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Social Studies

Chappelle’s Showdown

By Vincent Williams | Posted 6/8/2005

“I want to make sure I’m dancing not shuffling.”

—Dave Chappelle

Dear Dave,

How are you? I’m fine. Looks like summer has finally kicked in, so I’m just laying back and digging the sun. I heard you were back in the States and did a couple of shows in L.A. I hope they went well. Got the new DVD box set, by the way, and I loved the extended commentary, extra stories, etc.

I have to say I was as disappointed as everyone else when I heard about the show going off track—for whatever reason. Like a bunch of folks, I found the first two seasons of Chappelle’s Show to be not only extraordinarily funny television, but also some of the most pointed commentary on race in America since, well, I hate to throw the Richard Pryor Card out so early but yeah, Richard Pryor in his heyday. So, I was really looking forward to how you were going to top that.

Of course, I devoured the Time article, and the above quote really gave me pause and helped me come to some understanding about how you can walk away from that multimillion-dollar deal that you got from Comedy Central. Ultimately, it comes down to that line between dancing and shuffling, doesn’t it?

I think the root of the challenge is that African-American performance, especially in front of a white audience, is fraught with all types of historical weight and implication. The legacies of Butterfly McQueen, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Amos and Andy, and dozens of other black entertainers—as well as white entertainers dressed as blacks—cast long shadows that affect every black person in the public eye. The singing, dancing, eye bucking, language mangling, and sassing all helped to bolster a public persona of black people that was insulting, offensive, and dehumanizing. Gifted and talented and working in a different time those performers may have been, but they still left an unfortunate spin on America’s racial understanding that affects everything from the manner in which we view someone like Cuba Gooding Jr. to the icky feeling some folks get from the wide shots of pretty much every NBA game revealing a predominantly white audience being entertained by a group of predominantly black athletes.

It’s got to be even worse if you’re a black comedian. Your mandate is to make people laugh, but as a black person you have to watch how you’re making them laugh, and at what expense to your own humanity. And where it really gets tricky is that it’s all relative. For instance, while many critics have said for years that ’70s sitcom Good Times provided a detrimental depiction of African-Americans, I found it politically astute, and over the years the characters became more well-rounded than most black TV characters since. The much-maligned J.J. actually carved out a pretty fascinating character arc as he moved from petty thief to artist to, finally, father figure after his own dad died.

On the other hand, I had folks tell me all summer that Diary of a Mad Black Woman was inspirational and uplifting. Because of my personal reading of America’s history of fear surrounding black penises and subsequent fascination with black emasculation, however, I think the one cardinal sin for black men is dressing up as women for laughs, and I’m suspicious about how often black male performers resort to it. I find Tyler Perry’s whole shtick intrinsically offensive. But that’s me.

Dave, to me, you’re doing just fine. The “racial draft” sketch was a wonderful commentary of how we all keep a tally of who’s what, and how, ultimately, the whole American concept of race is ridiculous. “Black Bush” is the best examination of the current administration’s cronyism I’ve seen. The Wayne Brady episode dealt with the concept of black performance and perceived “downness” way more eloquently than the past 770-odd words have. As much as everybody raves about the Rick James stuff, you know what I dug the most? That Rick James was actually a part of it. As with Wayne Brady, I admire the fact that you include people in on the joke so that it’s not just mockery. And, Dave, I’ve never seen you in a dress.

So, y’know, do what you have to do to get your comedy/racial compass straight, but hurry it up! I mean, damn, you’re Dave Chappelle, bitch. Sorry. I couldn’t resist. Anyway, all my best to the family, and I hope to see you soon.

Your pal,
Vince H

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