At the time he was born, Trevor Noah’s mere existence was a crime.
The South African native grew up during apartheid—a bleak period in the nation’s past underscored by a white supremacist system intended to segregate and oppress the country’s nonwhite population. It was illegal for interracial couples to have intercourse. To say that Noah, the son of a black South African woman and a Swiss-German father, had a challenging childhood would be a gross understatement.
In his recently released Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood, Noah gives us a series of stories from his youth—a period that shaped and informed the man he is today.
“Apartheid was really specific in its oppression of people and its division of race,” Noah told The Root. “Even though I was in a world where I grew up black, I lived black, I only spoke African languages, the government saw me as being a different race.” And to survive, Noah’s mother took on various tactics; she often dressed and acted like the maid of a lighter-skinned friend, who was paired with Noah in public.
Noah was indelibly “different.” Lighter-skinned South Africans like Noah were considered “colored,” but they had a hard time understanding him. But Noah had no problem understanding himself: “I was never uncertain of who I was. I was uncertain with who the world thought I was, and the world was often confused with me.”
Check out the full interview with Noah, part of The Root’s video series Food for Thought, which celebrates the ingenuity and accomplishments of celebrities and influencers of the African Diaspora:
Felice León is multimedia editor at The Root.