Born a crime and other stories
Warm wisdom of Noah’s arc
Trevor Noah’s book opens with the Immorality Act, 1927 — the legislation that shaped his childhood experiences as an illegal person and his identity as an outsider.
Born to a black mother and a white, Swiss father who met in Hillbrow, Noah, 32, describes his early childhood and adolescence through 18 stories.
The host of The Daily Show could not have had a less likely upbringing. The leap from the poverty of his childhood and hustling of his late adolescence in SA to hosting the US’s iconic satirical news programme seems miraculous.
Many of the scenarios Noah describes will be only too familiar to many South Africans and Americans alike – racism, arrest, abuse, poverty and violence. But there is also joy, love, family and community, which Noah describes with warmth and humour.
Speaking in London on Saturday, Noah held the 2,000-strong audience spellbound. He was as entertaining live as he is on the page.
While Born A Crime reads as fairly matter of fact, unsentimental and devoid of self-pity, on stage he acknowledged his family had "been through a lot" and he displayed a wisdom that underpins his humour.
The book reduced me to tears of laughter and he kept his audience similarly amused, but he became serious at times — particularly when talking about domestic abuse.
In the final and darkest chapter of the book, Noah describes the increasing violence of his alcoholic stepfather which culminated in him shooting his mother in the head. She survived — a miracle according to her surgeon.
Noah warned the audience that abuse begins with small incidents such as a slap. His mother had repeatedly approached the police, who had refused to help her.
He had decided to share his family’s experiences as, unlike how many of the tabloids reported it, Noah wanted to tell the whole story.
"Shame," he said, "is a powerful tool that oppressors use to keep victims from claiming their justice. My mother said that the shame must go back to the person who did the crime."
Noah’s gift from his mother was that she taught him to laugh in the face of adversity. In the book he describes the hospital scene when she awoke from surgery following the shooting. Her head swathed in bandages, she told Noah he was now officially the best-looking member of the family. They laughed together amid the tears.
Noah’s humaneness radiated on stage. He spoke about the nuances of racism and how growing up in the final decade of apartheid was not just pain and suffering. There were also moments of joy.
Comedian’s poignant autobiography is also a slice of social history
Neither he nor his mother wanted to be defined by the constraints of apartheid. In fact, he said, as a teenager, "I didn’t care about racism and apartheid. I cared about my acne."
Being a mixed-race child, Noah was the incarnation of his parents’ "crime". His mother feared he would be removed to a coloured orphanage, so he spent much of his early years isolated from other children.
He had contact with his father but could not be seen in public with him. When visiting the park with his mother, she dressed as a domestic worker and walked a few steps behind a friend who pretended to be Noah’s mother.
In his book, Noah reflects on how apartheid perfected racism, dividing people not only along racial lines but also within communities.
"It created a world where I was superior to my black mother and inferior to my white father," he said.
There were benefits to being perceived as a white child in a black family. His grandmother wouldn’t beat him as she did his cousins.
Noah’s grandfather called him "mastah" and insisted the boy sit in the back seat of the car to be chauffeured.
At weekly prayer meetings, his grandmother would ask him to pray because he spoke English, the language of the Bible. She believed as a white person, his prayers would be answered first.
Noah identified as black, but many of his peers considered him an oddity. He describes his loneliness at high school, never fitting in with the black, white or coloured kids who perceived him as "other" to themselves.
He discovered that as an outsider, he could protect himself by opening up just the part of himself that people would accept — that part was humour.
He also learnt the power of language. He speaks six languages, his mother nine. Noah learnt that as an outsider, people perceived him as suspicious and that by speaking their language he could transform into something unthreatening.
"Maybe I didn’t look like you," he said, "but if I spoke like you, I was you." Noah describes himself as a chameleon, and as the stories unfold in the book, it becomes apparent how many "selves" he has inhabited.
Asked about the frightening events described in the book, Noah replied "when you grow up in a violent society, you don’t have time to think about the danger you are in".
Tales such as jumping from a moving taxi when the driver took a dislike to his mother and decided "to teach her a lesson" are chilling.
The abuse suffered in his teenage years at the hand of his stepfather is deeply moving. Yet Noah does not engage with how these events have affected him.
One of the few glimpses we get behind the stories is revealed when Noah writes that he spent so much time alone in his early childhood, than he even now has to remember to be with people. The irony, of course, is that four nights a week, he is with millions of people, amusing, educating and cajoling from their television screens.
Noah said he has sometimes had to pinch himself to believe he is presenting The Daily Show. He said he related to Roald Dahl’s character Charlie who, despite being an outsider, won the golden ticket and ended up running the chocolate factory.
Discussing his career as a comedian, Noah reflected on how different countries have influenced his work. He said while the UK had forged him as a comedian, the US had honed his performance.
SA had taught him to be blunt and brutally honest. "We don’t gloss things over," he said.
Born A Crime is not only the story of Noah’s coming of age. It is also a slice of social history in which he illustrates the circumstances that have restricted the lives of millions.
Noah said he had set out to write his book, but soon realised that his mother was in fact the hero of his stories and he was the sidekick. "It turned into a love letter to my mom," he told the audience.
He dedicates the book to his mother and thanks her for making him a man. She did more than that.
She instilled in him the belief that he could be anyone, go anywhere, speak his mind and be listened to. And so he has.