Not Safe for White People

Tyler Perry, Rev. Wright and the end of the chitlin circuit.

In a 1997 New Yorker article, The’s own Skip Gates took a more extended look at the chitlin circuit and plays like “My Grandmother Prayed for Me” and “Beauty Shop,” arguing that they constituted “a racially sequestered space, where black audiences can laugh, cry and critique uninhibitedly and privately.” Instead of focusing on white comfort, though, Gates zeroed in on potential black worry. “The presence of white folks would have engendered a familiar anxiety: Will they think that’s what we’re really like?”

He went on to say that if the private happenings of the chitlin circuit were to be made public, a kind of uncomfortable hell would break loose for some black folks. “You don’t want white people to see this kind of spectacle, you want them to see the noble dramas of August Wilson, where the injuries and injustices perpetrated by the white man are never far from our consciousness … By contrast, these chitlin circuit plays carry an invisible racial warning sticker: For domestic consumption only—export strictly prohibited.”

Take it as sign of the changes wrought by the intervening 11 years since Gates’ article that white people seeing “this kind of spectacle” has gone from ominous danger to standard mass media operating procedure. Whether you’re talking Meet the Browns, Flavor of Love, ghetto lit, or a Jeremiah Wright sermon, ubiquitous viral media means that America’s “racially sequestered” spaces come fewer and farther between, and a whole world of material previously deemed, by some, NSFW (not safe for whites) is now just a YouTube search away.

(As an NSFW aside, those of you who are grown adults and surfing from home should look up Atlanta public access mini-celebrity Alexyss K. Tylor. There is a whole sub-genre of forced “reaction” videos on YouTube where someone tricks an unsuspecting victim into watching a particularly outrageous clip and records the results; me I would pay money to watch white folks watch Tylor’s various magna operas.)

Indeed, if there’s a patron saint, god or loa of accidental racial irony, he or she is likely having a good chuckle at the fact that Barack Obama’s sweeping vision of transformed American race relations debuted a mere week before Perry’s Meet the Browns.

Perry doesn’t make an appearance in what’s now shorthanded as the “Race Speech,” but there is a sense in which the candidate’s attempt to parse exactly what he liked and disliked about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church and sermonizing was country kin to the work critics like Scott undertake when explaining artifacts like Meet the Browns to white audiences. The subject matter in both instances is, of course, apples and oranges.

Obama’s speech was about racial history, bare-knuckled primary politics, and religious rhetoric, whereas a Tyler Perry review most often alights on the various the implications of black dudes wearing dresses. (Less so this time around with the Angela Basset-fronted “Browns.”)

But the Race Speech and a careful Perry review are in their own ways about the perils and challenges presented by white eavesdropping on black conversations. With the wide distribution of Wright’s sermons, some white audiences previously unexposed to his form of black rhetoric found themselves at turns shocked, confused and worried, which is to say, in need of a handy primer.

And after having avoided exactly this kind of work throughout his campaign, Barack Obama – likely Democratic presidential nominee, change agent, and once in a lifetime political phenomenon – found himself forced by political expediency into that oldest of roles for black folks in the public eye: reluctant native informant and translator.

His response wasn’t exactly a Tyler Perry review, but it was close: There was a time and a place for Rev. Wright’s comments and I’d like to explain those times and places to you. I don’t live in either anymore, but I also won’t completely trash them, because they’re a part of who I am and at various points they have given me comfort.