Trevor Noah schools racists: "The Daily Show" has an essential new mission and comic voice

"The Daily Show" is the perfect platform for Noah to challenge tired African stereotypes. He's off to a great start

Published October 7, 2015 9:56AM (EDT)

  (Comedy Central)
(Comedy Central)

As a teacher/scholar of African studies, I was delighted when South African Trevor Noah was announced as the replacement for Jon Stewart. Drawing from his complex mixed-race heritage and experience growing up in apartheid era South Africa, Noah is a great candidate to critique America’s single stereotypical story of Africa as a place of merely violence, disease and poverty.

Moving from “Daily Show” correspondent to host has been somewhat difficult for Noah, given that many early reviews have inevitably compared his performance to Stewart’s venerable 16-year run. As Noah finds his U.S. comedic voice, energizing without alienating his American audience may be the South African comic’s biggest challenge.

Noah has been “The Daily Show” anchor for just over a week, but he is arguably Africa’s foremost comedic voice in American pop culture today. Do his heritage and global perspective imply an innate responsibility to challenge Western ideas about the world’s second-largest continent?

I believe they do. His earlier stint as a correspondent, and his stand-up comic routines, suggest that confronting African stereotypes and the continent’s historic relationship with the West is exactly what he wants to do.

In his first appearance as a correspondent, he provided a powerful critique of America’s myopic view of Africa as a site of endemic poverty and underdevelopment. In a segment called “Spot the Africa,” he challenged Stewart to identify images of poverty and prosperity as either “African” or “American.”

The punch line of the piece confronted popular ideas of American exceptionalism and African poverty by juxtaposing images of prosperity in Africa with poverty in the U.S. Noah went on to playfully mock Stewart for confusing images of black poverty in Detroit with Somalia and he ends the piece by handing him a jar full of pennies representing Africa’s donation to domestic poverty relief efforts in the U.S.

Not simply a one-off African introduction to Noah as a correspondent, the future host did not shy away from poking fun at American ignorance of Boko Haram in Nigeria and even Ebola in West Africa, widely panned for its geographic sensationalism. For instance, he scolded Stewart again for not realizing that South Africa was more than 3,000 miles away from the Ebola-infected regions of the continent.

Noah the stand-up comic also offered sarcastic portrayals of European colonialism on the BBC’s "John Bishop Show." He jabbed his British audience about the polite racism of 19th century African imperialism. In doing so, he moved seamlessly from critiques of his difficulties with airport immigration officials in London to impersonations of centuries-old British “explorers.” Noah is at his best as he chides his audience to remember that “colonialism is the most arrogant form of patriotism ... I wonder what Great Britain was like back then, when it was so great that you guys wanted to go make it somewhere else.”

As a satirist of American media and politics, though, Noah walks a fine line between critique and sympathy for his American audience. Let’s be honest, Americans know very little about the complexity and diversity of contemporary Africa. A popular blog is even devoted to criticizing the pervasive idea that many Americans think “Africa is a country,” not a continent.  Noah’s critique of this ignorance risks audiences' associating his African background as a threat, something that rarely follows another former "Daily Show" correspondent turned host, John Oliver, who’s British, but white.

As the culmination of his first week behind the anchor desk, Noah’s vision of contemporary Africa and American stereotypes took center stage in his piece on the popular late-night talk show target Donald Trump. Casting the outlandish Republican front-runner in the quintessential typecast of a ruthless African dictator, Noah claims Trump could actually be running as America’s African president.

Situating Trump’s discriminatory comments about Mexican migrants in an African context, Noah says Trump is reminiscent of his own president, Jacob Zuma, whose rhetoric about African migrants in South Africa embodies “light xenophobia with a dash of diplomacy.” Drawing from the violent history of xenophobia, where African migrants in South Africa have been frequently attacked and persecuted for decades, the nuanced references to South African politics were spot-on but likely went right over the heads of his American audience.

However, turning back toward more recognizable American typecasts of African politicians, Noah ends by caricaturing Trump in the brutal words and violent image of Moammar Gadhafi, Robert Mugabe and Idi Amin. By peddling common stereotypes that African politics is simply a story of tyranny and despair, Noah critiques American politics but also reinforces popular myths about corruption and endemic violence too broadly for a continent of 54 nations and more than a billion people. Indeed, Africa has had its share of political violence -- far less than Europe in the last 100 years -- but this image does not represent the contemporary politics of most of the continent.

As an African, Trevor Noah now runs one of the most powerful institutions of political satire in media. At just 31 years old, he is a member of a new wave of African migrants committed to speaking out and changing the stereotypical representations of Africa that have dominated Western media headlines for decades. For many members of the African diaspora today, the continent should not be represented as a site of despair but one of opportunity. Many of the world’s fastest growing economies are in Africa, and the continent as a whole is forecasted for significantly higher growth than Europe or the U.S. for the foreseeable future.

Noah needs to avoid pandering to popular American stereotypes and take his cue from the growing number of influential Africans who are using the power of social media to change Africa’s global image from one of poverty to prosperity. For instance, with campaigns such as #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShows, residents of Mogadishu can market the vibrancy of everyday life beyond violence via Instagram. And when CNN called Kenya a “hotbed of terror” in July, Kenyans took to social media under the hashtag #someonetellcnn and mocked the network with such force that a top executive flew to Nairobi to issue a formal apology to the Kenyan people.

The terrain of African stereotypes in American pop culture is too rich to place celebrity politicians like Trump in places where he does not belong. If Noah wants to challenge American views of Africa, the long instructive lead needed for jokes about xenophobia in South Africa to land will likely overshadow the punch line. So Noah should look closer to his new adopted home, to American pop culture, and draw on the wealth of material more accessible for American audiences.

From Taylor Swift’s controversial colonial fantasy “Wildest Dreams” to the long history of Hollywood portrayals of Africa as a script for savage violence and white saviors, Noah needs to introduce his brand of African satire slowly and more skillfully than a full-on comparison of Trump to the brutal 1970s reign of Idi Amin in Uganda. Like many of us connected to the continent in a variety of ways, I begin his tenure as a fan, but I will be watching with a critical eye and hoping he will continue to challenge American audiences to think of Africa as a diverse continent and not a country.

Matt Carotenuto is associate professor of history and coordinator of African Studies at St. Lawrence University. He works closely with St. Lawrence’s long-standing abroad program in Kenya, and with Katherine Luongo is the author of the forthcoming “Obama and Kenya: Contested Histories and the Politics of Belonging” (Ohio University Press, expected in 2016).

Trevor Noah Says Donald Trump Is the Perfect African President

By Matt Carotenuto

Matt Carotenuto (@matt.carotenuto) is Associate Professor of History and Coordinator of African Studies at St. Lawrence University and works closely with St. Lawrence’s long-standing abroad program in Kenya. With Katherine Luongo he is the author of the forthcoming book "Obama and Kenya: Contested Histories and the Politics of Belonging" (Ohio University Press, 2016).

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