a long day ahead of me.

“Come,” she said. “We’re going to catch minibuses.”

My mother is as stubborn as she is religious. Once her mind’s made up, that’s it. Indeed, obstacles that would normally lead a person to change their plans, like a car breaking down, only made her more determined to forge ahead.

“It’s the Devil,” she said about the stalled car. “The Devil doesn’t want us to go to church. That’s why we’ve got to catch minibuses.”

Whenever I found myself up against my mother’s faith-­based obstinacy, I would try, as respectfully as possible, to counter with an opposing point of view.

“Or,” I said, “the Lord knows that today we shouldn’t go to church, which is why he made sure the car wouldn’t start, so that we stay at home as a family and take a day of rest, because even the Lord rested.”

“Ah, that’s the Devil talking, Trevor.”

“No, because Jesus is in control, and if Jesus is in control and we pray to Jesus, he would let the car start, but he hasn’t, therefore—­”

“No, Trevor! Sometimes Jesus puts obstacles in your way to see if you overcome them. Like Job. This could be a test.”

“Ah! Yes, Mom. But the test could be to see if we’re willing to accept what has happened and stay at home and praise Jesus for his wisdom.”

“No. That’s the Devil talking. Now go change your clothes.”

“But Mom!”

“Trevor! Sun’qhela!”

Sun’qhela is a phrase with many shades of meaning. It says “don’t undermine me,” “don’t underestimate me,” and “just try me.” It’s a command and a threat, all at once. It’s a common thing for Xhosa parents to say to their kids. Any time I heard it I knew it meant the conversation was over, and if I uttered another word I was in for a hiding—­what we call a spanking.

At the time I attended a private Catholic school known as Maryvale College. I was the champion of the Maryvale sports day every single year, and my mother won the moms’ trophy every single year. Why? Because she was always chasing me to kick my ass, and I was always running not to get my ass kicked. Nobody ran like me and my mom. She wasn’t one of those “Come over here and get your hiding” type moms. She’d deliver it to you free of charge. She was a thrower, too. Whatever was next to her was coming at you. If it was something breakable, I had to catch it and put it down. If it broke, that would be my fault, too, and the ass-­kicking would be that much worse. If she threw a vase at me, I’d have to catch it, put it down, and then run. In a split second, I’d have to think, Is it valuable? Yes. Is it breakable? Yes. Catch it, put it down, now run.

We had a very Tom and Jerry relationship, me and my mom. She was the strict disciplinarian; I was naughty as shit. She would send me out to buy groceries, and I wouldn’t come right home because I’d be using the change from the milk and bread to play arcade games at the supermarket. I loved videogames. I was a master at Street Fighter. I could go forever on a single play. I’d drop a coin in, time would fly, and the next thing I knew there’d be a woman behind me with a belt. It was a race. I’d take off out the door and through the dusty streets of Eden Park, clambering over walls, ducking through backyards. It was a normal thing in our neighborhood. Everybody knew: that Trevor child would come through like a bat out of hell, and his mom would be right there behind him. She could go at a full sprint in high heels, but if she really wanted to come after me she had this thing where she’d kick her shoes off while still going at top speed. She’d do this weird move with her ankles and the heels would go flying and she wouldn’t even miss a step. That’s when I knew, Okay, she’s in turbo mode now.

When I was little she always caught me, but as I got older I got faster, and when speed failed her she’d use her wits. If I was about to get away she’d yell, “Stop! Thief!” She’d do this to her own child. In South Africa, nobody gets involved in other people’s business—unless it’s mob justice, and then everybody wants in. So she’d yell “Thief!” knowing it would bring the whole neighborhood out against me, and then I’d have strangers trying to grab me and tackle me, and I’d have to duck and dive and dodge them as well, all the while screaming, “I’m not a thief! I’m her son!”

The last thing I wanted to do that Sunday morning was climb into some crowded minibus, but the second I heard my mom say sun’qhela I knew my fate was sealed. She gathered up Andrew and we climbed out of the Volkswagen and went out to try to catch a ride.
open close TEACHER'S GUIDE


Please click on the PDF link at the bottom of this page to download the Teacher's Guide.

About the Book
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 lifeand- 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.
About the Author
Trevor Noah recently made his debut as the new host of the Emmy® and Peabody® Award– winning The Daily Show on Comedy Central. Noah joined The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in 2014 as a contributor. He continues to tour all over the world and has performed in front of sold out crowds at the Hammersmith Apollo in London and the Sydney Opera House in Australia as well as many U.S. cities. He is originally from South Africa.
Note to Teachers
Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood is a funny, honest collection that details the popular comedian’s coming of age in South Africa as apartheid ended. The son of a black mother and a white father, Noah regularly had to acclimate to a variety of fraught situations, forcing him to think critically about race and the country’s legacy of racism and colonialism. Throughout these experiences, Noah remained anchored by his mother, Patricia, whose aspirations for her son guaranteed that he would be able to rise above his meager beginnings. Ultimately, Noah’s text is a thoughtful account of what it means to forge one’s complex identity in a country that is grappling with its own attempts to come to terms with its legacy of injustice. Born A Crime is an important update and addendum to classic literary texts about apartheid, offering a relatable, contemporary perspective to readers.
Supporting the national Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in reading informational text for high school curriculums, Born a Crime is an appropriate selection for grades 11 and 12 in Language Arts or World History classes. At the college level, the book is appropriate for composition and literature classes, race studies, gender studies, and global studies, and it is also ideal for first-year/common reading programs.
In the section of this guide titled “Examining Content Using Common Core State Standards,” the prompts provide for a critical analysis of Born a Crime using the CCSS for Informational Text and for History for grades 11 and 12, and they are organized according to the standard they primarily support. In addition, at the end of each standard and the corresponding prompts, a classroom activity is provided that will enhance analysis of the text.
For a complete listing of the Standards, go to:
Pre-Reading Activities
Reading Born a Crime will be a richer and more meaningful experience for students if they first have an understanding of South Africa’s system of apartheid and its historic legacy. Students should devote some time to exploring resources that detail this history, and the role of South Africa’s National Party in the apartheid system, as this will enhance their overall understanding. Most importantly, centering Nelson Mandela’s importance in South Africa—particularly his role in ending apartheid—is key to having a rich context for the book. Additionally, understanding how race and racism function in South Africa is important for readers, as this knowledge will shed light on how people were placed into racial categories (an act that, as Noah describes, could be arbitrary) and then treated based on their category. It is also essential that readers understand how “coloreds” were discriminated against both during the apartheid era and during the various post-apartheid leaderships transitions, as this discrimination helps clarify the broader relevance of Noah’s story. Finally, having your readers analyze the work of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission provides a powerful framework for grappling with the devastating impact of apartheid.
Teachers can help students consider the stereotypes they might have about Africa and the origin of those stereotypes. After establishing ground rules for respectful dialogue, asking students to respond to prompts and pictures culled from the media is a constructive starting point for critical thinking about the origin of these perceptions and the problems that accompany stereotypes, leading to a strengths-based perspective of thinking about Africa. During this discussion, you may also wish to show the graphic “How Big is Africa?” to ensure that students understand that Africa is a large and diverse continent and not a single country. Additionally, examining maps of South Africa, its provinces, and major cities will help students have a basis for locating the places to which Noah refers. Teachers can also show Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” and lead students in a discussion about how stereotypes of all kinds are limiting. Finally, providing students with information about colonialism and its effects on Africa will further build their background knowledge.
Noah describes apartheid as “institutionalized racism.” It is important to foreground this concept, so students can then begin to evaluate its legacy. Students also might want to compare aspects of apartheid to systems of enslavement in the Americas. Thus, providing resources that help students to draw on evidence and make arguments will strengthen those comparisons (please consult the Resources section at the end of this guide for materials that can assist those conversations).
Under apartheid, interracial marriage was illegal. Noah begins his book with the Immorality Act of 1927. A close reading of the language of the Act invites an analysis of the severity of the law and helps students understand the risks Noah’s parents took simply in giving birth to Noah. Finally, Noah is the host of the popular Daily Show. After previewing an episode to judge appropriateness for students, teachers might choose to view clips to provide students with a dose of Noah’s humor. Additionally, watching excerpts or all of the documentary about Noah, You Laugh But It’s True, offers another resource for considering Noah’s experiences growing up in South Africa.
Born a Crime is ordered into sections that lend themselves to pre-reading and smaller units of study. Teachers might select one or two chapters to acquaint students with Noah’s voice, ideas, and themes. The book’s short chapters are ideal for close reading and mentor texts, and as prompts for students to do their own writing.
Examining Content Using Common Core State Standards
Key Ideas and Details
Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
How was Noah’s upbringing complicated by living in a “police state,” particularly as a colored child? What did he learn about apartheid, about how police treated whites as opposed to how they treated coloreds and other nonwhite people, and about the risk his parents took simply by having a child together? What specific examples from the text are most important to understanding his explanation of this aspect of his childhood—that is, growing up colored in the apartheid-era police state?
Noah describes languages in South Africa as a hierarchy, where “English comprehension is equated with intelligence” (p. 54). He explains: “I learned to use language like my mother did . . . It became a tool that served me my whole life” (p. 55). He even asserts that “language, even more than color, defines who you are to people” (p. 56). Do you agree with Noah’s assessment of the importance of language? What do his claims suggest about the power of language and the values placed on certain languages over others?
Despite his primary school teacher’s recommendation that he remain in the advanced, white dominated classes, Noah opts to take lower-level classes with black students instead. He writes, “With the black kids, I wasn’t constantly trying to be. With the black kids, I just was” (p. 59). What does this suggest about identity and belonging, especially in light of Noah’s interracial identity?
List all of the different neighborhoods in which Noah lived and their respective characteristics. In his own estimation, what were the advantages and disadvantages of each place? How did each location shape his identity? What does this suggest about the influence and importance of being grounded in a particular place and time (that is, why did it matter that he was a young colored boy in a white neighborhood during the post-apartheid era?) What lessons did he have to learn, growing up in that time and place?
Noah’s mother insists that he have a relationship with his father: “‘Because he’s a piece of you,’ she said, ‘and if you don’t find him you won’t find yourself’” (p. 101). Explore the importance of Noah’s decision to forge a relationship with his father, Robert. Focus on the moment when Robert shows him the scrapbook of Noah’s accomplishments, and then compare that to Noah’s assertion that “Being chosen is the greatest gift you can give to another human being” (p. 110).
What conclusions can you draw about what Noah learned from his friend Andrew? What was the value of what Noah learned outside of school, as compared to in school? Interpret Noah’s conclusion that “Working with Andrew was the first time in my life I realized you need someone from the privileged world to come to you and say, ‘Okay, here’s what you need, and here’s how it works’” (p. 190).
Noah is dismayed when his stepfather, Abel, begins abusing him and his mother. Noah also learns a hard lesson about how South African society viewed female domestic violence victims when he saw how the local police discredited his mother’s claims of abuse. Eventually, his mother leaves Abel after he nearly kills her. Discuss how you think this part of his life affected Noah’s future, particularly given his mother’s wishes for him to live a life better than her own. How did this experience of abuse shape him and his relationship with his mother?
Note all the ways in which Noah participated in the underground economy of Alexandra, from pirating music to selling CDs and DJing parties. How do his detailed descriptions of his time in Alexandra complicate your assumptions about crime and poverty? Consider Noah’s explanation: “The hood made me realize that crime succeeds because crime does the one thing the government doesn’t do: crime cares. Crime is grassroots. Crime looks for the young kids who need support and a lifting hand. Crime offers internship programs and summer jobs and opportunities for advancement. Crime gets involved in the community. Crime doesn’t discriminate” (p. 209). Do you agree with Noah’s opinion of crime as described here?
Classroom Activity
“My mother showed me what was possible,” Noah writes (p. 73). Noah’s mother offers him advice and lessons throughout his life. Collect these lessons and pieces of advice from throughout the book and evaluate them. Which ones seemed to benefit Noah most? Which ones did not? Collectively, what does his mother’s advice help the reader understand about their relationship? How did this advice impact his identity and sense of self?
Determine two or more central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to provide a complex analysis; provide an objective summary of the text.
Trace two or more of the following themes throughout the book, noting examples of where they appear in the text: masculinity, love, religion, role models, tradition, identity, education, discrimination, social class. Analyze each theme on its own, and then compare it to another theme, drawing on evidence from the text. Conclude what these themes suggest for Trevor’s development.
Noah prides himself on his ability to fit into a variety of situations and forge friendships with different groups of young people: “Ever the outsider, I created my own strange little world” (p. 139). He continues, “Since I belonged to no group I learned to move seamlessly between groups. I was a chameleon, still, a cultural chameleon” (p. 140). Before he decides to leave Alexandra, Noah realizes that, “Bongani and the other East Bank guys, because of where they were from, what they looked like—they just had very little hope . . . in the back of my mind I knew I had other options. I could leave. They couldn’t” (p. 224). Later, when he is in a prison holding cell, he concludes that “racism exists, and you have to pick a side. You can say that you don’t pick sides, but eventually life will force you to pick a side” (p. 240). Assess all the moments throughout the book where Noah acts like a chameleon, noting the benefits and costs of that ability to adapt to a number of situations.
Noah has an epiphany when, about to sell a stolen digital camera, he looks at the pictures on it and has second thoughts. He reflects, “In society, we do horrible things to one another because we don’t see the person it affects. We don’t see their face. We don’t see them as people. Which was the whole reason the hood was built in the first place, to keep the victims of apartheid out of sight and out of mind. Because if white people ever saw black people as human, they would see that slavery is unconscionable. We live in a world where we don’t see the ramification of what we do to others, because we don’t live with them” (pp. 221–22). What does this reflection suggest about the nature of guilt and how it influenced Noah’s development and maturation? More broadly, what do his words suggest about the legacy of racism for South Africans?
Classroom Activity
Noah explains his background as follows: “My mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, is black. My father, Robert, is white. . . . During apartheid, one of the worst crimes you could commit was having sexual relations with a person of another race. Needless to say, my parents committed that crime” (p. 21). Examine the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949, as well as its amendment in 1968 and repeal in 1986. Then conduct a Socratic seminar to discuss why such legislation existed and its impact on Noah’s upbringing.
Craft and Structure
Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.
Evaluate Noah’s use of humor to explain various instances in his life throughout the book. Discuss the overall impact of using humor, focusing on how humor enabled him to make friends and to get out of difficult situations. In this discussion, pinpoint certain words and phrases Noah uses to support the analysis of the use of humor.
New sections of the book begin with explanatory material ranging from historical documents to broader social and political commentaries about South Africa. Consider the function of these aspects of the book and then decide how this structure either supports or detracts from the work as a whole.
Noah’s memoirs begin with a story about his mother. These stories weave themselves throughout the book, concluding with a final story about her. Evaluate why he anchors the book with their relationship and the impact of this decision.
Classroom Activity
Noah provides a rich description of Alexandra, one that encourages considering the city from an assets-based perspective. Using pages 204–206, create a visual representation of Alexandra as he describes, supporting your decisions with textual evidence. Then, explain how Noah’s description of the city helps to understand the importance of the place on his identity and of the other South Africans who live there. Find supporting resources about Alexandra and apply them to understanding more about the city and its residents.
Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.
Black families who were relocated in order to create white-only settlements struggled to survive and thrive. Noah states, “So many black families spend all of their time trying to fix the problems of the past. That is the curse of being black and poor, and it is a curse that follows you from generation to generation. My mother calls it the ‘black tax.’ Because the generations who came before you have been pillaged, rather than being free to use your skills and education to move forward, you lose everything just trying to bring everyone behind you back up to zero” (p. 66). Spend some time researching the movement of races in South Africa post-apartheid, including which resettlements were voluntary and which were forced by the government. Where do Noah’s accounts resonate with other historical versions of these events, and where do his accounts diverge from them? How and why do you think these relocations impacted racial equality and upward mobility?
The men in Noah’s life included his father, Robert, and his stepfather, Abel. Noah also had a peer group of young men throughout his adolescence. Compare these relationships, noting the impact of each on Noah, particularly as related to models of masculinity. What did Noah learn from each of them? What are the challenges and benefits of each of these relationships for Noah?
Noah compares the teaching of the Holocaust to German students to the teaching of apartheid to South African students. He recalls: “In South Africa, the atrocities of apartheid have never been taught that way. We weren’t taught judgment or shame. . . . Facts, but not many, and never the emotional or moral dimension” (p. 185). Given his assertion, how does Born a Crime complicate how apartheid history might be taught, and why that history should include narratives like Noah’s? What does his account suggest about how historical memory is preserved for some groups and not for others? What does his story suggest about the importance of including an emotional or moral dimension in these historical accounts?
Classroom Activity
Research how the South African government determined whiteness, including the Pencil Test (see link in the Resources section at the end of this guide). Read other accounts of how race was determined in apartheid-era South Africa. What similarities and differences exist in these accounts? Then make an argument about how measures such as the Pencil Test either prove or disprove Trevor’s statement that “You were what the government said you were,” particularly for those who were multiracial (p. 119). What is the significance of these often arbitrary measures on people’s attempts to have agency over themselves and for the country’s broader goals of equality? What do the measures that governments take to prevent races from mixing suggest about race and racism? As an extension of this activity, consider how early census-takers in the United States implemented similar practices for determining race and how the policies derived from these practices impacted Americans.
Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.
Noah argues for a complete understanding of the atrocities and the legacies of apartheid in South Africa. When describing Alexandra, he compares it to the “slums in Mumbai or the favelas in Brazil” (p. 202). Review Jay Smooth’s video that explains institutionalized racism (see the Resources section at the end of this guide). Then, assess how institutionalized racism has affected Alexandra and other places in South Africa and what that racism suggests about the impact of upward mobility and the possibility of equality for black South Africans.
Classroom Activity
Hip-hop has been called a global movement for its ability to act as a platform for young people’s agency and to allow them to articulate their concerns. Noah describes how he used hip-hop to broker his entry into peer groups and events, and as a source of income. Select lyrics from a few global hip-hop artists and conduct a critical analysis of the lyrics. Additionally, draw on research from hip-hop scholars. Then present your findings in a three-column chart that notes similarities and differences in the text of the lyrics. Finally, present your own argument about hip-hop’s impact on global youth culture.
Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie. (2009). “The Danger of a Single Story.” TED Talk.
Apartheid Museum.
“How Big is Africa?”
“Mixed Marriages Act.” South End Museum.
Nelson Mandela Foundation.
“Racial Classification Under Apartheid.”
“What is Systemic Racism?” Race Forward video series.
“A Short History of of Coloured People in South Africa.”
South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Department of Justice.
Other Works of Interest
Alim, H. Samy. “How hip-hop culture is changing the wor(l)d.”
Brown, Anna. The changing categories the U.S. has used to measure race.
Clemens, Colleen. “Things Fall Apart: Texts for Young Adults.”
Cox, Fanshen. One Drop Of Love.
Fabian, Anthony. Skin. Film. BBC Films, 2008.
Hruby Powell, Patricia. Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights
Case. Chronicle Books, 2017.
Nichols, Jeff. Loving. Film. Focus Features, 2016.
About This Guide’s Writer
DR. KIMBERLY N. PARKER currently teaches English at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Cambridge, MA. She is the former president of the New England Association of Teachers of English and the former Secondary Representative at-large for the National Council of Teachers of English. Dr. Parker holds a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.