Comedian Trevor Noah tells us about his childhood in South Africa. He begins by telling us that his birth was illegal, because his father was white and his mother black. He then tells us a story about his mother taking him to a church service during civil unrest and almost being killed by a taxi driver from a rival ethnic group.
Why Noah might be hard to identify with: He portrays himself as slightly psychopathic. Remembering the time he burned down a house, he says, “I didn’t feel bad about it at all. I still don’t. The lawyer in me maintains that I am completely innocent. There were matches and there was a magnifying glass and there was a mattress and then, clearly, a series of unfortunate events. Things catch fire sometimes. That’s why there’s a fire brigade.”
- We learn a lot quickly about the Zulu and the Xhosa. Struggles within groups that we would think would be allied are always fascinating to readers. The title promises an Apartheid memoir but Apartheid nominally ends when Noah is five, so he has to show us the conflicts that rose up in its place to keep things lively.
- The details of his mother’s intense Christianity take obsessions we’re familiar with and project them onto a larger canvas.
- Noah has a strongly defined argument tactic (that we know he still has if we’ve seen his show.)
- “It’s the Devil,” she said about the stalled car. “The Devil doesn’t want us to go to church. That’s why we’ve got to catch minibuses.”
- Whenever I found myself up against my mother’s faith-based obstinacy, I would try, as respectfully as possible, to counter with an opposing point of view.
- “Or,” I said, “the Lord knows that today we shouldn’t go to church, which is why he made sure the car wouldn’t start, so that we stay at home as a family and take a day of rest, because even the Lord rested.”
- “Ah, that’s the Devil talking, Trevor.”
- “No, because Jesus is in control, and if Jesus is in control and we pray to Jesus, he would let the car start, but he hasn’t, therefore—”
- “No, Trevor! Sometimes Jesus puts obstacles in your way to see if you overcome them. Like Job. This could be a test.”
- “Ah! Yes, Mom. But the test could be to see if we’re willing to accept what has happened and stay at home and praise Jesus for his wisdom.”
- “No. That’s the Devil talking. Now go change your clothes.”
- “But, Mom!”
- “Trevor! Sun’qhela!”
- Sun’qhela is a phrase with many shades of meaning. It says “don’t undermine me,” “don’t underestimate me,” and “just try me.” It’s a command and a threat, all at once. It’s a common thing for Xhosa parents to say to their kids. Any time I heard it I knew it meant the conversation was over, and if I uttered another word I was in for a hiding—what we call a spanking.
- He has child logic: But at black church I would sit there for what felt like an eternity, trying to figure out why time moved so slowly. Is it possible for time to actually stop? If so, why does it stop at black church and not at white church? I eventually decided black people needed more time with Jesus because we suffered more.
- He was raised under a brutally racist regime. He begins by quoting the law that made his birth illegal.
- Then a group of his fellow black people wants to kill him for being of a different ethnic group.
- He remembers getting beaten by his mother a lot, but he remembers it fairly fondly.
- He lets us know that, later in the story, his mother will be shot in the head. He’s led a tough life, and she’s led one that even tougher.
- He was in the shit. He’s been through a baptism of fire.
- He, his mom, and his baby brother leap from a moving car to save themselves. The first numbered chapter begins: “Sometimes in big Hollywood movies they’ll have these crazy chase scenes where somebody jumps or gets thrown from a moving car. The person hits the ground and rolls for a bit. Then they come to a stop and pop up and dust themselves off, like it was no big deal. Whenever I see that I think, That’s rubbish. Getting thrown out of a moving car hurts way worse than that.”
- He has a keen sociological eye: “If you’re Native American and you pray to the wolves, you’re a savage. If you’re African and you pray to your ancestors, you’re a primitive. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water into wine, well, that’s just common sense.”
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