Trevor Noah, best known as the host of The Daily Show, opened the 33rd edition of the Miami Book Fair with a surprisingly somber appearance Sunday evening that included almost no direct comment on the shocking and bruising results of the recent U.S. presidential election.
Yet his anecdotes and observations of growing up during the last years of South African apartheid held distinct resonance for the standing-room-only audience at Miami Dade College in downtown Miami.
“It’s frustrating for people who have been oppressed when you realize that freedom is just the beginning,” Noah said. “We think of it as the end, but it’s not. It falls at the feet of those who make the promises. The ANC (African National Congress) promised free housing, free everything. You will get to enjoy the spoils. Actually, what you have achieved is the opportunity to work for those spoils.”
Not that Noah, foremost a topical comedian, wasn’t funny from time to time. Asked if he had encountered racism in America after moving from South Africa, he said yes, but not that it had bothered him much. “I come from a place where we have some of the finest racism in the world,” Noah said. “You will struggle to shake me with racism here. Fortunately, none of the racial incidents have been physical.”
Adding that emotions are a choice, he said, “I don’t believe you can spoil my day by something you say.”
The subdued tone of the evening was set by Robert A. Weisberg, a distinguished civil rights lawyer and regional attorney for the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission, who conducted a Q&A with Noah onstage. Weisberg appeared overawed by Noah, even drawing a laugh from the audience with his earnest praise of Noah’s memoir, Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood, as “a phenomenal book. I’ve been engrossed the last couple of weeks. It’s poignant, scary, funny. I’ve learned a lot.”
At the outset, Weisberg said, “A lot of people have shed tears since last Tuesday and they are keenly interested in hearing Trevor’s take on it.” That was the last mention of the election that delivered the White House to populist outlier Donald Trump. Instead, Weisberg questioned Noah in detail about his book and his life as a biracial child (Swiss father, African mother) under the apartheid government.
Asked about the title, Noah noted that his birth, under South African “anti-miscegenation laws,” meant his very birth was a crime. When Weisberg asked how he interacted with his white dad and black mom, Noah said, “I interacted like a child. My parents did a great job of shielding me. Ignorance was bliss. I knew I had a father, who was white, but his race meant nothing. I thought fathers were white and uncles were black.”
The family could not be seen together. “My mother broke many laws. She rented a house in a white area,” Noah said. “She masqueraded as our maid. When she took me to the park, a lot of people just assumed she was the caretaker of this colored child. My father couldn’t be seen with us in public.”
Noah explained that in South Africa “colored” is a word that designates people of mixed race. “In the apartheid structure, people are convinced they aren’t achieving because another race is holding them back,” Noah said. “Now it is a white voice spreading that message. In South Africa, there were people who resented any part of themselves they associated with what they were told was inferior.”
Asked why his family did not escape to Switzerland, Noah said, “I asked my mom. Once I saw what Switzerland was, I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ But my mom said, ‘This is my country. I am not going to let someone chase me out of my country.’ I don’t know if I could be as strong as my mother was.”
Saying his mother taught him to challenge authority, to express himself no matter what, he added, “She brought me up as though I was going to live in world where I wasn’t going to be oppressed. It was an extreme gamble. She had no reason to believe the world would change.”
His mother taught him that there is always something new to learn, Noah said. She also taught him that every generation should be further forward than the one that came before it. Racism, Noah said, is not a cause but a symptom, and it comes from a place of fear. “The white man sees me, or the black man, as a threat to the dominance promised by their father or the leaders who came before. We shun people who aren’t being like us, when really they are being true to themselves.”
At 32, Noah is phenomenally successful, having been handpicked by Jon Stewart to take his chair on The Daily Show. He recently told the Washington Post, “Only an idiot would take that job after Jon Stewart, and I was that idiot.” Although he termed himself, without irony, “a citizen of the world,” Noah remains a proud South African.
“I’m proud to come from a country that did things no one thought could be done,” he said. “We had a bloodless revolution to end apartheid and move power from the minority to the majority. I come from an exceptional place.”
Monday evening the political tone continues, as Democratic strategist and commentator James Carville takes the Miami Book Fair stage at 6 p.m., followed by actor and LGBT activist Alan Cumming at 8. For more information, visit the book fair website at www.miamibookfair.com.