Dave Chappelle on the campaign trail for Andrew Yang during the 2020 presidential election
Dave Chappelle on the campaign trail for Andrew Yang during the 2020 presidential election.

Dave Chappelle & The Dishonesty of the African Petit-Bourgeoisie

The capitalist system within the U.S., founded and sustained through the systemic exploitation of our Mother Africa and her children, has maintained ironclad oppression against the African masses for centuries. Since this discrimination is so widespread and systemic, most African people have some level of consciousness about it. Unfortunately, because our oppression has forced us into being so utterly disorganized, we currently possess slim-to-no capacity to mount any serious challenges against this capitalist system. This is the reason why the moment any random African, especially one who has recognition from the capitalist system, says anything about our oppression, you will always see a large number of us who immediately support it. 

In some ways, this is always great to see because it signifies that the majority of our people recognize at all times that we exist within a system that does not have our best interests at heart. It never has, and it never will. The challenges to this phenomenon are steeped in the contradictions of class struggle among the African masses. Malcolm X warned us in 1964 not to fall into the trap set by the capitalist system where African celebrities are scooted out in front of us and their perspectives on any and everything are treated like official statements from the African masses. Malcolm’s logic is critically important because of the specific role celebrities play in wittingly or unwittingly serving as buffers between the capitalist power structure and the masses of people. Their role is to provide the masses of people a vision of potential success within the capitalist system. A vision that says each and everyone of us can achieve individual and financial success within capitalism. This is an overwhelmingly important message from the capitalists because as long as they can convince the masses of African people to have faith in that message, they can ensure control over our thinking. This is the reason that whenever there is a mass uprising by the African masses, what do they do? They get celebrities to talk down the anger and frustration.

For example, during the protests throughout the summer of 2020 around police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, you witnessed an onslaught of African petit-bourgeoisie celebrities from Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, TI, Killer Mike and many more, coming out telling people to chill. Barack Obama, the chief African spokesperson among the bourgeoisie class, piped up telling people not to attack the system, but “vote!”  That’s the role of these people, to set the political agenda for the African masses. Because we watch these people in movies, they sing songs that appeal to our emotions, and make plays on the field/court that pause the anxieties we feel from this capitalist oppression, we relate to these people in strange ways. We feel that we know them and/or that we have a connection to them. The reality is Dave Chappelle introduced himself in his most recent Netflix special saying, “I’m famous and rich!”  There is only one reason for him needing to state this obvious fact, but most people that heard it probably didn’t catch it. He made a clear class distinction separating himself from the masses of his people and if we are really paying attention, that should have invalidated much of what he had to say about the African experience, even if some of what he said was true.

It’s that balance between objective truth and class propaganda that makes the African nationalist bourgeoisie so difficult to challenge. Their strategy is always to take the lowest hanging fruit, things that even a 5th grader would have to agree with, and couching lies and misinformation within those basic truths. For example, Chappelle talks in his special about European LGBTQ people protesting oppression against them while being perfectly willing at any time to claim white supremacy, calling the police on African people whenever it suits them. This is an obvious truth that is carefully designed to tug at the heart strings of the African masses because deep down inside, it’s always difficult for us to trust any European. And, despite the fact that we do find ways to trust some of them, because our African culture is still primarily humanistic in theory and practice, more often than not, their behavior usually confirms for us why we can’t trust most of them. The African petit-bourgeoisie in general, and Chappelle in particular, rely on this tactic of saying certain things that appeal to the African masses in a way that makes us much less critical of the deeper things Chappelle and these people are saying.

That tactic is always effective because the masses of African people have been conditioned to do two very unhealthy things. First, we don’t study much of anything. We don’t study our history, we don’t really know who we are, and we rely on our enemies for all of our information. Second, most of us are completely numb to recognizing that one of our enemy’s most commonly used tactics is to get African celebrities to deliver messages that are kind to the interests of the capitalist system. The way the system “gets” these African petit-bourgeoisie celebrities to do this is tied up in the way class privilege works. 

Chappelle’s self-proclaimed “richness” insulates him from having to experience the conditions for the majority of African people. As a result, this country really is a free society based on how it’s worked out for him. You can tell this is what he believes because he actually expressed in the special a belief on his part that his decision a few years ago to leave money on the table is the equivalent of some great social sacrifice. Comparable to Lumumba continuing to struggle against Belgium and the neo-colonialists despite knowing it meant his certain death. Comparable to Che Guevara facing certain death in Bolivia by fighting on the front lines in an effort to liberate the America’s from capitalist exploitation. Comparable to the comrades taking such a personal risk to free Assata Shakur from a maximum security prison so that she could escape to Cuba. In this strange and insane reality where truth and justice are completely divorced from material reality, Chappelle actually stood up in front of millions and suggested that foregoing additional money (when he clearly had the pathways to make that money up in other ways) should be considered some badge of integrity for him. And, it works for people like Chappelle because the majority of us know absolutely nothing about Lumumba, Guevara, Assata, or any of our genuine freedom fighters, why they fought, and what they are fighting for. Because of this inequity in political consciousness, for a lot of us, Chappelle is somewhat of a freedom fighter. 

Another great example of this is how so many Africans trumpeted the injustices being perpetuated against Bill Cosby and R. Kelly, for things they more than likely are extremely guilty of, while ignoring the actual injustices being perpetuated against actual freedom fighters and longtime political prisoners Mutulu Shakur, Sundiata Acoli, Jamil Abdullah al-Amin, Mumia Abu Jamal, Ruchell Magee, etc. 

Chappelle and other petit bourgeoisie celebrities operate under this cloak, gaining acceptance from the African masses because we have been conditioned to avoid any knowledge of our real struggle for dignity in this society. As a result, many of us mistakenly believe that aspiring to get to the position that Chappelle and other petit bourgeoisie Africans hold is what our actual struggle really is. Since we want to be like Chappelle, we respond to our emotional urges to protect him because in most of our eyes, he is being attacked by the system. And since he uses those basic talking points about white supremacy that most of us know to be true, we interpret these events to suggest that he is being attacked by the system the same way we are everyday.

As a result of our emotional response to people like Dave Chappelle, we often fail to see the deeper contradictions in what he and others in his class privilege are talking about. We do this because many of us believe in one unity with no class distinctions. As Kwame Ture put it, “the Democratic Party is the only party where millionaires and houseless people belong to the same party and act as if they have the same interests!”  Also, most of us possess the valid desire to stand up against white supremacy. When Chappelle says European LGBTQ revert to white supremacy whenever they desire, he’s correct about that and that logic resonates deeply with the African masses.

It resonates so deep, and we don’t have the political tools to analyze things beyond our surface feelings about them, we don’t necessarily know how to deconstruct a lot of what is being said. For example, the reactionary existence of the majority of European LGBTQ people against the African masses cannot and shouldn’t be confused with the day to day conditions the masses of African LGTBQ people experience. To suggest that the experiences of European and African LGTBQ people is the same would be just as insane as suggesting that the experiences of us so-called “hetero” African and European are the same. The truth is there is no blanket large enough to cast over every reality in this argument. The truth is there are some European LGBTQ people who are more down for African liberation than Dave Chappelle will ever be. The truth is there is nothing about Dave Chappelle that should be that impressive to anyone. He’s risen to fame using racism as a comedy tool to largely European audiences. For me, there’s nothing there that makes me want to laugh. Jokes about slavery, domestic violence, trans people being killed, none of that is funny to me and it never will be, but all of that is fair game to a petit bourgeoisie puppet like Chappelle. 

If you want to really be impressive, figure out how create some jokes that attack the system that’s oppressing all of us. I can tell you already, that will never happen because doing that would do nothing for Chappelle except bring some systemic wrath down upon him and that’s clearly not what he’s trying to do. Again, he said it himself, he’s rich and famous, and at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about for him. If his so-called back and forth with the LGBTQ community hadn’t caused him some personal discomfort, whether he admits it or not, he wouldn’t even be talking about any of this. That should be all you need to know to realize he’s not speaking out to speak up for the African masses against white supremacy. He’s only doing what people like him always do, using the African masses to advance themselves.

As for us, we need to seriously examine why we are always so unwilling to hold any of these people accountable to our collective interests. Is the bar so low for us that we won’t even make people like Dave Chappelle, Ice Cube, 50 Cents, Kanye West, respect us as a people? They can disparage us and we do nothing because they said one or two things that are true (as the saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day). 

In the final analysis, it is incumbent upon us to reach some level of political sophistication where we are able to collectively ascertain that only the masses of African people can speak for our people. And, the test of that is in ensuring that what is spoken is done in a way that advances the conditions for the masses of our people. Yes, the LGBTQ question needs much more discussion among our people, but it’s an insane reality we live in where we are more concerned about disparaging LGBTQ people of any race before we are interested in discussing what this capitalist system is doing to our people worldwide. That sums up the entire point being made in this piece. Anyone who is sincerely interested in African people from a creative standpoint would be trying to figure out ways to discuss mass incarceration, police terrorism, African identity, our relationship to Africa in healthy productive ways (Pan-Africanism), forced sterilization of African women, etc. Dave Chappelle isn’t doing that. All he’s doing is looking out for his individual best interest. And, he’s using us to attempt to do it and as usual, too many of us are more than willing to comply.

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Ahjamu Umi is revolutionary organizer with the All African People's Revolutionary Party, adviser, and liberation literature author.