Many know Trevor Noah as the comedian who assumed hosting duties of “The Daily Show” when Jon Stewart stepped aside in 2015. Kudos to Stewart and his staff for bringing Noah to the show as a recurring contributor and grooming him for the hosting position.
Now in his mid-30s, the comedian began his career when he was 18 on a South African soap opera. With a quick wit, easy delivery, and good looks, he became an international star. He was the first South African to perform on “The Tonight Show” and “The Late Show with David Letterman.”
Honestly, I had no idea of any of this as I don’t follow the late night shows or the comedy circuit. What did catch my attention was his book Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. His writing is as entertaining as his wit. There’s a hint of Angela’s Ashes with this memoir, in the sense of finding humor in the horrible. However, Noah does more than share his own story, as astounding as it is. He provides a thoughtful and thought provoking view into the insane world of apartheid and the crazy parsing of race that consumed his country.
Noah’s mother, an extraordinary woman who defied being defined by any strictures — family or society — chose to be in a relationship with a Swiss-German man when she was working and living in Johannesburg. That she was black made this relationship illegal. The child she deliberately conceived with her lover was therefore a crime. She raised Trevor, though his father was part of his life. Noah writes of outings the family would take. Because the races were not allowed to mix, young Trevor, a colored, would trail his father, a white. His mother, a black, would trail him, none interacting with the other, as they had a day at the mall.
From his earliest memories, Noah recalls how he was kept inside when with his mother’s family, of the Xhosa tribe. His mother and he had returned to Soweto Township where race was carefully monitored. A colored child, if discovered in a black neighborhood, would be removed by the government.
Born a Crime provides powerful insights into the waning days of apartheid. Each chapter is preceded by an anecdote or an elaboration of law or custom that sets the context of a Noah memory. For example, prior to the chapter titled “Chameleon,” Noah writes:
Language brings with it an identity and a culture, or at least the perception of it. A shared language says, “We’re the same.” A language barrier says, “We’re different.” The architects of apartheid understood this. Part of the effort to divide black people was to make sure we were separated not just physically but by language as well. In the Bantu schools, children were only taught in their home language. Zulu kids learned in Zulu. Tswana kids learned in Tswana. Because of this, we’d fall in the trap the government had set for us and fight among ourselves, believing that we were different.
The great thing about language is that you can just as easily use it to do the opposite: convince people that they are the same. Racism teaches us that we are different because of the color of our skin. But because racism is stupid, it’s easily tricked….
Throughout, Noah shares stories of how he survived by upending the idea of color as a definition. Like his brilliant and very crafty mother, Noah spoke multiple languages fluently. He shares one moment that is illustrative of his thinking about color and culture. When he was tailed by a gang of Zulus who he heard plotting to beat up the colored kid, he turned to them and in perfect Zulu suggested that he join with them to find someone to mug. It took a moment for their brains to process the language coming from a not-black face, but language won out and Noah — the colored kid — "was embraced as one of their tribe."
“I learned to use language like my mother did. I would simulcast — give you the program in your own tongue. …I’d reply in whatever language they’d addressed me in, using the same accent they used. There would be a brief moment of confusion, and then the suspicious look would disappear. ‘Oh, okay. I thought you were a stranger. We’re good then.'"
Noah’s memoir has been hailed as a love letter to his mother. Indeed, it was a gift from my son knowing his mother would appreciate this book. But Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah is far from being a warmly nurturing mother. She fiercely loved her son and fiercely fought anyone — even him — who got in her way of what she wanted for him. Here we have shades of Angela’s Ashes with outrageous experiences like his mother tossing him from a moving car, living on caterpillars, shielding him from her black relations, an alcoholic stepfather, and a future preordained by an unrelentingly harsh environment. And always, always, invoking her intense faith that with Jesus they are a team that cannot be defeated.
He opens and ends the book with his mother at the center of the story. But throughout the body of the memoir, she is on the edges of his life as he learns how to find and define himself in a very cruel world — which is how she would have it. Noah was raised by one resilient woman. What she demanded of him was that level of grit that would propel him far from the dying grasp of apartheid and its violent aftermath.
For many years, I’ve played the “Famous Genius” game with kids and adults. Trevor Noah is a great example of a highly gifted mind and personality — illustrative of what Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory cites as verbal linguistic as well as interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences.
Educators should read this book as evidence that kids who do really bad things (like burn down a mansion), are really not bad kids. In reality, Trevor Noah is the poster boy for those kids on the edges who have extraordinary potential — the type of kid that gifted programs need to find and nurture.
Patricia, with her faith and sheer will, made sure Trevor had every opportunity she could find for him. Bright young man that he is, he took his strange life by the horns and whipped it into an international sensation.
I wrote a column, Book Notes, for many years for local central NJ weeklies. Newspapers are a dying breed, but the desire to share thoughts on books lives on.