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.
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1. How much did you know about apartheid before reading this book? Were there any details that surprised you?
2. Noah's mother is a strong woman who taught her son to respect women, and yet she ended up marrying a man who physically abused her, Noah, and his younger brother. Discuss these contradictions, and the effect they had on young Noah.
3. Trevor explains that under apartheid, the coexistence of multiple languages promoted division and oppression. How did Trevor and his mother use language to cross legal and social boundaries and navigate challenging situations? How can language create both barriers and a sense of unity? Have you had a time when language acted as a barrier to working with others?
4. At multiple points throughout the book, Noah injects a bit of historical information about apartheid and South Africa between anecdotes. These moments are important to understanding the context of Noah's experiences. As he points out, he was not taught about apartheid in a formal way, the way that German children learn about the Holocaust. Discuss the importance of reading personal stories about injustices and big moments in history. What, if anything, do you think is Noah's message about apartheid?
5. Noah's story and struggles deal with big topics that aren't really all that funny: apartheid, racism, poverty, domestic abuse, crime, and danger. And yet, most readers would agree that this is a very funny book. How do you think that Noah is able to maintain such a good sense of humor about these circumstances?
6. Noah describes with hilarious detail, an incident that happened when he was home along with his great-grandmother (Koko) and didn’t want to use the outhouse. Which incidents, friends, family, or family members described in Born a Crime are most memorable to you? Do any of his stories/comments challenge your beliefs?