I like Trevor Noah. Though it was a little traumatic for me when Jon Stewart left the Daily Show, I think Noah did a good job. I appreciated his voice (his take on things), intelligence and talent. He is a good interviewer, quick on his feet and charming. When he performed locally, Gary and I went to see him, and we were very entertained. I laughed a lot. I recently read his memoir, Born a Crime, and I still appreciate his viewpoint, he has had unique life experiences as a mixed race person who grew up in South Africa as apartheid was being dismantled, but I will admit to discomfort with some passages of the book He recounts three experiences that troubled me.
I don’t want to focus on those three incidents without first acknowledging the insightful and compelling parts of the book.
It is quite startling to understand the reality that is reflected in the book’s title. Trevor Noah is the child of a Xhosa woman and Swiss father. Their union, they were not married and couldn’t be, was illegal in South Africa in 1984. Thus, his very existence was the result of a criminal act. It is hard to wrap my brain around that, and to realize that miscegenation was decriminalized only a couple of decades before that in the United States– in my lifetime. To some that may seem a long time ago, but when you consider how long it takes to really change hearts and minds, it isn’t that much time.
Noah details what that meant for his family. He couldn’t walk on the street with his father. Even walking with his mother was complicated since to some Noah appeared white or ‘colored,’ but not black like she was. He spent much of his childhood playing indoors.
Anyone who has watched Trevor Noah knows that he has a great facility for languages (he does uncanny imitations of different accents, too). He talks about the importance of language and how it acts as a double-edged sword. Language carries culture and values in its idioms and rules. It can bond people. He points out, though, that in South Africa, as of the writing of his book, there are 11 official languages, it can also be something that divides people. They may not understand each other and may not make the effort to understand each other. He recounts a number of instances where his ability to communicate in different languages got him out of trouble or helped make a connection.
He also writes insightfully about the cycle of poverty and how difficult it is to move beyond the circumstances one is born into. The pressures to conform which play out in a myriad of ways and the systematic barriers combine to keep people in their places. His mother is an unusual person, she was someone who saw beyond the imposed limitations and refused to be constrained by those expectations. Ultimately, Noah finds his way to a different life, but it takes him a bit to decide for himself that he wanted to do that. It is an interesting journey.
The book does not cover his emergence as a comedian in the United States. It only mentions his success in South Africa in passing. The focus is on his experience growing up as someone who navigated different worlds – the challenges he faced and the tools he used to do it. He also shares the impact that domestic violence had on him as he writes about his mother’s experience with an abusive man. It offers a compelling story.
One incident that left me uncomfortable was his cavalier response to the killing of his cat. He was a young child at the time, but older than 5. He had a black cat. He writes that he wasn’t that attached to it (given the nature of cats) and to some in his neighborhood black cats were associated with witchcraft. So when he finds it dead (and evidently tortured – I won’t go into details), he isn’t that surprised or upset. I found that disturbing. I would hope that one would have feelings for any creature that had been harmed, much less tortured. I couldn’t let him off the hook just because he was young. It struck me as odd, even if there are cultural differences in attitudes towards pets and cats in particular. If it is a reflection of a cultural difference, I can’t help but judge it.
Another thing that I thought reflected poorly on him involved an escapade with a close friend. They found a store in the local mall that when it was closed, and the grate was down, they could still reach in to snatch chocolates. They did this regularly until one time security saw them and gave chase. He and his friend ended up running in separate directions. Noah got away and his friend got caught. What bothered me is that Noah made no mention of feeling bad for his friend, in fact that friend is not mentioned again in the book. He was about 13 at the time. Maybe that was just a matter of editing – not closing the loop on that experience. But that lack of sympathy for his friend troubled me more than the stealing.
You may look at those two incidents and chalk them up to youth and credit him with writing honestly about his childhood. I appreciate that he wasn’t painting himself as some kind of hero. But, it raised questions about his capacity for empathy.
Part of the narrative he is telling is how endemic cutting corners and flouting the law is (buying and selling stolen items was common) and how it took him a while to see it and decide to go a different way. He does ultimately distance himself from those activities, but it took some close calls and hard realities to get him there. In offering insight into that, it is enlightening, and one can see that not everyone would or could emerge successfully from it.
The third episode was the most disturbing because he is writing this book years after the fact and he could have added a more informed perspective if he chose to, but he didn’t. The title of the chapter is “Go Hitler.” He explains that a buddy of his, who was a skilled dancer, had the first name Hitler. Apparently in South Africa, in the black community, this was not that unusual of a name (wow!). Noah goes on to say that their awareness of Hitler’s atrocities was limited – it wasn’t explored in school – he was seen as more of a strongman than as a perpetrator of genocide. While this is distressing for me to learn, it is useful to understand.
One of the things Noah did as a teenager to earn money was to DJ. He had a crew of dancers that performed with him, Hitler being the star dancer. Their final number involved him getting in the center of a circle and the other dancers and Noah chanting, “Go Hitler.” This didn’t trouble anyone when they did their act in the townships. They were invited to a competition at a Jewish day school, and they were doing fine until that number. Noah claims he didn’t understand why the atmosphere changed, why they pulled the plug, why they got yelled at. He thought it was for their suggestive dance movements. He was outraged that they were treated that way – since they had been invited specifically to showcase cultural diversity.
Writing about this years later, he doesn’t show much empathy or understanding. He says that the reason we know there were six million Jews killed is because Germany kept meticulous records. In Africa, when colonialists abused and killed native peoples, no records were kept, thus we have no numbers. He seems to suggest that if those records were kept, our attitude would be different. Maybe it would be. We should have more understanding of the brutality and exploitation inherent in the colonial system in Africa. That is a valid point, but it doesn’t negate the suffering of the Jews in Eastern Europe. It doesn’t mean that the students and staff at the Jewish day school shouldn’t react to hearing “Go Hitler.” Just reading the chapter title sent shivers down my spine.
I am not interested in comparing atrocities or competing to see who had it worse. One would hope, though, as a member of an oppressed, vicitimized people, Noah’s response would be compassion. How about, having learned now about Hitler’s evil, now understanding the nature of the genocide he would include a statement such as, “Now I understand their reaction; then I didn’t.” He doesn’t write anything of the sort.
I was not aware, until reading Noah’s book, about the history of South Africa. It was not included in the curriculum in my high school’s global history class. I am not an expert having read his book, after all it is one account. But, my eyes were opened to the reality of apartheid (not that I didn’t understand it was an unjust, despicable system before) and the complications involved in dismantling it. I also am now more aware of the different tribes that comprise the black community. The history of that country, once again, illustrates the capacity of human beings to be evil, selfish and ignorant.
I recommend reading Born A Crime. It is compelling and insightful. It raises challenging questions about how we educate ourselves. It is unrealistic for us to learn the history of every country. Clearly, we have problems agreeing on the history of the United States and what to teach our children, never mind trying to cover the history of the nations of the world. There aren’t enough hours in the day to learn it all. But, it speaks to the need to continue to learn, to continue to read and to be open to different perspectives – even when it is troubling.