As Trevor Noah set up his final question for President Obama, he sounded like he was sharing with his audience an internal conversation that has vexed him since he became host of “The Daily Show.”
“In and around race, when you are a person who has a platform, when you are in a space where you are engaging with people, it is often difficult to navigate and skirt that line between speaking your mind and sharing your true opinions on race, while at the same time not being seen to alienate the same people you are talking to,” Noah said to Obama during a White House interview that aired last Monday. “If you are a white person speaking about race, then you are just a person who’s interested in race; if you are a person of color speaking about race, it’s ‘Oh, the black thing started again.’ ”
In that raw, honest exchange with a man who has also had to deftly steer through the undertow of race, Noah, the only black host on late night television, may have shown he is finally ready to step from Jon Stewart’s shadow and claim his own place in the firmament.
What Noah, a foreigner and immigrant, sought was there all along — the unique political perspective of someone who, from birth, had to traverse apartheid-era South Africa. As he writes in his best-selling memoir, “Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood,” Noah, the son of a white Swiss German father and a black Xhosa mother, was born at a time when interracial relationships were considered a punishable crime. He saw how racial separation foments mistrust, and how a nation’s leaders foster misunderstanding for their own means. “You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all,” Noah writes. In Donald Trump, Noah may glimpse the makings of a new kind of apartheid targeting people of color, immigrants, and women in America.
He’s now operating with greater facility, but it hasn’t been easy. “The black thing,” as Noah calls it, has been the young comedian’s burden since last year when he took over the anchor desk of the Comedy Central show that former host Stewart forged into a national institution. (Noah started there as a correspondent.)
Or, at least, Noah has carried it like a burden. He has struggled to find a sweet spot between staying true to the nature of the show and himself; often, he has come up short in satisfying either.
Noah might have been upended by what happened to Larry Wilmore, his former network colleague. Though Comedy Central execs gave Wilmore his own show for “a perspective largely missing in the current late night landscape,” — i.e. an African-American perspective — they axed it 20 months later, claiming it hadn’t “resonated” with the audience, which is (though they didn’t state it) predominately white.
Noah wavered between presenting a similarly pointed show, and one in line with the fluffier nightly offerings of Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and a defanged Stephen Colbert. Yet in recent weeks, Noah, pushed by the dangerous currents churned by Trump’s election, is finding his rhythm and giving his show some much needed ballast.
That’s why, a few weeks ago, he interviewed conservative firestarter Tomi Lahren, a move for which he was widely criticized. While some complained that Noah gave a fringe player a mainstream platform, his interview was revealing for its candid attempt to engage opposing viewpoints in a civil discourse about serious matters. He was polite and occasionally exasperated, but never flinched in challenging Lahren. Since the exchange never devolved into an incoherent screaming match, Noah was also able to expose her corrosive views for the empty provocations that they are.
Perhaps, “The Daily Show” name should have been retired when Stewart left. He was an impossible act to follow, and Noah did himself no favors trying to imitate him. Now, Noah recognizes that this is no longer a time for inauthenticity. While other late night hosts can view racism from the outside, Noah can offer needed perceptions about bigotry that plumb deeper truths because he wrestles with its intractable presence. The best Noah can do now is be himself, worry more about veracity and less about alienation, and hope his audience will buckle in as this nation braces for the ride ahead.
Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.