I wanted to write a brief opinion on a subject that I feel strongly about. That subject is race relations. The impetus for this opinion is Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix special, Sticks and Stones, which I found effective—it was comedy, and I laughed. Sticks and Stones achieved its goals, and I appreciated its humor. I think Chappelle is one of the greatest wits of our time, a thoughtful man, and a person with a vocabulary that’s both deep and very elastic—he’s able to bend words artfully to comic and profound effect. In other words, I think he’s a good guy.
My opinion piece, to be clear, is not so much about Sticks and Stones, as it is about using that Netflix special as a jumping-off point onto the topic of race relations. So, I’m going to start with a part of Sticks and Stones as an entry into my conversation. During one part of Dave’s special, there’s a segment that goes something like this. Dave tells an anecdote about how he’s at a comedy club, making a bunch of jokes, when a few jokes come up about rape. One of the people in the audience becomes offended, and, as she’s leaving, she says something to the effect that the jokes aren’t funny—she was raped. And Dave’s reply is to the effect of, “I’m sorry you were raped, but I didn’t do it.” Then he goes on to say that he gets the audience back on his side, the show is about comedy—rightfully implying that people should understand that comedy is meant to be uncomfortable—and he then makes a few jokes about transsexuals to the delight of a transsexual. And of course it’s hard to tell where Dave’s comedy ends and where his actual beliefs begin, because he’s not intending to do a shtick on civil rights, he’s doing a comedy bit, so he’s intentionally not going to put down a bright line.
But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Dave Chappelle didn’t rape that woman, and I didn’t enslave black people. I just didn’t do it. Nor did I participate in the oppression of black people. I just didn’t do it. I believe in equity and justice for all, and I have lived my life accordingly.
With regard to slavery, a most conspicuous form of subjugation, I don’t believe in slavery, never supported it, and, if, for instance, a genie suddenly made slavery legal, and he made Dave Chappelle my slave, I would be ashamed to have Dave (or anyone) as a slave, declare him free, dust my hands off, and support his and his fellows’ freedom. This is all relatively straightforward.
So, I find it dogmatic when Dave harps on the idea that white people today are to be equated with white people of yesterday, and are thereby culpable. As a man, Dave isn’t responsible for raping that woman, and as a white man, I’m not responsible for injustices perpetrated against black people; I’ve done more to help the underprivileged than otherwise. So lay off; it’s aggravating as hell for folks to insinuate that I, just by being born the way I am, am guilty of a crime I didn’t commit. I believe it was Mark Twain, or some other such luminary, who said something to the effect that a lie could circle the world three times before the truth had time to put its pants on. This is probably true. A couple hundred years or so later, President Obama addressed the topic indirectly in his book, The Audacity of Hope, when he talks about how positioning is important for the modern day politician. The general gist of Obama’s argument goes like this: the modern politician—due to many influences, most of which are legitimate—must position himself so that he is slated to appear credible and legitimate and accurate using a truncated version of the truth. If the entire truth is told, it may take too long to tell it, and—because of the sensationalist nature of the media, the attention span of the public, and other factors—the entirety of the truth will be lost.
I’m not, however, a politician (thank God). I am a writer (why, God?). I am afforded the liberty of not relying on either votes or popular opinion. I am afforded the liberty of speaking for myself. I am also able to wait until the truth has time to put its pants on. This is a powerful advantage in any field, it has been for years, and I intend to capitalize on it in this opinion on the subject of race relations, especially in places where Chappelle mentions Frederick Douglass—a man whom I admire. Frederick Douglass was, in my opinion, an intellectual and accessible writer, and a foresighted man. I enjoy reading him. Frederick Douglass was a model person and should be held up as such. But I find it annoying that Chappelle neglects to mention the white people who also fought for the abolition of slavery. Where is the mention, for instance, of William Lloyd Garrison? Of Abraham Lincoln? I understand that, during the Civil War, African Americans fought and died, that the charge on Ft. Sumter was led by P.G.T. Beauregard, a white man, and that Beauregard’s charge marked the start of the secession of slave states and the South’s intention to preserve slavery as an institution for all of eternity—an institution which benefitted the white man. I get it. I understand also that the North was led by one of America’s greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, who fought both to preserve the Union and to abolish slavery. That’s no mean feat. I mean, Lincoln could have looked the other way on slavery, but he didn’t.
So here’s my point: people of all colors have struggled for and against oppression.
Is there still racism? Yes.
Were the Jim Crow laws a setback for blacks? Yes.
Did institutional racism exist and does it exist now? Yes.
I’m not denying any of this.
What I am arguing is that the dogmatic cant put forth in David Chappelle’s Sticks and Stones, and by other black and white and brown people, paints an inaccurate historical picture by ignoring white people’s roles in advancing black civil rights.
Look, most legacies are fraught with vexatious perspectives. It’s human nature. But to ignore people like Garrison and Lincoln while speaking only of Douglass? This seems unduly, epidermally superficial, and it’s time that we, as humans, become more progressive. I submit that it’s more democratic for W.L. Garrison to wish to abolish slavery than it is for Frederick Douglass, whose interest in abolition was more vested than Garrison’s. It’s time to paint a more nuanced and reticulated picture of how people, as whites and blacks and browns, have hurt and helped one another throughout the years. People have striven for domination, have erected systems which are inherently biased, and have also sought to impose justice and equity. There are many kinds of people in this world, and it is the majesty of the American Constitution—which has its flaws, but which enables people to express themselves—that makes for what Obama called “a genuine marketplace of ideas” where people can trade thoughts, speak, listen, understand, and learn. Harry Blackmun wrote, in one of the most droll understatements of modern times, that “Controversy over our nation’s most majestic guarantees frequently has been turbulent.” Certainly the statement is amusing and brings a glint of warmth and satisfaction to the eye. But it’s satisfying because it’s true. We have controversy, we have strife, we have relationship problems—but we need to address these things holistically and progressively and accurately if mankind is to truly flourish.