Trevor Noah on His Mother and Donald Trump in Discussion at the Music Box

The last day of the Chicago Humanities Festival ended at the Music Box Theatre with a discussion between the “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah and the editor of his memoir, Chris Jackson. People excitedly gripped their copies of the newly published Born a Crime as they entered the sold-out event, but the recent election results loomed over the evening.

Noah began the talk by saying he thinks the purpose of the Daily Show is “to make sense of the world live in.” And he began to make sense of the recent election results by saying “one of my biggest strengths is being an idiot.” The audience chuckled at this silly statement made by a very smart man. Then he added, “in an idiot’s world, anything is possible.”

That's because the idiot thinks outside the world of logic. Just like “seeing how Donald Trump could be elected,” Noah said.

But it turns out Noah was already familiar with Trump-like leaders.

Jacob Zuma was sworn in as President of South Africa in 2009. When Zuma campaigned, he appealed to the uneducated, he left the imprints of fraud in his footsteps, and he constantly claimed “the media is lying.”

And this is why Noah has long said “Trump has the charisma of a car crash.” It’s awful to watch — and yet you can’t stop watching.

As a mixed race person who came of age in the midst of South African apartheid, Noah pays particular attention to language, cues, and understanding codes. “As an outsider, I never thought the world was mine,” he said. “When the world belongs to others, you mold yourself to others.”

noahtrevor_creditpeteryang Photo by Peter Yang.

In South Africa, he’s seen as “coloured,” which he said is seen as a different race than just being a black or white South African. Not fitting into this white or black binary made him adept at decoding subtext.

Even when using American English, we speak in different languages. Noah noted how Trump spoke a language to certain people that he wasn’t speaking to everyone.

South Africa’s history and culture informs Noah's understanding of race issues in the United States. Just as people let their guard down for Zuma by thinking the end of apartheid brought the end of South Africa’s story, he argued many of us in the U.S. assumed race was no longer a large issue. “Freedom is only the beginning,” Noah said, “it’s just getting to the mountain — you then must climb the mountain.”

Noah’s very existence was illegal during apartheid-era South Africa. When his white father and his black mother gave life to him, Noah’s birth was a crime. “I am born of protest,” he said.

Instead of planning a revolution or a revolt, his mother exposed the system. She found ways to “dive into oppression” and to navigate it. As a small feat of resistance, for instance, she would dress as a maid to walk with his father. While these little actions do not seem like big victories, she helped Noah realize that “oppressors don’t make rules that make sense.”

Noah started writing his book to tell his own stories only to realize he is “in the shadow of a giant.” That giant is his mom. Noah said the book is “a love letter to my mom” who imbued “a right to exist” into him. "She made me feel like I achieved just by being," he said.

Through writing his memoir, he also discovered how “the specificity of telling a story reveals bigger themes.” These are themes that repeat in history.

And in order for America to grow, he said we must address the fearful people who voted for Trump. “It’s not about accepting them, it’s about understanding them,” he said paraphrasing Nelson Mandela. "People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite... Man's goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished."

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Colin Smith

Colin Smith thinks that Chicago right now is the place to be for music. He works for Illinois Humanities, is a freelance writer, and plays psychedelic-pop songs with his band.