Larry Wilmore: Too Smart and Too Black for the Washington Correspondents' Dinner
At Saturday night’s 2016 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Barack Obama began his comments with a joke about “colored people time,” ended his set with a “mic drop” and then passed the baton to comedian Larry Wilmore who closed out the night with the following heartfelt comments:
When I was a kid, I lived in a country where people couldn’t accept a black quarterback. Now think about that. A black man was thought by his mere color not good enough to lead a football team — and now, to live in your time, Mr. President, when a black man can lead the entire free world.
Words alone do me no justice. So, Mr. President, if i’m going to keep it 100: Yo, Barry, you did it, my nigga. You did it.
Media critics were not pleased with Larry Wilmore. Outlets as varied as The Hollywood Reporter, Slate and the New York Post said that he “flopped,” “bombed” and “underwhelmed.”
Those collective voices misunderstand the genius and brilliant nature of Wilmore’s mix of comedic roast, truth-telling and quick wit. Wilmore’s audience was not the Washington media elite. He was instead speaking to the black folks in the TV audience, watching a black comedian say goodbye to their first black president.
Humor is one of the primary ways that oppressed, weak, and marginalized people speak back to Power. The serf mocks the king. The worker laughs at the boss or factory owner. The slave derides and makes fun of the master. The child goofs on the adult.
Larry Wilmore’s routine is being panned in some quarters because he broke two rules.
The Fourth Estate does not like to be criticized. The supposed “guardians of democracy” do not like to have the mirror turned back on them, where they are then forced to see their own defects.
Most importantly, Wilmore did not “code switch”—the practice wherein black folks don the mask necessary for survival in a society historically oriented around protecting white supremacy and where to be “white” is to be “American” and “normal.” He spoke as a black American in the ways that we often do in private and semi-private spaces with one another away from the White Gaze. In short, he left some white folks, both in the room and viewing the show at home, feeling decentered, as though they were not clued into the context and meaning of his humor. This discomfort is proof of Wilmore’s brilliance. It was not accidental, but rather, wholly intentional.
To that end, Larry Wilmore’s routine included allusions to classic African-American TV comedies such as Good Times and Sanford and Son. There may have been white folks at home asking Siri or Google about “black folks and cocoa butter.” Comedian Paul Mooney received a wink as well when Wilmore joked that “how black don’t crack.” MSNBC was called out for its cancellation of so many black hosts. And Wilmore did not spare CNN’s Don Lemon from the contempt that many black folks feel towards the latter’s white racism apologizing shtick and habit of taking contrary positions for no other purpose than to insult and undermine the lived realities of African-Americans.
There will likely be many “think pieces” written about the 2016 correspondents’ dinner and Larry Wilmore’s use of the word “nigga.” Conservatives will beat their tired drum and fantasy of “reverse racism” and complain that “How dare a black man use such language when white folks are told we can’t!” Right-wing bloviators will, as they have since his election in 2008, slur Obama with complaints that he has somehow “sullied” or “insulted” the office of the president of the United States by allowing Wilmore to perform. Black progressives and liberals may be reasonably upset that Wilmore used the word “nigga”–a linguistic cousin to what the legendary comedian Richard Pryor once described as the ugliest word in the English language.
The most insightful critics will point out a very important contradiction. Barack Obama, in his last turn as host of the correspondents’ dinner reminding the public that, he is in fact a black man. But, Obama has also spent his two terms in office avoiding discussions of the color line and how best to remedy the race specific challenges facing Black America. Embracing “blackness” for the purposes of a comedy routine is no substitute for effective policy making.
Ultimately, Larry Wilmore reminded us of the power of black laughter. He is not alone in appreciating its ability to provoke, upset, enrage, and yes, nurture. James Weldon Johnson wrote of this in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man when his narrator observes, “I have since learned that this ability to laugh heartily is, in part, the salvation of the American Negro; it does much to keep him from going the way of the Indian.” The great and prolific American intellectual and activist W.E.B. Du Bois also noted the power of black laughter: “If you will hear men laugh go to Guinea, ‘Black Bottom,’ ‘Niggertown,’ Harlem. If you want to feel humor too exquisite and subtle for translation, sit invisibly among a gang of Negro workers…We are the supermen who sit idly by and laugh and look at civilization.”
Race and the color line in America are a type of changing same. “History is a moving train.” Barack Obama is president of the United States and one of the most powerful people on the planet. Larry Wilmore is a multimillionaire with a nightly show on cable television. Obama is not an attorney trying to make a living during Jim and Jane Crow or forced to be a Pullman car porter like so many other black men with advanced degrees in a time not so long ago. Nor is Wilmore struggling on the chitlin’ circuit like so many other black entertainers did for many years and decades in America.
In all, the last correspondents’ dinner of Obama’s two terms was a fitting end to a landmark presidency as a president of the United States who happens to be black was accompanied by a comedian who is unapologetically black and together they played with, subverted, and mocked the White Gaze.
There is something beautiful and wondrous in this. It is a moment that should be savored and appreciated. Media critics and attendees may not be pleased with Larry Wilmore’s goodbye to Barack Obama. But then again, they were never the intended audience anyway.