Point of View Columns

Larry Wilmore and 21st Century Minstrelsy

At the recent White House Correspondents Dinner, “Nightly Show” host Larry Wilmore thought that it would be funny to call the first African American President of the United States a “nigger”. Not only was he seriously not funny, Wilmore proved be himself to be a shameful practitioner of a genre of 21st century minstrelsy, where he plays the eternal role of the ubiquitous coon.

There is no useful time to be spent debating over whether Wilmore used the term “nigger” or “nigga”, for some could worthlessly argue that one N-word is less offensive than the other. The only point worth comment is that a black comedian thought that it was funny to call the President Obama a “nigger”, in the process breathing life into some of the undead minstrel traditions that go back almost two centuries.

For some serious background on American minstrelsy, “Darkest America” by Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen provides some useful insight into how black Americans became both the target and the source of types of humor that last to this very day. Indeed, the original minstrels were white men in blackface making fun of black people. The next iteration of minstrels was black men in blackface making fun of white people making fun of black people. And it just went on from there – with toms, mammies, coons, bucks and pickaninnies showing up all over the place.

Taking hurtful images and painful language and turning them into subjects of humor are classic defense mechanisms of oppressed people. So it should be no wonder that even in the 21st century black (and white) audience still delight to see the exaggerated portrayals of racist stereotypes of black Americans as comedy.

Indeed, some would argue that making humorous use of the same word – “nigger” – that was used when black men, women and children were lynched and degraded is a way of diminishing the hurtful power of the word. Yet it is rare that those who make that argument would call their mother, grandfather or daughter or wife a “nigger”.

By referring to President Obama as a “nigger” on global television, Larry Wilmore proved himself to be the 21st century version of a coon. After all, in the American minstrel tradition, the coon has always been silly, shameless and totally without regard to any sense of propriety, history or self-respect.

Nevertheless, one could have hoped that Wilmore would have realized that there are literally millions of black boys and girls under the age of twelve who have never known a president other than Barack Obama, and hopefully they do not think of him as a “nigger”. And perhaps the thought of those boys and girls would have given him cause to pause.

One could have hoped that Wilmore would have given a moment to think about the millions of black men and women who think of the first black President of the United States as a subject of pride and not the target of buffoonery or coonery. And perhaps the thought of those men and women might have given him cause to pause.

And perhaps most of all, Wilmore might have paused prior to assuming his virtual blackface persona, to consider the tens of millions of black Americans who lived in this country without hopes being realized, without dreams ever coming true, indeed without sanctuary in their own land. Perhaps Wilmore could have respected their memory instead of launching into his rhetorical buck and wing while disrespecting the first black president. But clearly he was too absorbed in being “funny” to think at all.

Fortunately Wilmore will only be a footnote to a footnote when the history books are written. He will be just another black man who chose minstrelsy instead of dignity. Indeed, if he is remembered at all, he will be remembered as someone who chose to be a coon when he could have been a man.