The comedian and host of The Daily Show discusses his recent memoir Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood.
Comedian & Host Trevor Noah
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with the host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah. He’s out with a memoir called “Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood”. We are glad you’ve joined us. Trevor Noah’s here in just a moment.
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Tavis: Trevor Noah is one of comedy’s new voices. He is also the host, as you well know, of The Daily Show on Comedy Central.
Last week, he released a memoir titled “Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood” and it is my honor finally to turn the tables on him and have him as a guest on this program. I’ve been honored to be on your show a couple of times, but thank you for coming west for a change.
Trevor Noah: Thank you so much for having me.
Tavis: You doing all right, man?
Noah: I’m doing great. How are you doing?
Tavis: I’m doing the best I can, man. First of all, I’m glad I got you for the full show because there’s so much in here…
Noah: Thank you.
Tavis: That I want to get to. And there’s a lot of funny in here, and I promise we’ll get to the funny. But this title, which everybody’s talking about, Trevor Noah born a crime is a reference?
Noah: It’s a reference to me being born in the time when my parents went to Laos to get married. It’s a reference to me being born during a time when interracial relationships were outlawed in the country.
So for all intents and purposes, what my white father and Black mother did during South Africa was, you know, during South Africa’s apartheid laws, was a crime. So that’s where the title came from. You know, essentially, that’s the birth of my story, the beginning of that, but it’s by no means what defined my life.
Tavis: Yeah. It did not define your life for a lot of different reasons, which we’ll get to later in the conversation. But how did you not feel boxed in by that? I mean, when you’re born and you are a crime, I could see a lot of weight that comes with that. But you seem not to have taken that on.
Noah: No, but surprisingly not. You know, I like my mom. My mom was an amazing woman. She still is. And parents are really what shape a lot of your world. So for myself, I grew up in this world where I wasn’t born a crime in my world. I was born a crime according to the world, but in the world I lived in, I was chosen.
I was expected. I was prepared for. I was loved. I was accepted and I was accepted by the people that mattered most to me. So growing up as a kid, I didn’t know the rules. I didn’t know why I was hiding sometimes in the house, you know. They just told you to go do something. As a kid, that’s what you do.
If they tell you to go to the bedroom and, you know, sit near a closet or in a closet, that’s what you do. You know, if your mom says to you that you don’t walk with your dad in the street, you don’t ask any questions because that’s just what you do. So it’s not something that stuck with me.
In hindsight, I realize the gravity of the situation, but I’m really lucky that I was born on the cusp, you know. I was old enough to experience apartheid and the change in South Africa, but young enough to not be scarred by a lot of the memories and the realities of the country at the time.
Tavis: So here comes a funny story [laugh]. You were talking about how you were loved and how you were chosen. You felt all of that. You also were given some preferential treatment as a child.
Noah: I was.
Tavis: There’s a funny story about somebody who didn’t want to beat you because–I’ll let you tell the story. I cracked up when I read that [laugh].
Noah: Well, I mean, you know what was funny as a kid, I grew up in a world where genuinely I did not know that I was special because of my skin color. I didn’t feel that because my mom never told me that, which is good. But my country told everyone that.
So because of my skin color, I was considered superior to half of my family who was Black and then I was considered inferior to the other half of my family who was white. What that meant is my grandmother and my grandfather who had lived through apartheid for so long, they abided by the law.
So in their minds, they were like we have this little white kid in the house and we don’t hit him, we don’t treat him the same, you know. So my gran was petrified of hitting me. She would spank all the other kids in the family. You know, when you’re looking after the kids, my gran would do that.
But when it came to me, she used to say to my mom, “I can’t hit him. I don’t know what happens. You know, with Black children, I hit them and I know what’s gonna happen. With him, he turns blue and green and red and yellow. I don’t know what to do. I’m gonna kill a white child. I don’t know what to do.”
And this poor old African woman–but in my world, I was just Trevor. That’s all I was. So I thought I was the special child in that I was the favorite and I enjoyed that privilege, but I didn’t truly understand where it came from.
Tavis: And according to your own account, you were a pretty bad kid.
Noah: I was. I was a terror, man. I’ll never lie about that.
Tavis: And because you were spoiled? Because you could get away with it? Why were you so reckless as a baby?
Noah: My mom put it the best way. She just said I had tons of energy. And, you know, as they say in the bible, it’s just idle hands are the devil’s playground. So when my mom wasn’t around to run me into the ground, then I was gonna get up to something.
I was always trying to engage my mind. A lot of the time when we talk about kids that are naughty, I don’t think kids are actually naughty. They’re just trying to do something, you know.
If you don’t have money to be involved in extracurricular activities, if you don’t have drama, if you don’t have sports, if you don’t have–what do you do as a kid? You find your own extracurricular activities and that involves everything from shoplifting, to burning down houses, to whatever it is [laugh].
Tavis: It is fascinating to read–and I’m not surprised by this–it’s fascinating to read your story and to see the humor that you find in it in retrospect. But growing up in that, did you find humor in anything that was happening around you in that South Africa?
Noah: Definitely. You don’t find humor in it, but you use humor to get you through what’s happening. So my family laughed. My grandfather laughed. My grandmother laughed. You know, we lived in a world where, although there was so much pain around us, I always remember laughter in my house.
You know, the toughest times, no food, no electricity, no running water, people were still laughing. So it’s not that we found the humor in the situation. Humor was just, you know, that tool that we used to take ourselves out of it for a moment and remember who we were.
Tavis: Speaking of humor, there are some funny stories in the book about some of the names that your cousins were given and what those names actually mean. What’s not so funny, but I found to be quite profound, was why your mother specifically named you Trevor. Tell that story.
Noah: Well, in African culture as in many cultures around the world, a name is of utmost importance. You know, what you name your child oftentimes in parents’ viewpoint is what your child will be destined to become. So, you know, like my mother’s name is Nombuyiselo, which means “she who gives back”.
Tavis: I’m glad you said that, by the way [laugh]. I wasn’t gonna try that. I wasn’t even gonna try that tonight.
Noah: It’s not hard, actually. Then my aunt’s name is Sibongile. She’s the first born and Sibongile means “we’re grateful”. First-born child, you know, they were grateful. My uncle who was a last-born child and a surprise, his name is [inaudible], which means he was popped out of nowhere, you know.
So everyone’s name not only spoke to who they came as, but also who they turned out to be because my uncle still is like that. We disappears for weeks on end, then he pops up in the family. We don’t know where he is or what he’s doing. My mom is still heavily involved in giving back and employing people and finding ways to make things better in her world.
So my mom, when she gave me a name, was so worried that she would give me a gift or a curse by giving me a name with a definition. So she said, “I’m gonna call this child something that means nothing in our world, find a name that’s so obscure.” And, ironically, Trevor was that name.
In America, you find Trevor everywhere. But in South Africa at the time, Trevor wasn’t a common name. So she called me Trevor and she didn’t give me an African name for the specific purpose of she wanted me to exist beyond any of the constraints that even she may have had for me in her mind.
Tavis: And have you felt that freedom, that liberation, in your life?
Noah: Oh, yeah, definitely. Yeah, definitely. You know, I’m blessed, Tavis, in that my mom gave me one of the greatest gifts and that was the knowledge that there was more than me in the world. You know, the knowledge that may not be attainable, but I at least knew it existed. And that’s one of the greatest gifts that parents, I feel, should be giving their kids.
A lot of the time, parents condemn their kids to the world that they exist within, but don’t show them a world beyond themselves. Some parents may say, and I understand why, they may go, “What’s the point of showing this kid a life that he’ll never be able to attain?” I say, “Well, if they don’t know it exists, how can they aspire to it?”
You know, sometimes you limit yourself. People always say to me, they go, “Did you ever dream of having what you have? Did you ever dream of The Daily Show?” I say, “How could I dream of it? I didn’t know it existed.”
Sometimes when people say you should, you know, live to your dreams or people have these phrases, I go, “But your dreams are limited by your imagination.” So my mom made sure that I knew of worlds that I would probably never access, and yet I ended up doing just that.
Tavis: If my memory’s correct, you were about six when Mr. Mandela left prison?
Tavis: You were about 10 when he became the president. Do you remember those moments?
Noah: I remember.
Tavis: Yeah. Tell me more.
Noah: It’s funny. I remember those moments more than I remember some of my life stories because…
Noah: Madiba being released. I mean, that was, wow, it was an entire country just jubilant. An entire nation feeling a change. An entire nation feeling it wasn’t one man being freed. It felt like it was a nation being freed. So even as a kid watching it on TV, seeing the footage of him waving driving through the streets, you knew your parents are cheering in the living rooms. You could feel it.
You didn’t even truly understand. You just knew that that man meant everybody was free, you know. And every single Black person, every person in the township, there was a magic in the air. It was like, I guess, when I watched the footage of the O.J. verdict. It was that, but with no downsides [laugh].
Tavis: I was wondering where you were going with that [laugh].
Noah: So it was that feeling. That’s the closest thing I can explain. Just imagine everyone, everyone, feeling it, and I felt that. I mean, when 1994 came around, our first democratic elections, to see people embrace an election, there were lines that were stretching, hundreds and thousands of people…
Tavis: Miles, yeah.
Noah: You know, snaking. People who had never cast a ballot for the first time. I remember standing there with my parents. I didn’t even know what was going on. I just knew how proud people were to have that little ink on their fingers to show that they had made a choice, you know. It was a truly, truly magical time to live through.
Tavis: Let me detour, and I’ll come back. What do you make then of this experiment in democracy that your country’s enduring as if we have perfected it here? Clearly we have not, but what’s your assessment of what South Africa is doing with democracy?
Noah: Well, I think we’re on the right path. I think one of the best things about South Africa is we have honestly one of the best constitutions in the world, really well written. They took their time with it.
They made it applicable to all which was very important because it would have been easy just coming out of a racist state to now turn the racism on the oppressors. And yet they didn’t do that. South Africa has a very strong constitution. We have very good courts. We have a system that works.
Now, unfortunately, we’re struggling with corruption. We are struggling with people who are still using the system to benefit themselves, but that’s life. That’s politics. What’s great about it is we have a free press, something that we never used to have.
So if my president is conducting himself in a shady manner, we know about that. And I always tell people, “That’s exciting for me. The fact that we can know, the fact that I can talk about that onstage.” You know, there was no standup comedy before democracy in South Africa. There was no freedom of speech.
So all of those tenets of democracy are things that we are celebrating and appreciating. And I think one advantage we have over the United States–two really– is, one, because of our parliamentary system, it opens us up to viewpoints that exist beyond just left or right. There’s more nuance, you know.
You can choose how revolutionary you wish to be, and there’s a party that will support you and does that. If you’re looking for a complete revolution and a redistribution of wealth like Bernie Sanders, there’s a political party in South Africa that does that for you, and they’re gaining support.
But if you’re someone who’s more down the middle and you’ve got a liberal left, then you’ve got the ANC for you or you’ve got the DA. But what I do enjoy is we haven’t yet got into the point where political parties are like blood types.
Like in America, I’m still fascinated by how people support political parties like sports teams. You know, it’s like why are you on that team? Well, my daddy loved this team and my daddy’s daddy loved this team [laugh]. It’s like what do they do for you? It’s like I don’t–that’s just my team.
Now that they’ve got like Trump, that’s still your team? It’s like, well, I mean, if you notice, we’re gonna go through a few bad seasons, but that’s my team, man [laugh]. I’m like that’s not how politics is supposed to work. But, unfortunately, that’s where it’s gotten to in the U.S. and we don’t suffer that in South Africa.
We still have a long way to go, but anyone who ignores the progress we’ve made is being disingenuous because, for a country that had an exchange of power from a minority that was oppressive to the majority without massive bloodshed, without an Arab Spring type event, without a vacuum of power, without a mass exodus of wealth in the country, we still function. We’re still a powerhouse economically in Africa and I think we’re on the right track.
Tavis: Since you mentioned ANC, is the ANC in trouble? Are they losing strength? What’s the future of the ANC?
Noah: I think the future of the ANC is they are losing strength and they’re facing a crisis right now, and it’s good. Because you must understand the ANC was never a party. Essentially, the ANC in order to overthrow the government, they had to bring in all different ideologies. You know, they had communists and they had socialists and they had capitalists, everyone under one umbrella.
And that works well for a revolution, but at some point, the revolution is over and now you have to start building a country. And I think the ANC is facing a crisis now where they go is the loyalty of the electorates to the ANC or is to the country? And they’re starting to realize that it’s to the country.
And I think it’s for the benefit of South Africa that we don’t have one party that controls power indefinitely. It’s better to have a vibrant democracy where the voters are the winners after every election because that vote needs to have some power.
You need to go if you’re not delivering, I’m going somewhere else, you know. I’m taking my vote dollars and I’m gonna spend them somewhere else. And that’s a thing, I think, that keeps a democracy thriving.
Tavis: I mention the TRC because it is to me the grandest example, I think, the world over of man’s humanity to man as opposed to man’s inhumanity to man. I referenced the TRC in a piece I wrote this week for Time Magazine which I won’t get into, but I was trying to make the point about what we need to do post our election.
We need to have our version of TRC where the wrongdoers in this campaign who created this mess need to just come and confess so we can start the healing process. You take the point I was trying to make, but here I was in this piece reaching for this example of the TRC.
What’s your sense, being South African, of the power that was so present in that decision to establish this Truth and Reconciliation Commission?
Noah: You don’t even have to dig deep into it. Everything it says there is really what it achieved as a purpose. Truth, Reconciliation. Now reconciling is very difficult. You know, not everyone will forgive you for what you’ve done. Not everyone should be forced to forgive.
It’s very tough to be in a world where police have killed your loved ones or they’ve hidden the reasons of death. You know, they’ve stolen family members, kidnapped them and then, you know, just disposed of their bodies.
Those are things that are really tough to deal with, and reconciling is up to each individual. You cannot prescribe that. But truth is a powerful and important tool that we had and what truth did in South Africa was during the TRC, the truth had to come out. It couldn’t be swept under the rug.
It couldn’t be forgotten. It had to be a discussion that was had. It had to be people sitting on TV, those that had worked for the police state. And by the way, both Black and white. A lot of people don’t remember that, you know.
There were also Black people who worked under the oppressive government to basically enslave their fellow man, and they had to come and confess to what they had done. Murders, torture, all of this, and the country watched it. And what I felt the importance of that was is that there was no denying what had happened. You know, there are still, obviously, people who will deny.
You’ll always have deniers with any tragedy in the world, but for the most part, everyone had to acknowledge that this is where we’ve come from and this is what certain people did to other people. And having that, having families go, “I’m not crazy. My son was murdered by the police, he wasn’t the criminal they said he was”, those small things move you forward.
And I always envied that on behalf of the United States because I go, “In the U.S., it always feels like the winner takes all, but there is no reconciling afterwards.” The winner dictates, you know.
I always read through history and I’m fascinated by what happened in the south and I go, “So let me understand this. It ended and then you didn’t convince them that slavery was bad? You just said it’s over?” And people were like, “Yeah.” But you need to convince the person and that’s what I talk about in the book is how we had to sit and reckon with that as a nation.
We had to go through that feeling together because essentially what happens is, A, yes, there is guilt and, yes, the people have to deal with the fact that they’ve done what they’ve done. But more importantly, as a person who’s being oppressed, you don’t feel crazy. And that’s one of the most liberating feelings. It’s just going, “Okay, I’m not crazy.”
Tavis: There is a funny story. It didn’t start out as funny, but it ended funny, to me at least in my read of it. The story where you were walking down the street one day and some guys were behind you and they were about to mug you.
Tavis: Tell the story and how you got out of that.
Noah: Well, I mean, growing up in South Africa, you know crime was always around the corner. So you’re always on the lookout. You’re always alert. That’s one thing that stayed with me till this day. I’m not comfortable in the streets if I’m walking. It’s hard for you. You know, like I always meet friends of mine in New York or stuff and I’ll walk up and tap them and they’d be, “Oh, I didn’t see you.”
I’m like, “You don’t understand how many things I could have done to you [laugh]. What do you mean, you didn’t see me?” I see everybody and that’s because I grew up in a world where violence was always something that was a possibility, unfortunately.
So one day I was walking through the streets and there were a group of guys behind me and I overheard them. They were talking about how they were gonna mug me, but they were speaking in another language.
They were speaking Zulu, clearly not thinking that I could speak their language because of my skin color. They’re talking amongst themselves and the guys are like, “All right, you go cross the road and then you’re gonna flank him and then we’ll cut him off on the other side and we’ll get him on the next block.”
I realized I don’t think I’m gonna move quick enough. They’re so close. I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I don’t even know what the plan is. So in a moment of, I guess, just panic, I turned around and I said to them in their language, “Hey, guys, so what’s going on? Why you robbing me? Why don’t we just rob someone together?”
And their faces changed [laugh]. You could see they were just like, “Oh! Oh, man, my bad.” They were like, “Oh, dude, I thought you were white. My bad, man. We weren’t trying to rob you. Oh, man, that’s so funny. You understand what happened? We thought you were some other dude, we were gonna rough…”
It was amazing to me how in that moment, I realized two things. One, you know, just language all of a sudden gives you access to a team. It gives you access to a club. Language and accents open you up to other people and sometimes closes you off as you see with everything from immigration through to just how people relate to each other in communities.
But it also showed me something that was more powerful, and that’s like a theme that I try and write about during the book, and that is a lot of the time we do things to each other in the world because we don’t see each other.
We don’t see each other as being people. We see each other as ideas, but not as people. What I mean about that is like, for instance, it’s one of the core principles in African culture is you have to see another human being.
You know, in Zulu, the greeting is “Sawubona” and it means “I still see you.” That’s our greeting. It’s not hello. It’s I still see you. And the importance of that is just that, acknowledging another human being’s existence. And oftentimes, I find that’s why we do the things we do in the world. It’s easier to do it when you don’t believe that those people exist in your world.
America’s a great example. You look at how anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-Muslim sentiment, is at its highest in places where there are no Muslims, which seems counter to what it should be. It should be people going, “I hate them because I know them” and yet here it’s people going, “I hate them.” It’s like “Have you met one?” “I don’t need to meet them to know that I hate them.” It’s like, “No, you do, you do.”
Whereas, in communities where people know a Muslim person, people know a Black person, people know another person, they’re less likely to see that as a monolith and they’re less likely to believe a lie that has been fed to them. They see people. They see people that are like them.
Tavis: This won’t mean anything to anybody, but every time you say Zulu, for some reason, I think about this name. I never met this guy. I met Mandela, but not this guy, but I always loved his name, Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
Noah: Oh, yes [laugh].
Tavis: I just love that name [laugh]. I couldn’t say your mama’s name, but I just love saying his name.
Noah: That’s great that you–that is a great name.
Tavis: I just love saying that name. So I got two minutes to go and I’d be remiss if I had the host of The Daily Show and didn’t ask him how you are processing what happened two weeks ago.
Noah: Look, I’m shocked because I got tricked by a lot of smart people.
Tavis: Didn’t we all [laugh]?
Noah: So let me tell you what happened to me. I’ll tell you real quick.
Tavis: All right.
Noah: I came to America and immediately I related to Donald Trump. I saw the dude and I was like, “This guy reminds me of home, man.” I was like, “I see him, I see Africa, I see a third world leader. This guy’s got flair. I can see what he’s doing.”
And people were like, “Yeah, but in America, that silly summer man. We’re not gonna vote for him. He’s gonna disappear.” And every time I saw him, I was like I can see how he’d connect with people. And people said, “Yo, you don’t get it. You’re new. You’re gonna learn.”
So I suppressed that idea. But every time I saw Trump speak, every time I saw him, I realized what he was doing and who he was. Now I’ve come to realize it’s not processing the information. It’s rather unlocking information I already had.
Like I’m used to this world. I’m used to a world where a leader has conflicts of interest in terms of business. I’m used to a world where a leader has family members who stand to benefit tremendously from their political clout.
I’m used to a world where a leader has people working for him who may not have the best interest of the country at heart. So this is now me going like, “Oh, oh. Now I’m home [laugh]. I get it, I get it. I understand a lot of it.”
Tavis: This is all your fault. If you had just told us this every night on The Daily Show…
Noah: I told people. They didn’t listen. I told people [laugh].
Tavis: His name, as you well know, is Trevor Noah. His book is called “Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood”. I’ve just tried to give you a flavor of what’s in this beautifully written book, but I think you will be inspired, empowered, and find it funny. It’s a wonderful story of overcoming. Trevor, you’re a great man, and I’m honored to have you on.
Noah: Thank you so much for having me.
Tavis: Thank you, my friend.
Noah: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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