There are many extraordinary aspects of Trevor Noah’s life, but the first one, the foundational one, is stated right on the cover of his memoir, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. In his memoir, Noah recounts his life as a mixed-race child in a country that made his very existence illegal. Born a Crime makes the perfect addition to units on themes relating to racism, coming of age, identity, and overcoming adversity. Students will find common elements between the history of racism in South Africa and in the United States, and they will relate to the awkwardness that Noah experienced as he navigated the teen years and tried to find his place in the world.

Trevor Noah’s memoir begins with the Immorality Act of 1927, which made the union of his parents punishable with a prison sentence. Noah explains apartheid, its aftermath, and how it affected his life. Beginning the unit with an extended lesson on apartheid, and the importance of Nelson Mandela’s role in ending it, will give students a deeper understanding of South Africa’s history and how the government used racism and colonialism to maintain white rule.

This coming-of-age story is told with Noah’s characteristic humor, but the adverse conditions under which he grew up are clear. In addition to apartheid, there are many topics that can be explored through class discussion and writing prompts: identity, the cycle of poverty, religion, education, love, community, and how Noah became who he is today through his experiences. A creative way to connect these topics and reinforce meaning is to have students make a collage that represents each of these elements to form a cohesive picture of Noah’s formative years.

One of the most prominent themes in the memoir is the bond between Noah and his mother and how her unconditional love and life lessons gave Noah the support he needed to not only survive, but also set goals for himself and succeed against the odds. Students can relate this lesson to their own lives by listing several goals for themselves and explaining how they plan to achieve those goals. They can also write a paragraph on someone they look to as a role model or whose love and guidance has had a profound effect on them. In addition, students will get an even broader picture of how Noah reached his goals by researching his life after the events at the end of the memoir—how he became a stand-up comedian and the host of The Daily Show.

Read on to learn more about teaching Born a Crime!

Summary of Born a Crime

Key Facts

  • Publication Date: 2016
  • Length: 304
  • Lexile Measure: HL770L
  • Recommended Grade Band: 11-12
  • 2017 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work by a Debut Author and in the Biography/Autobiography category; #1 New York Times Bestseller

Trevor Noah was born to a white Swiss father and a Black Xhosa mother in South Africa during apartheid, when the Immorality Act of 1927 was in force and made his birth illegal. Noah uses humor to retell stories from his childhood in a way that gives readers an understanding of what life was like for a mixed-race child during an oppressive government rule.

Through eighteen chapters of personal essays, Noah recalls with honesty and humor family drama and trauma, racial and political injustice, poverty, resilience, the importance of language, relationships, finding his identity, and much more. The memoir covers Noah’s birth through his teen years and ends with a shocking event: when his stepfather shot and nearly killed his mother.

Content Warning: Born a Crime includes descriptions of domestic violence and other types of abuse, such as bullying. There are also instances of coarse language.

What Your Students Will Love About Born a Crime

  • Trevor Noah’s sense of humor in recounting both positive and negative experiences
  • Short essays and plain language that make for easy reading

Potential Student Struggles With Born a Crime

  • The harsh realities of apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa
  • Potentially triggering subject matter

Learning Objectives for Born a Crime

  • Understand the history of South Africa, particularly in reference to the Immorality Act of 1927 and apartheid
  • Examine the role of religion in Noah’s family
  • Explain how education and language helped Noah overcome obstacles
  • Discuss how Noah’s resourcefulness, determination, and participation in illegal activities contributed to his rise from poverty
  • Describe Noah’s relationships with his mother, grandmother, father, and stepfather and their importance to him, the influence they had on his life, and how they helped shape his identity and concepts of love
  • Note how others perceived Noah’s skin color and how their perceptions affected how they treated him

Literary Elements in Born a Crime

  • Allusion
  • Coming of Age
  • Conflict
  • Dark Humor
  • First-person Narration
  • Memoir
  • Metaphor
  • Simile
  • And more!

Major Themes in Born a Crime

Racism and Identity — As the mixed-raced child of an illegal union during apartheid, Noah never knew anything but racism and classism. Noah was forced to determine who he was and where he fit in a society in which there seemed to be no place for him.

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Overcoming Adversity — Noah faced not only discrimination, but also poverty and domestic violence. He used his intelligence and determination to rise above his circumstances to become a successful comedian and the host of The Daily Show.

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Family — All the people in Noah’s life influenced him in some way, but none more than his mother, Patricia, who taught Noah to believe in and fight for the possibilities in life.

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Other Resources for Born a Crime

Order Born a Crime Resources from Prestwick House

Resource Format
Born a Crime Paperback Student Edition