Last night, The Daily Show debuted a new correspondent from South Africa who played a game of “spot the Africa” with host John Stewart. South African comedian Trevor Noah made a solid showing in his first segment on the show, making some very good points about racism in America by hearkening to his experience in a country that once suffered from apartheid. As Noah pointed out, South Africa had to enshrine the abuses of apartheid into law while America has accomplished many of the same abuses while maintaining that it is devoted to equality for everyone. The fact that Noah himself is intimately familiar with the hardships caused by systemic racism made his funny debut all the more poignant. His biting critique was not only good television, it was a wake up call to America.
Trevor Noah is a South African comedian, making him one of a very few Daily Show correspondents from foreign countries. John Oliver, the plucky Brit who graduated from the show, did well for himself during his tenure as a correspondent and Noah shows much the same promise. What the two men have in common is the fact that they bring a unique perspective to American politics, a fact that shows in their comedy. Noah could not have made his debut at a better time. With systemic racism an issue foremost in people’s minds after the events of Ferguson and now New York, he is poised to be an integral part not just of comedy, but of cultural critique.
That fact was made abundantly clear during his segment on The Daily Show last night. The well worn joke, “I just flew in and, boy, are my arms tired” was deployed. Stewart, as the senior comedian, said it was a classic, but Noah took it up a notch by raising his arms in the now famous “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture and saying that he had been doing that since he landed in America. Right from the beginning, Noah poised himself to be a critic of systemic racism in America and he has just the right experience to do so.
He grew up as the son of a mixed-race couple in South Africa when such a marriage was illegal. His mother was thrown in jail and fined for being seen with his father on more than one occasion. She had to masquerade as her husband’s maid in order to justify her presence in his home because anything else would have meant more jail time or worse. Eventually, the marriage split up, no doubt in part due to the pressures of apartheid. For Noah himself, growing up as a mixed-race child was complicated. He has talked about the fact that no one else looked like him in the neighborhood and that he is familiar with the pencil test, a racist way to tell if someone was black or white by placing a pencil in their hair and seeing if it fell out. If the pencil stayed, they were black because black people’s hair was coarse and stiff.
“I never thought I would be more afraid of police in America than police in South Africa,” he told Jon Stewart on the show, echoing the feelings of many black people in America right now. The “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture is not just a symbol of protest. It is a symbol of people’s very real fear that they could be the next casualty of systemic racism. For Noah, it brought a certain amount of nostalgia for the old days back home. Judging from the tidbits of personal history he has offered up so far, the old days are not something America should aspire to.
As the new correspondent, Trevor Noah wrapped up his Daily Show debut by playing a game of “Spot the Africa” with Jon Stewart as his contestant. Two pictures, one of Africa and one of America, were played side by side and Stewart had to tell them apart. Stewart started out by saying that the pictures of horrible conditions were in Africa while the nice pictures were America. He was wrong twice. As Noah pointed out, yes, some places in Africa have problems, but America also has equally horrible problems. With his unique perspective and a snappy sense of humor, Trevor Noah may just be the correspondent America needs.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury