Trevor Noah’s memoir of his childhood in South Africa is compelling reading for anyone who wants to know more about South Africa and apartheid. At times humorous, and at times devastating, Noah brings his unique voice to this story. He writes like he speaks, and many times in this book it felt like I was hearing him narrate. I appreciated this book for how much information it conveys, and because it’s told in a way that’s understandable and sympathetic. Noah clearly isn’t just trying to entertain; he wants us to understand his native country.
You may know him already as the host of The Daily Show. Noah was born in South Africa in 1984, at a time when apartheid was in full force. Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and apartheid was abolished in 1991.
As the title suggests, Noah was born from the illegal relationship of his black Xhosa mother, and his Swiss father. Children of mixed race were strictly illegal, yet his mother deliberately set out to conceive him. Noah’s mother is really the star of this memoir, and clearly his strongest inspiration. She defies societal rules about what she can do, who she can talk to, and where she can live. But tragedy is ahead, as Noah tells us early on in the book that she will be shot by her abusive husband.
There are very dark moments in this book, but they are told in a matter-of-fact way that doesn’t make light of the issues. Noah grows up in a time when the color of his face defines what he can do and how he is treated. By some black people he’s treated with more deference, but white society sees him as evidence of a crime, which means for years he can’t be seen in public with either his white father or his black mother.
As he gets older, and after apartheid is abolished, he struggles to fit in with all racial groups. He grows up in a black family so he feels closer to them, but he isn’t one of them. He learns over time to reach out to all three groups, and often it feels he’s always playing a part, but he learns adaptability and that people of all races have something to offer. As an outsider, he sees the things that divide different groups of people, and he focuses on learning their languages so he can communicate with them.
Nelson Mandela once said, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’ He was so right. When 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.’
His mother encourages him to take advantage of educational opportunities that are offered to him in part because of his racial status. But if you’re thinking this is the story of a serious, hard-working student who succeeds against all odds, you’d be wrong. Noah succeeds because of his strength, creativity and humor, but isn’t always a nice kid, or a good student, or a law-abiding citizen. He isn’t always nice to his mom. He spends most of his teen years learning how to bootleg music and sell pirated CDs. Oh, and he actually burns a house down. By not making himself out to be the perfect kid, you feel like he’s telling you the truth.
You should know this also isn’t a “how I became a comedian” story, since he spends more time talking about DJ’ing and mixing music than about comedy. We don’t learn much about how that leads to national and then international success as a comedian.
In one memorable chapter Noah explains how black people name their children in South Africa. They receive a black name that is deeply meaningful, and a white name that means nothing, maybe something picked out of a newspaper headline. For example, Hitler is a not-uncommon name.
The name Hitler does not offend a black South African because Hitler is not the worst thing a black South African can imagine. Every country thinks their history is the most important, and that’s especially true in the West. But if black South Africans could go back in time and kill one person, Cecil Rhodes would come up before Hitler. If people in the Congo could go back in time and kill one person, Belgium’s King Leopold would come way before Hitler. If Native Americans could go back in time and kill one person, it would probably be Christopher Columbus or Andrew Jackson.
In fact, Noah has a good friend named Hitler, which doesn’t raise any eyebrows until he and his friends are asked to perform at a multicultural event at a conservative Jewish school. I won’t tell you more than that, but if anyone can make Hitler funny, it’s Noah.
So it’s not all tragedy. Noah moves easily from telling us about the humiliation of his senior prom to describing a time he had to live out of a garage and sleep in cars. He endures great poverty and racism, but also encounters love, friendship, and inspiration. I was moved by his enduring relationship with his birth father, which is greatly restricted first by apartheid, and second by Noah’s stepfather.
There are times the book is a little hard to follow, for the reason that it’s written more thematically than chronologically, although he does move us from birth to childhood to young adulthood. Throughout the book I found I had to pay attention to where he is and how old he is, in order to put it all together, but that’s not too much to ask of a reader.
This book gave me great insights into Noah’s character and South Africa’s history. He reminds us how little Western audiences (maybe American audiences in particular) know about apartheid. It’s clever, funny, informative, and emotional. It’s a book I highly recommend.