Earlier this week, America met its replacement for the (some would say) irreplaceable Jon Stewart. The Internet has exploded since the revelation on March 30th that Trevor Noah would be the new face of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” Initial reporting on the comedian focused on his personal history: he is a mixed-race South African (his father is Swiss and his mother Xhosa) who grew up in Soweto, navigating apartheid and post-apartheid racial struggles. Noah was immediately characterized as an important international perspective in the US comedy scene.
Within twenty four hours, however, Noah’s characterization swiftly changed as the public dug up a number of unsavory jokes from his Twitter history, amongst them attacks on women’s appearances and Jews. I couldn’t help but notice that as the public discussed Noah’s viability as a comedian in terms of these insensitive tweets, his initially praised “internationalism” quickly dropped out of the conversation.
Despite his absurd comments, Noah’s South African nationality and comedic discussion of the African continent are what make this new Daily Show host an important voice in American media. This perspective is essential because of widespread ignorance about Africa in the United States. Noah, in his role as “foreign correspondent” on The Daily Show, often called Americans out for their lack of understanding of global current events. We all know of the most extreme examples of such ignorance; the incident in which Sarah Palin called Africa a country, not a continent, immediately comes to mind. However, my own personal experience confirmed last summer that such ignorance is not at all limited to this highly criticized instance.
Before going to Ghana for an internship, I went to a dentist’s appointment. Between painful moments of metal instruments prodding my gums and minty polish scrubbing my teeth, my dental hygienist made a bit of small talk. She first asked me what I was planning on doing that summer. After a few painful prods to my right molars, I replied, describing my plans to go to Ghana. To my surprise, she then asked where in South America Ghana was located. I was used to explaining where on the African continent Ghana was, but never which continent the country was located in. She picked up a different metal tool to work towards the front of my mouth, and I used the brief pause to explain that Ghana lies on the western coast of the African continent. Confused, she asked: how can Ghana be a country that’s inside of Africa, another country?
Dental hygienists are not poorly educated individuals. And despite seemingly all evidence to the contrary, neither is a vice presidential candidate. However, information about African nations is so absent from the American mindset that citizens with average educations do not understand the most basic facts about that area of the world. When Western perspectives dominate US media, both in terms of comedy and news, we sideline important discussions of politics and events in the African continent (an example Noah himself critiques is the difference of US news coverage to Nigeria’s Boko Haram violence and the extended conversation surrounding the simultaneous Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris).
We also tend to sensationalize coverage of disease outbreak and famine in the continent – the hyperbolic panic at the thought of the Ebola outbreak spreading to the US was symptomatic of ignorance regarding what was actually occurring in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. Indeed, Alan Yuhas in The Guardian reported in October that in Mississippi, “parents pulled children from a middle school after learning that the principal had been to Zambia for his brother’s funeral”. Yuhas then helpfully points out the almost 2,000 miles between West African nations and Zambia. We too regularly characterize such disease outbreaks as nebulously “African” problems in our media, only contributing to rampant misinformation. We could benefit from having not just a more “international” perspective in comedy (as The New York Times Dave Itzkoff puts it), but more specifically Noah’s specific brand of internationalism that addresses the relationship between the United States and African cultures and politics.
Obviously, Noah does not represent the diverse voices on the African continent – in fact, he actually told David Letterman that he hates being introduced as an “African Comedian”. A South African perspective differs greatly from a Kenyan or Ghanaian perspective, to state the obvious. Noah’s particular mixed-race experiences make his understandings of his nation as well as his continent very different from a South African identifying as solely black or white (this perspective on race will also make Noah an intriguing compliment to Larry Wilmore, the African American comedian who recently replaced Steven Colbert). However, it is actually Noah’s outright refusal to be the token African combined with his attention to the continent’s current events that challenges our flawed notion of African homogeneity.
Additionally, even if Trevor Noah were to change his style completely and only harp on American current events, his presence as a key media figure would still be significant. The West constantly characterizes itself as having authority over the African continent – consider the white savior complex so evident in short-term volunteer projects in many countries, or even the plethora of orphanages set up by Americans in Ghana in recent decades. Citizens of African nations, on the other hand, have very little authority on US problems. Because Jon Stewart’s show consists of satire primarily about the United States, Trevor Noah taking on Stewart’s legacy means that a South African now has mainstream authority over US issues. As such, Noah not only has the potential to make Americans confront our ignorance as the new host of the Daily Show, but his appointment to the position is a reversal of typical patterns of authority. Trevor Noah gives me hope that the next time I have a dentist appointment, my hygienist will know a bit about African current events in addition to basic geography.