Before Trevor Noah was taking comedic swipes at racism in America, he was a victim of it in Apartheid South Africa.
In his new memoir, Born A Crime, The Daily Show host reflects on his experience growing up the child of a black, Xhosa mother and a Swiss father when interracial relationships were illegal. So the title of his book isn’t just a rehash of an old joke — his birth really was a crime.
In an interview with NPR, Noah explained that his father was terrified of being caught with his son in public.
“My father was not holding my hand or anything because he couldn’t be seen to be the father of a mixed-race child,” Noah said when recounting a story from his childhood. “I’m running down the street and he’s running away because he doesn’t want us to get into trouble. I think I’m playing a game. What you don’t realize is that they’re basically running away from the law.”
Not only did racism impact his experience with the outside world — one in which he was never accepted — it infiltrated his own home. Later in the interview, Noah explained that his mother’s family treated him differently than his cousins.
“My grandmother and grandfather were very much from a world where they had been taught the importance of respect between the races,” he said. “So my own grandmother treated me as if I were a person of higher standing than they were.”
According to Noah, she wouldn’t even punish him the same way she did his cousins.
“I can’t hit him. He’s going to become black and blue and green,” he remembered her saying. “I don’t know what to do with white children…. I can’t hit white children.”
While Noah’s extended family plays a part in the story, Noah explains that Born A Crime is really a story about “a mother and son.” It’s a collection of essays about the experiences of Noah and his single mother, Patricia Noah, in a time when race, language, politics and religion were all used to separate black people from each other and from the rest of the white population.
The systematic racism of Apartheid meant that Ms. Noah and her son often lived in poverty. But that didn’t stop her from living her life as she wanted. (Later she would survive being shot in the face by her ex-husband.)
“My mother refused to be bound by ridiculous ideas of what black people couldn’t or shouldn’t do. She raised me as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do,” writes Noah in an excerpt published by The New York Times. “When I look back, I realize she raised me like a white kid — not white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was my oyster, that I should speak up for myself, that my ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered.”
“I find the funny in everything and go from there,” said Noah in a recent interview. “I think when it came to the book, putting those pieces together, the stories formed themselves. Life isn’t one-dimensional. It’s horrifying and funny at the same time.”
Born A Crime releases Nov. 15.