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Social Studies

Stuck on Stupid

By Vincent Williams | Posted 11/11/2009

So something on the radio has been bothering me for the past few weeks. The new tagline for the Steve Harvey Morning Show is Harvey telling folks to tune in because, "ignorance will be at an all-time high." Now, I know he's just joking, but playing with stupidity and ignorance has turned into a whole thing, and yeah, it bothers me. Call me crazy, but I don't think making light of ignorance, as if it's something that's sort of charming, is something that anyone should engage in, and certainly not black people.

And it's not just advertising, it's part of the show's shtick. Harvey and his co-host/fellow comedian Nephew Tommy trade quips and tease each other about which one is more stupid, and there's always this sense of pride about who can be the most ignorant. Periodically, both joke about being unable to pronounce words or grasp concepts. It's become an integral part of the show's identity.

I understand that this is an age-old argument, certainly among black people. On the one hand, you have performers--usually comedians--who argue that as long as something is funny, everything should be fair game. From Mantan Moreland to Moms Mabley to Flip Wilson to current-day comedians like Mike Epps, part of the racialized reasoning is that, since black people have so much to deal with, comedians help to alleviate tension with laughs. And, not for nothing, black comedians also point to the fact that they are often held to a representational standard that other funny folks aren't.

On the other hand, you have critics like the Hollywood chapter of the NAACP, Dick Gregory, and, well, me, who attest that some things just aren't that funny. My view is that what black performers do is part of an overall historical context. Black performers pretending to be dumb fits a little too neatly into the traditionally racist notion of black folks not being as intelligent as other people. And I would argue that if we all took ourselves a little more seriously, we might not have as many of those aforementioned dire situations in our lives that make us need the medicine of laughter. Again, this is an argument that goes round and round and crops up in many different permutations. Just in the past couple of weeks, Spike Lee and Tyler Perry have been engaging in a public tiff over similar issues.

What bothers me so much about this morning-show thing is that, unlike the insidious vein of aggressive anti-intellectualism in the guise of "down home-y advice" that runs through Perry's work, Steve Harvey pushes a pretty brainy agenda. He's no Tom Joyner or anything, but Harvey's always been very vocal about the benefit of kids going to college. And, though it seems like a small thing, I always appreciate when he talks about being a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity, because if he gets a young man interested, that young man is going to have to attend college to pledge. So there's certainly more to him than "ignorance being in full effect."

Speaking of his competition, I get the sense that Harvey is aiming for being an almost anti-Joyner. While the latter is legendary for his activism vis-à-vis black colleges and modern civil-rights issues, the former is better known for being a comedian. Though Harvey hosts politicians and activists on his show and is involved in philanthropic activities like his yearly acknowledgment of community activists and local businesses, the Hoodie Awards, the spotlight is often on his comedy and, lately, on his playing the fool.

Really, I'm sad because, as I tease this out, I'm realizing that he might have to highlight the ignorance part. Joyner's getting a little long in the tooth, and since his syndication, Harvey has been number one in a bunch of the R&B morning markets. Maybe the stupid side is what's pushing him over the top. You have to wonder, though, if the audience is responding to that, where is the ignorance really in full effect?

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