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O.N. opines! On politics, on creepy comedy, on Xma$…

on December 3, 2008

It’s funny, it’s raw–and it’s a really bad idea


When comedian Dave Chappelle walked away in 2005 from the third season of his wildly popular show on Comedy Central, it was a shock to many. He’d dumped a $50 million contract with the network and he left confused, fleeing to South Africa, saying he wasn’t comfortable anymore with the way his humor—intelligent, provocative and from a black perspective—was being viewed by nonblack folks. So in October, when Comedy Central launched “Chocolate News,” in which host David Alan Grier puts his comedic spin on The Daily Showesque media spoof, it was widely viewed as the consummate replacement for Dave Chappelle’s creation—and rightly so.

And that is not necessarily something to be proud of.

Chocolate News, which dubs itself “the only source for pure, uncircumcised realness from an Afrocentric perspective,” is very funny. Let me get that out of the way right now. In the debut episode, which premiered a few weeks before the election, Grier targeted hip-hop culture, the N-word and Maya Angelou—all in one fell swoop. The skit, in which he portrayed the famed black poet discussing the composing of an inaugural poem for America’s first black president, was hilarious. Dressed in a long purple dress, his lips tightly pressed against his teeth to emulate the iconic Angelou’s smile, Grier imitates the poet giving a glorious benediction in honor of Obama—at one point saying, “I christen you Hosanna Obama!” When asked whether she has prepared anything if John McCain is elected, Grier’s character stands up, looks toward the sky with hands outstretched, and says, “President-elect John McCain.” Pause, and grimace. “Ain’t this a bitch!”

This form of black comedy, which at its best is known for its raw sense of holding a mirror to society’s ills, harkens back to Grier’s ingenuity on the television series “In Living Color.” But then I saw Grier’s Nat Turner skit a few weeks ago. The conceit here is that an insurance executive has decided to honor the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831, in which the 30-year-old slave led a historic revolt against his owners (this actually did happen). In the skit, a news camerawoman follows the man as he explains the reasons for the celebration. The executive character, who is black, says he’s doing it because his son thought Nat Turner was someone from the movie “Soul Plane,” and leads a group of black men into a “slave master’s house” with axes and torches in hand while simulating hacking to death the lone man in the household. When they get in, they’re met by white damsels in distress who throw themselves at the men, which leads to a huge orgy. Needless to say, this debacle of a portrayal of the true Nat Turner rebellion made me cringe.

Yes, black comedy is real. Raw. In your face. But haven’t we learned anything from Chappelle’s demise? “Chocolate News” was averaging 1.9 million viewers in its first weeks, and what worries me is the same thing critic William Jelani Cobb writes about in his book, “The Devil & Dave Chappelle.” “An inside joke is inside for a reason—usually because only a select few people share the references necessary to decipher it, or the background to appreciate where the actual comedy is,” he writes. “In the wrong hands the joke will inevitably be misinterpreted.”

An inside joke in the wrong hands is precisely what has allowed the N-word to be spread from black lips to white, Latino and Asian ears and back out into conversations among themselves. I’m not saying everyone who is not black and who watches “Chocolate News” will go out and try to mimic David Alan Grier’s comedic twisted interpretations of black culture. What I am saying is that I’m a little tired of seeing all our dirty laundry aired out for everyone to see.

I know that every culture has its inside jokes. But in no other culture do I see them let out of the bag more often than in black culture. Why is it that every time a black comedy show gets on the air, more often than not we end up looking like Sambos all over again? I get it. Shows like these are supposed to evoke more laughs than anger. And they are funny. I won’t argue with that. But who keeps airing our dirty laundry? Is David Alan Grier on a secret mission to reveal every inside joke that has ever existed in the black community? Possibly, but I doubt it. Are the show’s writers and producers passively allowing Comedy Central’s parent company, Viacom, to pillage through any culture black people have left in this country? Conspiracy theory, maybe, but possible.

My message to all of them: No more skits like the Nat Turner reenactment. You’re either going to get another Dave Chappelle episode or another audience so desensitized to black culture that they eviscerate the joke. (It wasn’t that long ago, bear in mind, when a lot of white people in this country actually believed all black men wanted to infiltrate the race by sleeping with white women.) To state that this is just another attempt to unmask black people’s pain in dealing with one of the most pernicious racial myths by keeping it way too real is to completely ignore the most important point: that sometimes, as the saying goes, “Some things are better left unsaid.”

To a U.S. newcomer, this version of “change” looks awfully familiar.


Back in Africa, we all know the rules: politicians say anything or do anything to get elected. While many African countries learn the basics of fair elections, sometimes the hard way, we have come to understand that, for now, campaign rhetoric always amounts to nothing. Always. In my home country Burkina Faso, I have seen politicians show up in the community with trucks and shovels at the last minute, just before election day, to launch the foundation of a “new school,” a “new hospital” or a “new road” – all imaginary “bridges to nowhere” that no one will ever hear of after election day.

As I have watched US politics the past few months, I have become proud of it. But as the new Presidential administration is being formed, I am realizing that Africa is no big exception: politicians everywhere always do “politics as usual.”

This Monday President-elect Barack Obama formally introduced his national security team, led by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as his selection for secretary of state. This makes the former first lady the second personality in the “change” administration.

The media and experts have been quick to praise Clinton’s nomination as a bold move by her former rival, whose soon-to-be administration is dominated by many Clinton officials – including his new economic adviser Larry Summers and his new treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner. But as the team of “change we can believe in” takes shape day by day, it seems to be more and more about “the same old folks,” the ones the President-elect spent the last two years warning the American people against.

It’s true the campaign and its rhetoric is well behind us. But the election of Obama against veteran politicians like Hillary Clinton and John McCain was a sign that the American people want a “new kind of politics” and rejected the “same old folks.” If Obama is right today in the selection of Hillary Clinton, as many experts tend to believe, then what was the point he has been making for two years against “the Washington insiders who know how to play the game better”?

Not many people doubt Hillary Clinton’s qualifications for the job of secretary of state. But of all the nominations, hers seems the most politically motivated. Obama has no real choice but to nominate Clinton. Clinton’s public indication that she was interested in the job put pressure on the President-elect, making it harder for him to nominate somebody else.

Clinton, who claimed 17 million “glass ceiling” voters in the primaries, has already lost the VP position. And Obama, still relatively new in national politics, cannot afford to upset the former first family twice. He knows the next election is in four years. He can afford to refuse the post to others – like Bill Richardson or John Kerry, who were both said to have been interested in the State Department position – but not to the Clintons.

For now, people seem to be pleased with the new cabinet members. But Obama’s promise of a new leadership to change America seems to have been put to rest, reminding everybody that even a “new kind of politics” is first of all about politics. As usual.

This year’s Black Friday should make everybody stop and rethink


Years of exposure to savvy marketing techniques have conditioned holiday shoppers to believe they are on the brink of losing out – on the special deal, on the hot new toy, on the limited-time only offer. That took a tragic turn on Black Friday, when an employee at a Long Island Wal-Mart was trampled to death by a crush of shoppers who broke down the doors to the store as it opened at 5 a.m. Tough economic times have made people even more desperate for those deals. So desperate, in fact, that some people refused to stop shopping at Wal-Mart even after it was announced that the store was closing because of an employee death. Granted, many North Oakland residents may not be Black Friday enthuiasts, at least not at the big-box stores; the nearest Wal-Mart is at least ten miles away. But that doesn’t mean that these incidents should be glossed over, or billed as something that can’t happen here.

Calls to end the crazed commercialism of the holidays come every year in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. But this year is different. The country is mired in an economic recession unparalleled to any in recent years, with the government forking over bailout money like slices of pumpkin pie. To refrain from spending money, it seems, is to contribute to financial collapse. And not buying gifts is unthinkable to most Americans. Consumers feel torn between spending money to keep the economy afloat, or stashing it away in case of the Great Unknown – a layoff, an illness, a stock market crash.

The solution lies in thinking creatively about how to do both. Yes, you should support your local businesses and artists. But there are ways to save money while doing that. Buy fresh fruit from the Temescal Farmers Market and make jars of jam for the holidays. Go to the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse and pick up materials for handmade gifts – maybe a revamped clock, or table centerpiece or a bedazzled picture frame. Take a knitting class at Article Pract on Telegraph Avenue to fashion your own gifts of scarves or slippers.

The holidays are already fraught with anxiety, feelings that are exacerbated by uncertain economy. But those emotions don’t have to result in situations like the Wal-Mart stampede. Deals aren’t just found in glossy inserts in the Sunday newspaper. They can be found in the aisles of thrift stores, craft shops or even grocery stores. So bake a gingerbread house instead of buying a plasma TV. It may not get the best picture, but at least you’ll get a moment of peace worth more than any special deal – not even one discounted at half price.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
Oakland North

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