Why Black Comics Must Get Barack

Where is Dave Chappelle when we need him? Time for black funnymen to take the gloves off.


Fade back to 1983. Reaganomics has black America in a stranglehold, unemployment is running rampant, and my sisters and I have snuck into the basement after lights out to watch Eddie Murphy, clad in a skintight red leather outfit, tell dirty jokes. Eddie says he saw Jesse Jackson working out at the gym now that he's running for president. He says he saw him running laps on the track.

"Why you working out?" Eddie asks Jesse.

"I gotta be in shape," Jesse replies. "Because when I give my first speech, it will be like this." And then Eddie darts across stage, a blur of red leather ducking and dodging, weaving and bobbing so that the sniper rifle can't get a read on him.

Speed up a bit to 2000. Dave Chappelle is at the Lincoln Theatre in D.C., and I am in the balcony with a friend who smuggled in beers in her purse. Dave says he doesn't want to be the first black president. Maybe the second or the third, but definitely not the first. Well, on second thought, he could be the first, but he would have a Mexican vice president for insurance.

Black president: both joke and punch line. Black president: an oxymoron like jumbo shrimp. For a long time, comedians have riffed on what having a black president would actually mean … as if that would ever happen. That if it did, there would be cookouts on the White House lawn, which would have no grass, a broken-down car sitting on bricks and an old weight set in the driveway.

It was always a fantasy, about as realistic as the Loch Ness Monster, mythical in proportion and scope. The futility of the idea was a reflection of the weight of the past and pessimism about the future. Imagine a black president and fill in the rest with stereotypes and tragedy, because there is a grain of truth in both.

The jokes didn't land on any one person, so there was no harm. That they never would was the ultimate punch line.

We have become accustomed to using humor to push through the burdens of blackness, says Darryl Littleton, author of Black Comedians on Black Comedy: How African-Americans Taught Us to Laugh. Even in bondage, humor helped lighten the load of slavery. "Slaves that didn't have the commonality of language would use pantomime to make fun of the slave owners," Littleton said.

Humor has always been a painfully real thing for black America. It's been a balm both to the hurtful reality of our place in America and the insufferable parts of our past. Jokes about being followed in a department store or being pulled over by the police, or not being able to hail a cab are funny because they connect the past and present struggle.

So what kind of reception should President-elect Barack Obama expect from the comedy world? Should we be on watch for tasteless racial innuendo? Or do we need to guard against being hypersensitive?