Born A Crime: Dickinson Common Reading

Recently, I participated in the third annual campus-wide Spring into the Semester Common Reading, where members of the Dickinson community have the opportunity to read a selected book over winter break and then participate in a discussion upon returning for the spring semester. This year, the book chosen by a committee of faculty, staff, and students was Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. I read the book over winter break, and on the first day of second semester, the discussion took place. Copies of the book were also distributed free of charge on a first-come, first-serve basis – which I happily took advantage of!

Like many other Dickinson students, I rarely have a chance to read for pleasure during the school year. I get pretty overwhelmed with class readings, and to be completely honest, by the end of the day I am so much more likely to watch Netflix to unwind than I am to read. So, breaks are the time when I do most of my non-syllabus reading – making participation in the annual group read over winter break the perfect option.

As a comedian who grew up during South African apartheid, Noah has a unique ability to write about his experience living under apartheid in a way that is still humorous. I am always so surprised when writers are able to make light of serious, horrific topics such as apartheid, but I think that doing so makes the topic accessible to people who wouldn’t otherwise be as interested in learning about a historical event.

Before the discussions began, Associate Professor of History Jeremy Ball, gave a quick overview of South African apartheid, as he teaches courses on apartheid and human rights. Dr. Ball also invited participants to ask for any historical clarification they may need about Born a Crime before breaking up into discussion groups. This year, about 80 people registered for the event. Several small groups were made for discussions, each of which were facilitated by Dickinson faculty and administrators. The conversations were semi-structured, as facilitators had questions prepared, but were open to letting the conversation take any direction based on the interests of the group.

During the discussion, one of my group members flagged the quote, “[w]hen you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, ‘I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.” This quote then propelled the group into a discussion about race in the United States and the role that language may or may not be able to play in bridging divides. Unlike the United States, which has no official language, South Africa has eleven official languages – making the role of language in South African culture quite a fascinating topic.

I really enjoyed participating in this year’s group read, and would absolutely encourage others to participate in the future. The event is sponsored by the Dickinson College Division of Academic Affairs, Human Resource Services, Division of Student Life, and the Waidner-Spahr Library. If interested in serving on the committee that will select the next “Spring into the Semester” group read, contact Donna Bickford or Jessica Howard.

Written by Julia Kagan ’21, WGRC student worker