Trevor Noah is the host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central. He is also the author of a best-selling memoir about growing up in South Africa. It has been published in a young readers’ edition, It’s Trevor Noah: Born a Crime. (This book is recommended for ages 11 and up by Common Sense Media.)
Noah is the son of a black mother and a white father. His parents’ relationship was illegal under apartheid, a system of laws in South Africa that mandated the separation of races. In his memoir, Noah writes about how, for much of his early life, his parents hid him away indoors, where he spent his time reading and inventing imaginary worlds.
Most of all, It’s Trevor Noah: Born a Crime is a testament to the love and determination of his mother, Patricia. She taught her son to use wit and education to rise above poverty and racism. She named her son Trevor because it was “a name with no meaning whatsoever in South Africa, no precedent in my family,” he writes. “My mother wanted her child beholden to no fate. She wanted me to be free to go anywhere, do anything, be anyone.”
Noah sat down with TFK Kid Reporter Roman Peterson to talk about his memoir and about how a child under apartheid in South Africa rose to become a successful comedian.
STEPHEN BLUE FOR TIME FOR KIDS
So many kids were already reading the book. A lot of parents told me that they were reading it to their kids. They’d say, “Hey, we would love to give our kids the book, but parts of it are a little too complicated. If you could change some of the language, then every kid would be able to read the story.”
A lot of the book is about me as a young kid, growing up in South Africa and going to school. It made perfect sense to make a book for young readers who may be leading a similar life, just in a different country.
I loved fantasy. I loved Roald Dahl, especially “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I also love the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. My mom always made sure I had tons of books in the house. Even if I didn’t have the best toys, I had books. Books can take you anywhere. You can use your imagination.
When I was born, there were laws in South Africa that made it illegal for people of different skin colors to get married. My mother is a black woman, my father is a white man, and there is nothing wrong with people of different skin colors getting married. But at that time in South Africa, it was against the law. My parents didn’t care about those laws. They fell in love, and they had me. So even though there was nothing wrong with what they did, I was born a crime. My parents had to hide the fact that I was their child. Luckily, those laws have since changed in South Africa, so no one else has to be born a crime.
FAMILY TIES Trevor Noah's mother, Patricia, taught her son to use wit and education to rise above poverty and racism.
Apartheid was a system of laws that gave people different rights depending on the color of their skin. If you were white, you would live a different life from someone who was black or Asian, for example. Apartheid made no sense. We know there’s no difference between people based on skin color. But at that time, it was the law. It affected everything. Kids couldn’t go to school together if they were of different races. Apartheid determined what jobs you could get, whom you could marry, and where you could travel within the country—all because of the color of your skin. Thankfully, things have changed. But history reminds us of how people can hate each other based on nothing.
A lot of things happening in the world today are very similar to things that happened a long time ago. If we spend time remembering what happened before, we can try to make sure that bad things don’t happen again. It’s very similar to how we live our lives as people: If you remember touching the stove and getting burned, you don’t touch the stove again. It’s important for people to remember the bad things that happened in the past so they don’t repeat these things in the future.
When I was growing up, my mom and I moved around a lot. I always found myself in schools and neighborhoods where I didn’t fit in. I looked different from a lot of kids, and I often spoke differently. When you’re growing up, and even when you are older, you want to fit in. I had to learn how to fit in with other people, so they wouldn’t keep seeing me as an outsider. I had to learn how to speak other languages. I had to learn about different cultures. And I realized it was easier for me to change than it was to change the world I was living in. At first, this was a burden. But when I got older, I realized that this was a great lesson to learn. I learned to understand other people, so that I could help them understand me.
Unfortunately, even if you decide you don’t want to choose a side in an argument, the world is, at some point, going to force you to pick a side. The world will force you to live in a particular way. Take skin color: People will force you to live in a particular box [because of that]. Even if you feel that you don’t fit into that box, most of the time people want you to be in that box. When I was growing up, I never thought of myself as black or white. I didn’t identify with any race. My dad was white, my mom was black, but I didn’t see them like that. I just saw them as my dad and my mom.
When I got to a certain place in my life, I realized that I had to make decisions based on how those decisions were going to affect me. The easiest way to think of it is like sports teams at school. You might just see yourself as a baseball player or a basketball player. But at some point, someone is going to say to you, “Which team are you on?”
Not fitting in is sometimes the best thing that can happen to you. If everybody fits in, then what makes you special? If you feel that you don’t fit in, or feel like you’re a strange kid, make that strange thing your magic. For instance, Harry Potter didn’t fit into his world. That’s what made him magical. He found out that he was a wizard. Think about what makes you a wizard in your world, and don’t worry about fitting in, because the thing that makes you different might make you the most special person of all.
SMILE! TFK Kid Reporter Roman Peterson interviews Trevor Noah at the offices of The Daily Show, in New York City.
I became a comedian because I love to make people laugh. That started very young. I loved making kids laugh at school, making teachers laugh in class, making my parents laugh. And I loved making bullies laugh. Because when bullies were laughing, then they couldn’t punch me. I learned that making people laugh was a powerful tool for bringing people together.
That was a coincidence combined with luck and a lot of hard work. I was doing stand-up comedy in Africa for a very long time, and I would put my clips up on YouTube. One day, Jon Stewart [the previous host of The Daily Show] saw some of my clips and contacted me. He said, “I like your comedy, and I want you to come work at The Daily Show.” So I flew to America. One day, Stewart said he was leaving the show and needed a replacement. He said I should do it, the network agreed, and I became the host. It was like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
I’m really excited. Lupita Nyong’o from Black Panther is going to be working on the movie. She’s an amazing actress. It will be exciting to see her playing my mom in the movie.
That’s a good question. It will have to be somebody young. Hopefully, I can find someone in South Africa who reminds me of myself. Whoever it is, it’ll have to be someone who is as funny as I was when I was young, as cute as I was when I was young, and as naughty as I was when I was young.