Trevor Noah talks philosophy and ‘Born a Crime’ at 34th annual MLK Celebration

Trevor Noah gives life lessons at 34th annual MLK Celebration

'The Daily Show' host and author headlines Carrier Dome event that honors civil rights leader.
Published: January 28, 2019
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Trevor Noah thanks the audience after his visit to Syracuse on Sunday night. Noah was the keynote speaker for the 34th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration.

When Trevor Noah, Daily Show host and author of Born a Crime, first addressed hundreds of Syracuse University students, staff and community members at the 34th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration, he had one simple question.

“You do know that there are warmer places, right?” Noah asked. “I’m here to save you.”

Although the weather outside on Sunday night was below freezing, inside the Carrier Dome Noah and the other speakers, performers and honorees were welcomed warmly. The master of ceremonies for this year’s event was Jackie Robinson, the first African-American anchor on Syracuse’s WSTM-TV news channel and an SU alumna.

2019’s musical groups included the Black Reign Step Team, who returned after their performance at last year’s MLK celebration. Other groups included the Adanfo Ensemble, showcasing traditional African drumming, and a local hip-hop group, YAT, who performed in association with the Southwest Community Center’s Higher Standards Camp.

A cappella group Black Legacy was scheduled to appear but could not make it, so SU’s Orange Appeal stepped up to perform “One Foot in Front of the Other.” The group thanked the MLK Celebration organizers for offering the chance to perform at the event.

After a further address from Chancellor Kent Syverud, Robinson introduced the five winners of the Martin Luther King Jr. Unsung Heroes Award. This year’s winners included Hendricks Chapel Office of Engagement Programs director Syeisha Byrd, local Syracuse student artist Amiah Crisler, political science and citizenship civic engagement junior Priya Penner, who serves as the Disability Student Union’s president and Syracuse community engagement director Marissa Saunders. A fifth award was given posthumously to Stephen Mahan, the director of SU’s Photography and Literacy Project, who died in July 2018. His wife Mary Lynn accepted the award on his behalf.

Robinson introduced the event’s keynote moderator, Jennifer Sanders, who anchors NewsChannel 9’s morning news show. Saunders thanked Robinson for paving the path for “brown girls like me” to anchor newscasts before moving on to introduce Noah himself.

Sanders and Noah discussed his book Born a Crime, which was required reading for new students as part of the new Syracuse Reads program. Noah said that he initially wrote the book with himself as the central character, but that he soon realized that everyone was impressed with his mother.

“Everyone was telling me that she was so amazing, so impressive,” Noah said. “I was like ‘I’m here too!”

Sanders asked Noah how he manages to keep his sense of humor despite the hardships he endured under apartheid in his childhood in South Africa. Noah replied that “humor is how we see the world” and that it doesn’t have to be taught.

“Babies will laugh and I’ll go ‘what are you laughing at, how do you even know how to laugh,’” Noah said. “It’s a visceral expression of our joy. Humor is how I choose to process the world I live in.”

Noah explained life under apartheid further, calling it “legal racism.” He described how his white Swiss father, who was seen as superior under apartheid law, was unable to live with his Xhosa mother, and how he as a mixed-race child fell into a class that wasn’t supposed to exist due to a ban on interracial relationships. Noah credited his mother for helping him process the harsh reality of life in South Africa.

Noah also gave SU students a lesson from the “life of Trevor,” as Sanders put it.

“It’s tough because I’m still learning,” Noah said. “You are truly in control of what you do in your life. It might not seem like it, but what you can make out of those things will determine where you end up.”

The Black Celestial Choral Ensemble and SU’s 2019 Community Choir closed out the talk and the ceremony with a performance of the gospel hymn “How I Got Over.”

For Arts and Sciences junior Miranda Nemeth, it was her first MLK Celebration at Syracuse. Nemeth said she was surprised by how genuine Noah sounded when he spoke.

“I learned a lot,” Nemeth said. “I’d definitely come back if there are speakers like this every year.”

Trevor Noah Syracuse
The Adanfo Ensemble opened Sunday's Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration in the Carrier Dome.