Dave Chappelle as homeless addict Tyrone Biggums in Chappelle's Show
Dave Chappelle as homeless addict Tyrone Biggums in Chappelle's Show

Dave Chappelle and the Disposability of Poor Black People

When it comes to the lives of Black people, not many jokes are off the table. In most cases, one may not immediately recognize a joke is targeted towards a specific Black experience because of how often we make light of our own trauma. What’s interesting, however, is that sometimes it isn’t until we observe the reaction of other marginalized groups that we reflect on how normalized jokes are about Black people in general, and poor Black people in particular. This could be because, historically, rich Black traditions such as ‘playing the dozens’ have informed the ways in which Black folks interact and joke with one another. Nevertheless, Black people are not a monolith. That is to say, there will always be Black folks who disagree on what or who can make light of Black experiences. For similar reasons, once a joke is made for the consumption of the white public, it no longer retains its unique, intra-communal jest; therefore, Black jokes are always controversial or offensive, even when the comedian is Black. If this is indeed the case, then what counts as discourse, or the set of rules that define the parameters for what can be legitimately said (and about who) is regulated by which groups hold disproportionate power. This group happens to never be poor Black people (and to this extension poor queer Black people). As such, these facts help to illustrate why certain jokes about Black people (as queer, sex workers, crack addicts, incarcerated citizens, abuse victims etc) are rarely grounds for public intervention, yet are always conjured up when they affect powerful white political groups. This in no way suggests that there is a remedy or solution that comedy is in need of. Perhaps there isn’t one. But it does shed light on dynamics that are real and play a vital role in what shapes “funny”. 

For many years, we have enjoyed the comedic genius of Dave Chappelle. Some would argue that Chappelle has no contemporary; he is our greatest of all time. For me, it is undeniable that he is amongst the greatest. His ability to drive home a shared Black experience is second to none. But if anyone has seen his most recent Netflix special ‘The Closer’ they would most likely be aware of the controversy it stirred up, markedly, as it relates to his remarks on the Trans community. As Dave adequately captures, the LGBTQIA community is a largely white dominated political entity that is as every bit of racist as its straight counterparts; white LGBTQIA people tend to believe their racism is alleviated due to their being marginalized by other whites. What Dave tends to miss in his special, however, (with a perfunctory ignorance of the distinction between gender and sex) is that poor Black queer and trans folks oftentimes bear the brunt of that racism vis a vis their proximity to this group. This became even more pronounced in his special as he showed an inability to connect the struggles of poor queer people with that of poor Black folks; struggles that are qualitatively different from that of the white lbgtqia power structure. And sometimes the feelings of that Black erasure are not “funny.”

Chappelle is no stranger to offensive jokes. The jokes that he has performed in front of audiences about Black folks have never caused quite the stir it has today. Relatedly, Chappelle is on record admitting he has went to far before. Actually, it was one of the reasons he left the Chappelle show almost two decades ago. While recording a sketch on magic pixies, Chappelle dressed up in Black face attempting to be funny in a stereotypical fashion. At some point during the taping, he recalls that he couldn’t tell whether the white man laughing profusely was doing so because it was funny or because it was reinforcing a long standing trope of Black people. What’s striking about this story is that it is very possible that it was his comfort in white environments that influenced these kinds of jokes in the first place. It is for this reason that I would argue that not only does Dave being a millionaire disallow him from acquiring knowledge about certain Black communities (particularly poor Black and Queer communities) but growing up in a substantially white environment shaped what kinds of jokes were “funny.”

Dave Chappelle was raised in a middle class suburb adjacent to Washington, DC named Silver Spring. Both of Chappelle’s parents were university professors and known to be politically active. In fact, prior to Dave being born, his mother was the first African American to work under the first Prime minister of the Independent Democratic Republic of Congo Patrice Lumumba. She would later return to America to work for the department of state, two years after Lumumba’s assassination. During the late 1970’s for which Chappelle would have been coming of age, Montgomery County Silver Spring demographics show that over 70% of the population were white with a median household income of close to 6 figures. In contrast, around the same time, Washington DC (where me and several generations of my family are from) demographics trends reveal that over 70% of the population was Black, where Black residents had a household median income of less than half of that ($100,000). After his parents split at the age 6, Chappelle would oscillate time between his Mother and Father eventually staying with his Mom in a traditionally Black middle class section of Northwest, DC. Although Dave Chappelle has always been honest about his childhood upbringing, this background information allows us critical insight into the environment for which he spent his formative years. In this respect, the commentary Dave has shared with his white audiences over the years —specifically as it pertained to poor Blacks— reflect the comfortable networks he once cultivated with whites in his formative years. On this basis, is it not legitimate to reflect on whether or not Dave Chappelle often misses the mark, most notably, when it comes to the experiences of the poor Black masses?

None of this is to suggest that Chappelle does not share a unique Black experience. Rather, the conditions Dave grew up in afforded him different opportunities and resources which shaped his views of those of us without them. Perhaps this is what led (who many would call a hater) actor and comedian Faizon Love to suggest that white people “made Dave ” who he is today. The fact that Dave Chappelle grew up in a professional class setting and now holds millionaire status should cause viewers to interrogate the class components of his standup. Not having an intimate connection with the poor Black communities who may be harmed by his rhetoric is a feature of his class privilege. Furthermore, It should explain why certain commentary that whites feel are important issues to them garner so much support. Jokes and erasure of poor Black and queer folks are the standard for comedy; it is only when powerful white groups are effected that things are no longer “funny.”

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Reny is an organizer and social philosophy student out of Washington, DC. His areas of focus are Africana, epistemology, philosophy of language, and Black male studies.