FEBRUARY 18, 2017
WHEN AN AUTHOR opens his memoir with a scene of his mother pushing him from a moving vehicle, you know you’re in for a fascinating read. But Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, the autobiography of The Daily Show host Trevor Noah, intrigued me even before I got to the first chapter. “For my mother. My first fan. Thank you for making me a man,” the comedian wrote on his dedication page. Just how had Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah molded her Soweto-born?
We get our first sense as he recounts the incident with the moving vehicle. Nine-year-old Noah, his mother, and his infant brother are riding in a nearly empty minibus in South Africa when the driver begins driving recklessly. The driver has figured out that Ms. Noah is from a different tribe, and he is making threats. Just as Noah is nodding off, his mother pushes him out of the minibus, then jumps out with the baby:
“What was that?! Why are we running?!”
“What do you mean, ‘Why are we running?’ Those men were trying to kill us.”
“You never told me that! You just threw me out of the car!”
“I did tell you. Why didn’t you jump?”
“Jump?! I was asleep!”
“So I should have left you there for them to kill you?”
“At least they would have woken me up before they killed me.”
The book is filled with such funny exchanges between mother and son. In Born a Crime, the 33-year-old Noah is direct but never unfunny about growing up biracial in the post-apartheid era. His mother is an influential partner at every step along his journey. Noah writes: “I understood even from an early age that we weren’t just mother and son. We were a team.”
In many ways, Ms. Noah reminds me of African-American mothers I admire here in the States, black women who want better for their children and who teach them how to survive in a racist society — how to dream bigger and never let oppression define them.
As a black woman, I understand the burden of racism and gender discrimination and connect to Ms. Noah’s experience. She had to wrestle with the expectations and assumptions of a larger society, as well as of her own culture. Noah’s mom was a rebel. As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” And Ms. Noah’s son’s current success in the United States as the first nonwhite performer to helm the Comedy Central flagship series is testament to that.
Noah was born in 1984, literally the product of a crime, when apartheid’s anti-miscegenation laws made the interracial relationship of his black Xhosa mother and white Swiss-German father illegal. (His father’s name isn’t on Noah’s birth certificate.)
“Integration by its nature was a political act,” writes Noah, as he weaves through his mother’s constant attempts to thwart the apartheid law while working as a secretary and socializing in underground, racially mixed circles.
She used her underground connections to secretly rent a place in downtown Johannesburg — where black people were forbidden to reside, unless they were laborers. Prostitutes taught her how to disguise herself as a maid so that she could navigate through the after-curfew hours without the special ID most blacks were required to carry. If caught without identification after curfew, they could be fined or jailed. Sometimes Ms. Noah got caught and paid the fine. But she defiantly remained a resident in the area.
Throughout the book, Noah reveals many examples of his mother’s stubborn determination to prevent apartheid from suffocating her free spirit. Humor became a survival mechanism for both her and her son. In an interview with ABC’s Deborah Roberts, Noah said his family used laughter to get through the pain: “Laughter is an escape. I feel like laughter reminds you of your best self, your favorite self, your freest self.”
The idea, “laughing to keep from crying,” has been the title of works by a number of African-American writers from Langston Hughes to Lester Young. It’s something with which most black people in the United States, and the greater diaspora, can relate to in order to keep our heads above the oppression that tries to drown us. It’s what makes his hosting of The Daily Show, for all its criticisms, even more relevant now than ever because of Noah’s ability to bring his youthful exuberance and international perspective — he speaks six languages — to a generation trying to make sense of the United States’s current tumultuous state.
“If my mother had one goal, it was to free my mind,” Noah writes. Even before they knew apartheid would end, she wanted him to live freely. She took him to places that black South Africans considered “white things,” like ice rinks and the suburbs, “because even if he never leaves the ghetto, he will know that the ghetto is not the world. If that is all I accomplish, I’ve done enough.”
It was her aim, he writes, to keep him from internalizing his oppression, and to convince him that he was greater than social labels. This is a familiar narrative for those growing up in marginalized communities. My mom did the same for me as a kid growing up in Oakland, taking me to the library and museums, on tours of local college campuses, and showings of open houses in pricey neighborhoods. For my mother, being a black woman didn’t mean you couldn’t achieve greatness. Noah’s mother too gave him permission to dream beyond his circumstances.
Her tribal name, “Nombuyiselo,” translates as “she who gives back,” and Ms. Noah did that and more. She worked diligently to stay out of poverty and keep Noah in good schools. Because her son was of mixed-race, he often wasn’t allowed to go outside during apartheid because the police could have taken him away; sometimes she pretended to be his maid when they were in public.
No matter how dire things got, they never went without food or books. But even when things were good, his mother refused to spend money on pricey brand-name goods. As Noah writes:
We always wore secondhand clothes, from Goodwill stores or that were giveaways from white people at church. All the other kids at school got brands, Nike and Adidas. I never got brands. One time I asked my mom for Adidas sneakers. She came home with some knock off brand Abidas.
“Mom these are fake,” I said.
“I don’t see the difference.”
“Look at the logo. There are four stripes instead of three.”
“Lucky you,” she said. “You got one extra.”
In return for her hard work, Noah’s mother expected obedience. But Noah was hardly one to give it — and his Dennis the Menace antics boded well for a future in comedy. On one occasion he played with fireworks when he was told not to — his missing eyebrows and burnt hair gave him away.
After he was caught stealing a car, his mother laid down the law: “Everything I have ever done, I’ve done from a place of love. If I don’t punish you, the world will punish you even worse. The world doesn’t love you. If the police get you, the police don’t love you.”
But true love evaded his mother for much of her life. After the relationship with Noah’s father ended, Ms. Noah married a violent alcoholic who sometimes hit her and Noah. Police dismissed her complaints, often blaming her for provoking him. They shrugged it off: “These things happen sometimes.” His violence worsened over time, and Noah reveals how police failed to protect her from an incident more tragic: years after they divorced, Noah’s stepfather shot his mother in the head while she was returning home with family from church. Miraculously, she survived, and again relied on humor to assuage her rattled son:
“No, baby. Baby don’t cry. Trevor, listen. Listen to me.”
“What?” I said, tears streaming down my face.
“My child, you must look on the bright side.”
“Mom, you were shot in the face. There is no bright side.”
“Of course there is. Now you’re officially the best-looking person in the family.”
Research argues that South Africa has some of the highest rates of violence against women in the world. Meanwhile, here in the United States, black women suffer from domestic violence in far higher rates than their white counterparts and are three times more likely to die from domestic violence than white women.
The connection between the Noahs’ story in South Africa and what continues to happen here every day is not lost on me. Even as we admire the strength of black women — most especially black mothers — we often dismiss their suffering, their heartbreak, their need for protection.
But for all the pain, Born a Crime made me laugh — a lot. The love between Noah and his mother, and their resilience, left me inspired in these post-election days, when stories of hope and resistance are sorely needed.