U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Using comedy to discuss race post-Civil Rights Movement

This is a strange week in my intellectual history class. First of all, I had class at 9:30 the morning after the Cats won the national championship. My students were in the crowd in the photo, so I gave them the option to do a reading/writing assignment or come to class. Six out of 35 showed up and a couple have since emailed me their assignment. Originally, I had devoted this week to discussing race post-Civil Rights Movement. I was going to discuss  Oprah/Cosby Tuesday and Richard Pryor/Dave Chappelle Thursday. When I asked you all for feedback on my syllabus, you pointed out that I discussed religion in the 19th century but not the 20th, so I removed Oprah/Bill Cosby and replaced it with a discussion of the rise of the Christian Right and Left. That means this week is composed of an Easter sermon to six folks on Tuesday and day of profanity on Thursday. Yay!

I’m watching Richard Pryor to decide which clip to use. I’m thinking about using the clip in “Richard Pryor on the Sunset Strip” about his trip to Africa and decision not to use the “N-word” anymore, maybe connected to an earlier clip with him using the word. I wonder if it’s too obvious, but sometimes what seems obvious to me is revelatory to students. Other clips are of him performing blackness and masculinity in interesting ways. I’ve been reading this book, Richard Pryor: The Life and Legacy of a “Crazy” Black Man, for inspiration.

“‘The Motherland’ leads into the ‘N-Word’ part of the routine and Pryor begins to tell of his epiphany that there were no niggers in Africa. The significance is that at this point in his career the use of ‘nigger’ has come full circle, from the militant, uncompromising use of it in the reinvention of himself in the early ’70s–from the owning of it–to the rejection of it as a descriptor of blackness. Within the figuration of blackness in Pryor’s body of work, this moment is more than a staging of black pride. The ‘N-Word’ routine disrupts the significatory possibilities of the trope of ‘nigger.’ By this I mean that in his earlier routines ‘nigger’ is not only a descriptor and a direct address to an implied audience, but it is also an utterance of blackness, speaking, as it were, a peripheral subject position within blackness, and at this point in Pryor’s ongoing self-invention, the word is disarticulated, unable to give utterance to his subject position.”

I hadn’t seen “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” before (I picked it up thinking it would be a collection of short sketches, like his Comedy Channel show. I was wrong). He goes to small town Ohio to invite people from his hometown to go to a block party in Brooklyn, including young black guys stoked to see Chappelle and older white women who work at the local convenience store where Chappelle buys his cigarettes. It is an incredibly sweet, earnest film so far (I’m 45 minutes in at the moment). Not at all what I expected from a dvd whose cover shouts “unrated.” Hmmmmm.  It has many interesting moments about contemporary black life and thought. How to pull this all together before 9:30 tomorrow? I think it will be in part about the development of these comedians’ ideas about their identity and their responses to their fame. Did you know Chappelle is the son of two university professors (Antioch College and Howard University, among others)? He talked about believing his audience was intelligent and the pain of finding they weren’t.

Time for pondering.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Phew. I’m ready. I’m going to point out the development of both men’s thought, show some clips, and ask students to identify how Pryor opened Hollywood to a new kind of black man and how Chappelle explores many different aspects of American life in the Block Party. I will also talk about why Chappelle felt the need to recede from the lime-light, in part because of the way white folks were laughing at him instead of with him.

  2. I like the parochial/rural/small-town to Big City potential in this set up—how humor and race traverse between both cultures in recent U.S. history. I also like it that you’re incorporating humor into the course. I bet Dan Wickberg would like that as well.

    Does Chappelle still resonate with the kids today? I mean no offense, but my first thought on seeing his name here was: “That’s so five years ago!” – TL

  3. Lauren,
    I know this comes too late to help you plan for this year, but it might prove useful in the future. I see a connection in Pryor’s decision not to use the N word and the reason that Chappelle famously ended his show. In an interview (and I could not find the clip, but it is either with Oprah or Inside the Actor’s Studio) Chappelle explains that part of the reason he quit was over the use of the N word; and in particular he became uncomfortable with white people laughing at the use of the term.

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