Touré Discusses "Post-Blackness" in Voices of Color Lecture
By Alex Pure '12
Contact: Holly Foster 315-859-4068
March 29, 2012
One of the biggest and most dangerous misconceptions of the modern day is the notion that we live in a post-racial America, that institutionalized racism is effectively over and everyone can afford to live “colorblind.” But how does post-racism differ from post-blackness? Touré, pundit and author of Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?, constructed his own analysis around a television show that most college students know: “the clearest explanation, in terms of a pop-culture product, of what post-blackness is and where we are as black people is (Comedy Central’s) Chappelle’s Show,” said Touré. “There were many things in that show that were incredibly deep.”
Touré spoke at Hamilton on March 28 as the annual Voices of Color lecturer.
As opposed to a program like Grey’s Anatomy, wherein race is interchangeable (a non-issue), Chappelle’s Show was dedicated to dissecting how matters of race continue to impact all of us, all the time. “In the very first episode of Chappelle’s Show, we meet a blind black man who believes that he's white and is a white supremacist. It was one of the most incendiary discussions of race ever aired,” explained Touré. Indeed, Chappelle’s Show accurately reflected the modern racial landscape: “Through caricature, Chappelle explored the joys and pitfalls of ‘performing blackness’ in multiple ways. He portrayed whiteness and blackness as fungible and fluid. He used history as a toy,” said Touré. “Underneath the comedy caricature was a stark discussion of modern race.”
Touré explained that the Comedy Central producers tried to drop the white supremacist sketch from the pilot, but Chappelle was ready to walk off the set if they tried. “[This sketch] had to be in the first episode,” said Touré. “It demonstrated the very subversive quality that Chappelle was aiming for.”
This quality of subversiveness continued in later sketches like “The Niggar Family,” wherein a white, middle-class family in the 1950s (think Leave it to Beaver) are themselves the victims of black stereotypes due to their pun-loaded surname. And it is Clifton the milkman (played by Chappelle) that actually provides the stereotyping gaze. “It was a dramatic recontextualization of race,” said Touré. “Clifton moves through the sketch as if he’s the only one aware of the word, the only one aware of the subtext.
For the white TV family, race is never an issue, and it remains a non-issue even when it is consistently brought up.” But the sketch takes a sudden somber turn at its close when Clifton remarks, “Oh Lord, this racism is killing me inside,” an ad-libbed line that emphasizes how racism is often felt as physical pain. “It’s laughter to keep from crying,” explained Touré.
Famously, Chappelle walked off his own show after three seasons and immediately traveled to Africa, citing that he was uncomfortable with the ways in which his comedy was being misconstrued and misappropriated: his work was perhaps too subtle for mass audiences to understand. “Was the burden of representation beginning to weigh on Chappelle?,” Touré asked. “Did he struggle with the anxiety of black public success? When he became the favorite comedian of many white Americans, what did he feel then?”
“The burden to advance the race is advancing the race in and of itself,” said Touré. “Artists must work with dangerous truths as scientists work with dangerous chemicals. Only through complete artistic freedom can we present and learn our own truths.”
But perhaps one of the most telling truths arose from an interview Touré conducted with Chappelle himself after the end of Chappelle’s Show, after the comedian’s much-publicized struggle with “the burden of representation.”
“Do you respect yourself?” Touré had asked.
Chappelle responded, “I respect the sh*t out of myself.”