Black to the future: date:::about 10 hours after hearing the “Tsunami Song”::::::
It’s 6:30 in the morning. The snow isn’t P-Funk style just yet, (you know, not just knee deep) but it’s getting there. After I fight for 20 minutes with the ice covering my hooptie, I get in and pull off into the winter mess. I reach for the on switch on the radio and what’s the first thing I hear early this morning? Some freak on the radio talking about “nigger this and nigger that.” Do I take offense to this strong use of words so early in the day? Nah, not really. I actually expect it. See, my radio is preset to hear the words of wisdom from the self proclaimed “King of All Media,” Mr. Howard Stern.
I’m a NYC area transplant, and the only morning show strong enough to get my attention this early is Stern’s. (Sorry TJMS, I check ya’ll out, too) When I was living downstate, I listened to the home of hip hop and r&b, back when the original haters were terrorizing New York. I don’t really take offense to very offensive morning show programming. In this regard I am probably just like the rest of my race’s status in America, a minority. I know there are millions of you who can’t stand the mere thought of Howard Stern and any of the copy-cat shock jocks that have flooded morning radio. There are times when I turn the show off, not really in disgust. It’s more like when you’re drinking and you know you’ve had enough. Recently, hip-hop morning shows have been a hotbed for controversy. The main issue is the use of offensive and racially insensitive material. Granted, the material in question is just that. But the question it raises to me at least is this.
Ethnic jokes have been the staple of American comedy forever. It’s no wonder. Since comedy is basically a way of exaggerating our reality to find humor in it, and racism is an ugly blemish on our all of our combined cultures, it seemed inevitable that the two collide. This is not in any way trying to excuse this. My intent is more to examine the issue of racially charged humor and how long it has been a part of American culture. Some of our favorite comedians perfected it, and all races have their form of it. While there seems to be a serious increase in the use of it, especially in the morning show markets, it is not something new. I’m sure there is someone who may be better versed in the subject. But from my perspective, looking at the entire mess from about 50 feet (respectable non-threatening distance) it seems that the matter needs to be addressed by all. The references are endless.
Early American films took great liberties in how they depicted members of other races. It wasn’t uncommon for Italian actors to play Native Americans, Europeans, or any other race. The Charlie Chan franchise alone should make Americans shake their heads. Many of our classic films use racial humor or stereotypes. The Marx Brothers used to thumb their noses at the establishment of the day. They also exaggerated their own cultural stereotypes in a way that entertained and made a commentary, if not at first recognized or even intended.
Stepin Fetchit was the original sell out, paving the way to Hollywood for thousands of minority actors by playing the role of a dumb, slow-witted Black man. At the movies, The Godfather depicted an entire Italian family as murderous criminals. Scarface shows the Cuban bad guy murdering his way to the top. John Wayne movies were full of stereotypes and general hatred towards Native Americans, Asians, and any one else who got in his way.
Archie Bunker ruled television and spawned a Black counterpart to appease the growing African American fans, in the form of George Jefferson. In both The Jeffersons and All In The Family, many of the half-hour shows ended up with some lesson on racial acceptance and what happens when people let their prejudices guide them. Sanford and Son (my favorite) brought their form of racial equality to America and again they were embraced. Fred Sanford was from the old school, and he didn’t care who knew it. He was leery of the police, his Latino neighbors, and even his own race, as he would express his displeasure with his son’s stereotypically shady friend Rollo constantly. Again, many shows would end with a lesson in acceptance of those of another color.
Welcome Back Kotter was basically a “Rainbow Coalition” of high school aged kids in an all-black neighborhood, during a time when we all didn’t get along. They traded light jokes about each other and learned to get along as one. (Thanks Mr. Ko-tteeer!)
Fast forward to our day and we have two runners up in “The African American Ethnic Humor Sitcom Of All Time” awards. The Chapelle Show and the classic In Living Color duke it out for favorite off-color show in the hood. And with good reason, the shows are sharp, quick witted and afraid of nothing; well, maybe Dave is more fearless that Keenan was. Both show are hailed as great by some and hated by others. But they are prime examples of the American tradition of using race for humor and its constant use.
Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, George Carlin, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle, Margaret Cho, Jamie Foxx, Howard Stern, Opie and Andy, Star and Buc Wild, and Ms. Jones and the Hot97 crew are all guilty of the same crime: the use of ethnic humor. So are all the above-mentioned, critically acclaimed actors, writers, directors and comedians. And so are we. We are all guilty of it. We will always be guilty of it. Any time you look at someone of another race and think ANYTHING prejudicial about them and even think about giggling or making a smart remark, you’ve just joined the ranks of ethnic joke user. The question is, where do we draw the line? If it’s ok to fire the Hot 97 morning show crew, does that mean that we start to fire everyone else? Most will say it is a free speech issue, which it is. But I think there is a deeper issue below that isn’t being addressed.
This is a form of comedy that can be therapeutic, when done properly. It doesn’t have to be cruel or hateful to be effective. It can be a way of addressing things that have been said about other races and cultures and show how they are similar to others. If comedy is a tool to help us laugh at some of our unflattering characteristics, what form of comedy is more appropriate than ethnic humor? But the trend is to go to the extreme, push the envelope and be as outrageous as possible. This is where the problems begin.
There will always be someone who is offended by an off-color joke, as there should be. But every joke isn’t worthy of calling out the execution squad. Punishment maybe, but the guillotine may be too severe a punishment for the crime. It’s a thin line between something being a truly funny joke and the same joke sounding like a slur or insult. All incidents are unique and need to be examined, but let’s try not to lose our heads or sense of humor either.
Here are a few links on the subject, if you’re still interested.
Next post: I give my two cents on the Michelle Malkin piece in the New York Post on Michael Jackson and Snoop Dogg. Love the way she ties the two together so neatly. “It racism, that’s what it is!” You should check it out so you’ll know what I’m rambling on about. I may even address the whole BET thing and why some white folks really get upset that there is a channel called BET. (I think they meant the emphasis to be on Entertainment rather than Black, but that’s just me.)