Wednesday, December 5, 2007

An Open Letter to The Assimilated Negro (TAN)

Dear TAN,

I read your site religiously. I follow almost all of your work, even the stuff you do for the unbearable white New Yorkers who patronize you (Nigger Heaven, represent!). I’m also jealous of your gig at Ebony/Jet because I like to imagine that all of their writers still work at their headquarters and that the Beauties of the Week strut around the office in swimsuits and high heels. But in your recent piece, “The Dearth of Black Satire,” you really show your ass, and not even those giant neon bikini bottoms the Beauties wore back in the ‘80s can cover it. As a fan, and as a fellow respectable negro, I feel compelled to call you out on this one.

In short, your article laments the lack of mainstream black satire, then attributes this lack to black people’s broken (more like underdeveloped) funny bone. As I was reading the article, I gave you the benefit of the doubt, hoping that it was some clever piece of meta-satire. Sadly, that wasn’t the case. This article’s assumptions and implications are so rotten, they cast a negative light on everything else you’ve written.

The bulk of this letter will be my responses to a few quotes from your article, but first things first— the central point of your piece, namely, that black people in general don’t do or “get” satire, is utter horseshit. Black humor has always been shot through with satirical black humor. And it isn’t the exclusive province of the giants. Even the hackiest BET Comedy routines and the lamest rap skits often show a familiarity with the language of satire. Also, the average black person engages in “elevated humor” (including satire) quite frequently. The fact that this is news to you is problematic on many levels, as you are not only a black man, but a humorist whose hook is his blackness. More on that later.

You offer three aspects of satire that might stymie black folks:

1. Critical: Criticism is a complicated game. On one side, it's the only way one can improve. On the other, it's a slap in the face. In general, we still don't like being slapped in the face, even if there's "noble intent" behind it.

Not true. We love being slapped in the face, just not in public, and certainly not by those who we think don’t like black people. The black contingent you describe (and any other group that makes a stink about stereotypical media images) is analogous to a freaky sadomasochist behind closed doors who wants to maintain a prim and proper public façade. What these black people laugh at in public—before the gaze of the white media and the black Civil Rights establishment—and what they laugh at absent that gaze are two different things.

You suggest that it’s unfair that we aren’t free to joke about ourselves in public, when white people make fun of themselves so readily. Since when has life been fair for anyone, especially black folks? The main benefit (and irony) of whiteness is that it allows its owners to be treated as individuals, while regarding individual white expression as universal. The rest of us don’t have that luxury. Given that the mainstream media warps the images of black people, and that many treat these images as truth, it’s no wonder that certain respectable negroes would like to silence them. I’m with you, though: I can’t support this new wave of soft black censorship because I think that it’s childish and counterproductive. But, you see, this over-sensitive humorlessness results from bad strategy among the loudest black voices, not an inherent deficiency of black people, black culture, or black political “struggle.”

2. Literary: Satire comes from a literary tradition, and it's not to say black people don't read, but ... well maybe that is what I'm trying to say. We're not educated enough to appreciate the history of satire.

That’s an elite education for you. Most people, regardless of race or level of education, know jack shit about the history of satire (or the history of anything for that matter!) because most people haven’t studied literature intensively. You act as if someone needs to have read A Modest Proposal or Candide to appreciate a good satirical skewering. It’s easy to blame a lack of fancy book learnin’ for the push to ban Huck Finn from classrooms or remove “Read a Book” from the airwaves, but this opposition has very little to do with people not understanding the satire on a literary level; it’s more a matter of public performance: these opponents are trying to put what they believe to be the best public face on their in-group. Though their actions are stupid, the people behind them aren’t necessarily stupid or uneducated.

3. Detatched: Satire these days consists of people playing characters/roles, basically trying to lie and give off an impression. But what's lost in translation is the point. Black people are too caught up in the grind to appreciate this sort of "detached observational" humor. Especially if the joke's on us.

TAN, if this were true, there would be no such thing as black parody.

You forgot one, though, and it’s kind of a big deal:

4. Black people don’t control media outlets, so the mainstream black comedy that is produced does not show the range of what black people want to see or have to offer. By most accounts, those in charge of green lighting projects believe that anything that eschews black stereotypes is unprofitable, hence the increasing LCD character of popular black culture. This is not to absolve black audiences, who support a whole lot of garbage, and often fail to support quality black projects. Black folks almost always support great black comedy, however. When the stars align every 5 or 10 years and a black person with enough power gets a mainstream outlet to back “sophisticated” black satire, the product is popular with white and black audiences, e.g. In Living Color, The Chris Rock Show, Chappelle’s Show (The Richard Pryor Show is the only notable exception, and Fear of a Black Hat, The Boondocks, and the Ego Trip material on VH1 are/were too niche to have mass appeal). Undercover Brother and Bamboozled are the only mainstream movies to have utilized satirical black voices this century. The former wasn’t really marketed properly, but has still found a cult audience; the latter, despite its terrible execution, has scores of black defenders based simply on its premise.

When asking why the 21st Century has seen so few examples of popular black satire, perhaps you should ask why there are exactly nan black shows on network TV, and why the only black comedy films that are financed by majors nowadays have to include pimps, hos, crackheads, flaming gay caricatures, sistagirl neckrolling sassiness, and black men in mammy drag. Here’s a hint: it’s not because that’s all black people want. Because you completely miss the boat on institutionalized discrimination in the creative entertainment industry, this is, by far, my favorite line of your article:

Are there no satirists because of the lack of demand? It can't be for lack of opportunity.

But by “opportunity,” you mean current events that lend themselves to satirical treatment by black folks; you don’t mean opportunity, as in the means and clout to produce smart black satire in the mainstream. The ironing is delicious.

I’m worried about you, TAN. I’m worried that such a smart and talented respectable negro would accept mainstream media’s representations of black people as an accurate depiction of black folks’ character and behavior. It concerns me that your first instinct was to attribute the absence of mainstream black satire to a problem with black people’s collective sense of humor. This is the same reasoning used by people who see that most mainstream black art is representational and thus deduce that black culture isn’t capable of producing abstract expression.

“The Dearth of Black Satire,” more than anything else I’ve read from you, lays bare your problematic relationship with black people (and obviously, with yourself). You distance yourself from “common” black people when you suggest that they aren’t educated enough to understand satire. After all, you aren’t too uneducated or sensitive to understand or appreciate satire. I know that it was drilled into your head that you are young, gifted, and black, but get over it. You aren’t special. When you so readily dismiss black people’s intelligence, that goes beyond being assimilated, negro; that’s perilously close to accepting white supremacy.

At the same time that you implicitly distinguish yourself from black people, you try to include yourself among their lot (“We just don’t get it…,” “until we stop taking ourselves so seriously…,” etc.). This isn’t surprising, considering that a large part of your success stems from your role as a “designated negro” who seeks to make black people intelligible for white hipsters. Yet it doesn’t seem to trouble you that you are acting as white people’s guide to black people, despite, apparently, not knowing all that much about black people who aren’t like yourself; it doesn’t seem to cause you concern that your role as “negro tour guide” is based on your knowledge of the tourists, and not that of the “natives.”

Sure, assimilated negroes are defined by such identity conflicts. Before this article, however, I never had cause to question your concern for black people. In psychological terms, you might need “those other” black people to convince yourself of your uniqueness; in practical terms, you might need them because they are a subject of great interest to clueless white people, who, instead of talking to “those other” black people, would rather rely on one educated, “articulate” black spokesperson. It’s possible that you don’t really have a use for “those other” black people, otherwise. Politics aside, you may be John McWhorter in essence (though perhaps I’m being swayed by the high yella complexion and the booty chin). TAN, I don’t want to believe any of this about you, but, again, after reading your article, I don’t know what to believe.

I can see John Stewart riffing now on “we tried to make some jokes about black people, because, you know, that's how we party these days. But all they did was want to protest everything we said. So now we'll just ignore them.”

So you look at the absence of black voices and subjects on The Daily Show and think, “it’s too bad that the fear of Sharpton and company is preventing the writers from discussing black people,” huh? That’s interesting, because I look at The Daily Show and see that it is like every other white institution: it assumes that its voice is the default. It doesn’t matter that its creators are liberal; they’re still wearing the blinders of white privilege. The straight news analogy is when CNN or ABC parrots the notion that Republicans are the party of the very religious (I guess black churches didn’t get that memo). White liberals neither hate us nor consciously ignore us; we just don’t factor into their everyday vision of the normal.

I recommend that you re-visit the In Living Color sketch “The Black People’s Awards.” It’s not only a hilarious piece of popular satirical black comedy, but its underlying target, black folks’ limited opportunities in cinema and TV, is one you need to study if you hope to carve out a profitable career as a popular, self-consciously black humorist (and not lose your mind in the process). You’ll find solace in that sketch when you’re rejected by an editor or a producer because they “already have a black writer” or when you run into trouble finding a publisher for your book because it’s not “black” enough.

The following quotes are telling:

But even aside from the opportunity to make a buck off a joke, the cachet value we place on satire -- the relation of satire to "highbrow" and "intelligence" -- makes this an imperative issue for black people. We risk classifying ourselves as too slow or dense for elevated humor if we choose to blindly ignore our faults and foibles in the interest of protecting our pride.


until we loosen up and stop taking ourselves so seriously on everything, I fear we won't be taken seriously about anything.

Like the stuffy black establishment leaders you mention in your article, you seem to have internalized the need for white approval.

Based on the arguments you offer in this article, I am fairly certain of one thing: you must not talk to many black people on a regular basis. Fortunately, there’s hope for you yet. You can be rehabilitated. All you need to do is pry yourself away from your white girls comfort zone for a little while and hang out with some black people! We don’t bite. Regular contact with black folks will not only lead you to abandon your flawed premises and conclusions about black humor, it will ultimately make you an even better comedy writer.


Gordon Gartrelle,
Respectable Negro


T.A.N. said...

hollerrrrr ...

I appreciate the time and attention to my work. And don't mind the "chin-checkin'" (is that what YOU PEOPLE call it?).

In this case, while I have to set aside the point of whether I properly executed/illustrated my premise, I can say for sure that this piece isn't aimed for caucasians or to "distance myself from black people." Just look at where it was pubbed, Ebony, not Gawker or Jewcy or someplace like that. This was intended as an internal conversation.

Some of these accusations I would see as more appropriate when I was writing "Ghetto Pass" on Gawk. So it feels like more a critique of me than the piece. Which, as the headline attests, maybe it is. But then the argument is shortsighted by using only one piece of work.

I'll think about your post. It might be too long for me to go point-by-point on for a debate... But like I said i'm looking at it as an internal debate, so I'm not trying to speculate on white control of the outlets etc. I'm thinking Supply & Demand. Everyone is slave to green, and if blacks clamored for satire then we'd find the voices to provide it for them. But Blacks don't clamor for satire, they clamor for BET (though BET itself is trying to change...). Where do we aggregate numbers and dollars and money? Not in satire, or other "high-concept" ish. But others are caking on it. Why not us?

you didn't mention this essay i think i ref in that article. paul beatty on sobriety in black humor. not satire, but related. and gives more of the history on our humorlessness. which was the bottom line of it all. whatever you want to call it, we have to be able to laugh at ourselves.

gordon gartrelle said...

Thanks for taking the time to engage. I'm looking forward to your full response.

Anonymous said...

I read both articles with interest. However, will someone please explain to me why I, or any other black person, should be orgasmic about the value of satire?

That is, why it's important that "we [blacks] have to be able to laugh at ourselves"? To what purpose?

> Is it to show whites that we have the intellectual prowess to get it?

> Is it show our familiarity with black and white history and literature so that we may understand satirical nuance, and allusion?

> Is it to help us come to terms with our blackness and the supreme paradox of being black in a white society?

> Is it to help us blunt the sharp edge of racism in our daily lives?

> Is it to bring to the fore racial subjects that are too hot to handle in other venues?

> Or is it to show whites that we can be taken seriously.

Black satire has found a home in many black pubs and bars throughout the US; it's not the exclusive domain of stage, and TV.

While there one may listen as blacks of various educational attainments share the day's events with humor (both bawdy, and intellectual), and with satirical subtlety and relentless spoofing.

Again, I ask, to what purpose?

We seem to be spending a great deal of time laughing to keep from crying.

Could that be the purpose?

gordon gartrelle said...


That's an interesting question. I don't think there's one answer, but as I say in the letter, it's definitely not your first two suggestions, nor is it the last one.

T.A.N. said...

mayflower: in my article i premise the void as a problem in contrast to a seeming boom in the "satire industry" ... so along with all the other reasons I (and you) list to get on the bus, i think the biggest one is $$$.

It was pinned to the return of the Boondocks, a commercially and artistically successful show with a satirical voice. Why aren't there more?

Anonymous said...

While I believe there's some merit to the argument that Black satire is rarely distributed by mainstream media (as the outlets are controlled by 'Whites'), that doesn't explain its absence from Black print -- incl. newspapers, books, and magazines -- and other 'Black' O&O media. I'm reminded of the time Chris Rock attempted to start a National Lampoon-style publication at Howard University. I'm not sure if it's still in effect.

I am quite sure that whenever Black comedy hits the mainstream, satirical or otherwise, there is a cross-section of Negroes who recoil in horror at the sight of our supposedly 'dirty laundry' airing in public. Look at the misguided uproar the Buppies kicked off over Hot Ghetto Mess. They've shown the same contempt for Tyler Perry, Chappelle, and Aaron McGruder's televised version of Boondocks. Even Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence haven't been immune from the criticism.

Buppies will respond their objection isn't to the content, per se, but the execution. However, IMO, Black writers should enjoy the same latitude to put out cheesy material as anyone else. Soul Plane isn't a political referendum on Black people.

gordon gartrelle said...

Excellent comments all around.

mib, my response to TAN's #1 speaks to your point about the "dirty laundry" mindset among establishment black public figures hindering mainstream black satire. It's not just about keeping our embarrassing business away from white eyes; it's also about crafting an idealized public image for ourselves. Again, I think that TAN argues as much in his original piece, but he frames it as a problem with general black culture rather than a problem with public black leadership.

And TAN, I think that I overstated point #4. White execs might occasionally limit their black satirical content out of fear of the negative publicity that the "black leaders" can bring, but this must be rare. This fear doesn't seem to stop the execs from pushing through the type of lowbrow black humor that "black leaders" hate more than anything.

Only fundamentalist libertarians believe that the market functions independently of human beings. The rest of us know that the market depends on flawed, biased people to project, interpret, and respond to supply and demand. I liked what Reginald Hudlin said in Skip Gates' PBS Special America Beyond The Color Line. He said that the limited opportunities for black people in Hollywood isn't necessarily a result of racism; it's a result of laziness. White and black decision makers, he argues, would rather go with the accepted views about the types of black projects that are profitable (among black, white, and foreign audiences) than take risks, defy racial stereotypes, and try something different. That makes a lot of sense to me.