Before he became the superstar talk show host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah was working the comedy circuits in the US, building up his resume as one of comedy’s most incisive and curious contenders. Incisive because his brand of comedy explores racial topics from an insider’s deeply personal point of view, and curious because, as a South African who lived during apartheid — an experience of which much of his comedy is based on — he was unlike any other up-and-coming stand-up comic out there.
Since his time on The Daily Show, Noah’s comedy has focused mainly on the pertinent affairs of politics today. But the indelible experiences of his past are not readily sidelined; they’ve been parlayed into his memoir, Born a Crime, a history of a life living under racial divide.
Noah’s memoir, to be clear, mentions next to nothing of his life as a comedian, focusing on his growing up years with his single mother. Indeed, many stories deal with his amusing and often frustrating interactions with his mother, a deeply religious feminist who stubbornly defied much of South Africa’s apartheid rule, including laws regarding interracial relationships (Noah is of biracial parentage, his father a white Swiss-German).
Harrowing stories of near escapes from death are told with a sobering, clear eye. In a story told early on, Noah escapes, with his mother, from a deranged taxi driver who plans to take them on a murderous detour. In another harrowing account, a boyfriend of Noah’s mother retaliates against a crowd of bullies who have targeted Noah, resulting in a spectacle of sadistic violence that Noah would continue to see in his home life as a teenager.
Between the moments of strife, stories of a regular kid growing up amongst his peers are relayed with a kind of colloquial exchange; Noah’s biraciality causes some resistance in the cultural infrastructures of his education, but they don’t prevent him from acting up. Juvenile delinquency (stealing liquor chocolates from the mall, bringing knives to school) gives way to rash behaviour on either side of the law and Noah’s race (or rather, the indiscernible line between his two races) becomes, in the eyes of his indicters, some kind of annotation of the nature of his misdeeds.
A particularly revealing anecdote, in which Noah’s misdemeanors have been caught on surveillance, subtly exposes the racial hypocrisy in his everyday life. On the surveillance camera, his skin tone (as a light-skinned black man) is blown out in the footage, making him appear caucasian to the questioning authorities. It’s a moment which gives the young man pause, a sudden realization of how information is normally received and processed solely on the basis of visual data.
The most distressing recollections are those of his stepfather, which detail the familiar routines of childhood abuse. Noah oscillates between the stony and merciless discipline of his new stepdad and the memories and warmth of his biological father, who remains a shadowy figure in the backdrop of his youth, a life Noah still acknowledges as something of a mystery to this day. A life characterized by such struggles as the ones depicted here give true credence to the precept that much of comedy is built from the grounds of misery; as evidenced throughout the book and Noah’s stand-up routine, his approach to humour is one in which the laughs come from the altruistic facet of human nature.
Noah’s style of prose is plaintive yet pointed; he delivers, in equal turns, hilarity and solemn reflection with judicious measure. His binding thread is the lessons (sometimes painful, sometimes funny) that he learns in his constantly evolving relationship with his mother, who forges her own personal and difficult journey. However far he ventures and tests, Noah returns, again and again, to a source of maternal reasoning, which sees him transitioning beyond the perimeters of childhood.