Reading biographies from entertainers tends to be a mixed bag. Sometimes you truly get a view of someone’s winding road to fame; other times, you get the equivalent of your grandparents’ slideshow of their various trips to Yosemite. Rarely are they great literature. But what they always are, is a glimpse into a person who is speaking in a voice outside of what you see on a screen or on stage or from the annals of history. And sometimes, that voice resonates.
Trevor Noah had the unenviable task of taking over the helm of The Daily Show following the departure of its venerated creator and host, Jon Stewart. The show, lauded for its political satire, seemed an odd fit with this somewhat unknown comedian who wasn’t even American. Thankfully The Daily Show with Trevor Noah is still entertaining, still occasionally zings and snaps with a deeper stable of guests that is found on other late night talk shows.
Trevor does not hide the fact that he is from South Africa. But it wasn’t until I read Born a Crime that I realized just how far this young man had to come before landing his gig on American TV. Sure, he has related how his birth was literally an illegal act: apartheid was still the law of the land when he was born to a black mother and a white father in 1984, with their “illicit carnal intercourse” punishable under the Immorality Act of 1927. Having a mixed race child could have landed them both in jail, with Trevor becoming a ward of the state. But there is so much more to it than that: growing up in Soweto, a slum that became a city after apartheid ended. His not fitting in with the white kids, the black kids or the “colored” (mixed) kids. His feisty mother, who ruled over him with an iron will and an abiding relationship with Jesus. His absent father, and later, abusive stepfather. The lack of opportunity for blacks in South Africa, during apartheid, and perhaps more perniciously after it fell.
But Trevor does not spin a tale of woe. This was his life – he knew nothing else. In the book, he does not bemoan his state, nor does he glorify it; he simply relates what it was like for him growing up.
But in the telling, we learn as well as being entertained. Trevor does more than merely relate what happened to him – he tells stories. Some of them are harrowing, some are full of pathos, but most have an element of fun to them, even as they relate something far bigger. One of my favorite stories has to do with one of the young men in his “crew” – a dancer named Hitler.
Hitler is not an uncommon name in South Africa. During apartheid, black people generally had two names – a traditional African one, and a European one that their white masters could pronounce. These European names were fairly random and tended to come from figures in the Bible, or celebrities, or people from history. And, because blacks were not educated, they had no sense of the values of Western history; all they knew was that Hitler conjured up a sense of power. Since whites had to stoop to ask black people to help fight him, he must have been tough. “So if you want your dog to be tough, you name your dog Hitler. If you want your kid to be tough, you name your kid Hitler.”
The problem comes when Trevor and his crew are asked to perform at a cultural day at a Jewish school. Since Hitler is their best dancer, they bring him out with a flourish, accompanied by the mantra, “Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler!” Of course, the crowd is aghast, but Trevor has no idea why; he thinks it’s because their hip-hop moves are too suggestive for the uptight assembly. When asked pointedly to leave, they don’t merely leave – they dance out, with “Go Hitler!” echoing down the halls.
That story should be mortifying to me. But seen through the lens of Trevor Noah’s black post-apartheid perspective, it reads in an entirely different way; and told with his flirtatious and somewhat gleeful sense of humor, it’s downright amusing. And illuminating.
And frankly, it’s amazing to read about what Trevor Noah went through as a child, and reconcile those humble beginnings with the polished, intelligent, well spoken, genuinely sweet young man sitting behind The Daily Show desk. Yet there he is.
Born a Crime only takes us through the first years of Trevor’s life, before he got into show business and became the host of The Daily Show. But honestly, I can’t imagine any mundane Hollywood stuff would be nearly as compelling as the stories he gives us in Born a Crime. Because even though the voice we hear in Born a Crime is not one of glitz and glamour – quite the opposite – it’s truly a voice that resonates.