By Torraine Walker
Some of you may have heard that Dave Chappelle has a new special on Netflix. Titled The Closer, it is a work where Black, white, Asian, Jewish and LGBTQ people all get their turn under the heat of Chappelle’s merciless social commentary. Within an hour of its release and every hour since, social media and the blogosphere has been ablaze with reactions both pro and con about it. But buried underneath the avalanche of opinions are some key points that Chappelle made: that whiteness overrules any form of marginalization a white person is dealing with, that in America Black life is cheap, and there is a hierarchy of offense in America that Black people are at the bottom of.
The core of the outrage over Chappelle’s new special is his jokes at the expense of transgender individuals. I will not question the validity of how people feel but his jokes must be taken in the context that he contrasts the advances in protections other groups have made compared to those of Black Americans and the worth of Black lives in America. It’s true that DaBaby killing another Black man had no adverse effect on his career and may have benefitted it. Corporate control of hip-hop has reduced mainstream hip-hop culture to a blood sport that resembles the Mandingo fighting from Django Unchained. The biggest, or most aggressive brute stereotype is the most credible and most rewarded by the music industry and consumed by a mostly white fanbase. There is an entire network of blogs, podcasts and reality shows that feed this machine and there is no pushback on this from groups who claim to be allies to Black people.
Black LGBTQ people and activists have been calling out the racism in predominately white LGBTQ organizations and spaces for decades. Compare the swift public statements of condemnation of DaBaby from mainstream LGBTQ orgs with their near silence on Ed Buck, the wealthy Los Angeles political donor who’s long and well-known history of predatory behavior led to the deaths of two Black queer men.
The statement about whiteness overruling every other consideration also works in reverse. Dave Chappelle is a very wealthy, influential, and powerful man. But he is still a Black man. That fact can be used to negate his accomplishments whenever America chooses. History-even recent history-is filled with examples of this and if we are going to address harm done marginalized communities, Black Americans, no matter their sexual or gender identity, rank at the bottom of every socioeconomic success metric in America.
The point is, outrage over being offended is all too often selective and led by white people with the power to enforce penalties for offending them. Black people have peeped this and are questioning-out loud-why we should be sociopolitical mules for people who are silent about our struggles for the sake of a solidarity that all too often only flows one way?
There’s also the question of what can be joked about and who can do it. Dave Chappelle exists in the same timeline as Sarah Silverman, South Park, Family Guy, and Judd Apatow, all of whom have been celebrated for their dark humor and racially insensitive comedy. What makes Dave Chappelle outside of that tradition? Is it because his dark comedy comes wrapped in his dark skin, or because of the targets? I suspect many of the people outraged over The Closer had no problem laughing at Black jokes told by Chappelle, Chris Rock, or scores of other comedians.
Historically the jester was the only member of a royal court who could speak truth to power. Whether by force or custom, Black comedians have always walked that tightrope in America, skillfully couching harsh realities with humor. But where the work of Godfrey Cambridge, Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor and George Carlin was mostly shared via albums and word of mouth in an era when the public had time to absorb their material and discuss it at length, in the current age of immediate delivery of art and immediate reactions to it thanks to social media, instant praise and outrage often hinders us having to sit with the ideas presented by our creatives. Dave Chappelle is a master of using comedy as a medium to make American society see the anti-Blackness, injustice and hypocrisy at its core and every group contributes to that. People aren’t angry with Chappelle, they’re angry at the reflection in the mirror he held up.
Torraine Walker is the founder and editor of Context Media Group.