Celebrating Trevor Noah by Karina M. Szczurek
15 Mar 2017
By Karina M. Szczurek
“Wow it looks even crazier on a news stand. Look mom, I’m on the cover of Time magazine,” Trevor Noah tweeted on 4 March.
Call it serendipity, but the very same day I was on Skype with my mother in Austria, showing her By, Die Burger’s Saturday supplement, with my face on the front page. And I was just as proud, sharing the moment with the person to whom it would mean the most: my mother. Admittedly, By is not Time – and I am by far not as accomplished or famous as Trevor Noah – but in both cases because of contributions to local culture and entertainment foreigners featured on the cover of a publication of note in a country they adopted as their own. I don’t know about Trevor Noah, but the honour made me feel I truly belonged.
In his recent memoir, Born a Crime (Pan Macmillan, 2016), Noah writes lovingly about the person who broadened his horizons: “my mother started her little project – me – at a time when she could not have known that apartheid would end. There was no reason to think it would end; it had seen generations come and go. I was nearly six when Mandela was released, ten before democracy finally came, yet she was preparing me to live a life of freedom long before we knew freedom would exist.” Others thought her “crazy” when she exposed young Noah to “ice rinks and drive-ins and suburbs”, all considered “izinto zabelungu – the things of white people. So many black people had internalised the logic of apartheid and made it their own. Why teach a black child white things? Neighbours and relatives used to pester my mom. ‘Why do all this? Why show him the world when he’s never going to leave the township?” In the long run, her answer led Noah to the cover of Time magazine; she taught him how to dream, dream big. “‘Because,’ she would say, ‘even if he never leaves the township, he will know that the township is not the world. If that is all I accomplish, I’ve done enough.”
Born a Crime opens with a chilling epigraph: the Immorality Act, No. 5 of 1927. Noah begins his moving memoir with the following paragraph: “The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all.” Noah’s story is worlds apart from my own, but I can really identify with it. It intrigues me how much his book resonates with me. Whether you grow up in a multicultural environment in one specific place, or move between different cultures and countries in the course of your life, you will share something overwhelmingly familiar with many people who go through similar experiences. To tap into this wealth of familiarity through literature helps us understand the plight and joys of others. It is exhilarating. It makes us feel less alone in the world.
Noah was indeed born a crime to a black mother and a white father when such unions were illegal. He grew up between worlds, negotiating different heritages and cultures, speaking different languages. His family was dirt poor. There was domestic violence. After years of abuse, Noah’s mother was shot and nearly killed by his stepfather. But she survived against all odds. Noah writes: “Food, or the access to food, was always the measure of how good or bad things were going in our lives. My mom would always say, ‘My job is to feed your body, feed your spirit, and feed your mind.’ That’s exactly what she did, and the way she found money for food and books was to spend absolutely nothing on anything else.” Throughout her life, Noah’s mother defied socio-political expectations, and she always insisted on books in the house. Not surprisingly, Noah is an avid reader. His imagination and creativity seem to know no bounds and took him across the world to the States where he became the host of the Daily Show.
I never knew Noah as a comedian until I read his book and soon after decided to watch one of his stand-up comedy shows on TV. I had a genuinely good laugh. But it is the writing that touched me: “language, even more than colour, defines who you are to people”, Noah writes. “So I became a chameleon. My colour didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my colour. If you spoke to me in isiZulu, I replied in isiZulu. If you spoke to me in Setswana, I replied to you in Setswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.”
And now, Trevor Noah is on the cover of the prestigious Time magazine, making Americans and the rest of the world laugh about their – and ultimately our – foibles and follies. How cool is that, mom?
(Image courtesy of Time Magazine via Connect)