MMS Grade 8 Students Explore Race, Prejudice, and Power from Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime

This school year, Manhattan Middle School Teacher Mr. Yassky introduced a new text to his eighth-grade language arts students—Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah, a biracial comedian and writer who hosts The Daily Show on Comedy Central.  

“It was important to me to select Born a Crime because my students always respond enthusiastically to narratives which present new perspectives,” said Mr. Yassky. “It tackles many issues the students have learned about or can relate to personally...His [Trevor Noah's] use of humor further allowed students to think about more sensitive and complex issues without being overwhelmed by the emotional intensity of the topic.” 

Although book lists at each grade level are refreshed frequently and in a variety of ways, last summer, the language arts department sought to introduce to each grade’s curriculum at least one new book that celebrated diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). For this selection, Coordinators of Language Arts Ms. FedeleMr. Fraser, and Ms. Golden previewed the Young Readers edition of Born a Crime last summer and worked together in conjunction with Westchester Middle School Teacher Ms. Kaneko to develop the curriculum surrounding the latest DEI selection for the eighth grade.  

The memoir discusses Apartheid in South Africa, which was a systematic approach to segregating and discriminating against people of African descent living in the nation. This provided a cross-curricular opportunity for students to connect their language arts book to lessons learned in social studies classes.  

“In class discussions, students made very compelling and intriguing observations about the similarities between Apartheid South Africa and the Jim Crow South in the United States,” said Mr. Yassky. “Students also made comparisons to Germany, which they have been learning about while studying World War II. In fact, many students were surprised to learn that Apartheid was based on and inspired by the racist ideologies of Adolf Hitler.” 

The eighth graders had a number of writing assignments to deepen their reading of Born a Crime, such as the role of women in the South African township of Soweto; describing Trevor Noah’s mother, Patricia; and a culminating essay about the impact of institutionalized racism on Trevor Noah’s relationship with his mother.  

Women were very important in Soweto because men were systematically targeted by the government and often imprisoned unjustly, so it was up to the women to manage the households, keep their children safe, and earn money to support their families. In this first writing assignment, the students practiced finding quotes from the book to support their argument on the topic. Because Trevor Noah’s memoir focuses so much on the role his mother played in his upbringing, Mr. Yassky challenged his students to focus on the ways in which Patricia shaped her son’s life. “My students were extremely perceptive in analyzing each of these examples,” said Mr. Yassky.  

“By the end of this unit, students demonstrated their complex and nuanced understandings of race, prejudice, and power, not only in American history, but also in the history of the world,” said Mr. Yassky.  

Pictured is Mr. Yassky teaching a class in September 2019.