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.

Point of View Columns

Alone in the Ebony Tower

The recent controversy surrounding the unfortunate personal attacks on President Obama by the once-respected Professor Cornel West could be written off as just another story from the United States of Stupid. There are an infinite number of such stories, recent ones including the $500,000 Tiffany’s line of credit enjoyed by the “populist” Newt Gingrich the manic media obsession with the marital life of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels.

But the Cornel West story is different in a very important way. His comments and his personal line of attack were not explosive, but they were corrosive. There is no way that a relative lightweight like Cornel West could collapse the Obama presidency with his pseudo-intellectual hoots and catcalls.

However petty, personal and disrespectful commentary gets more media coverage than any serious criticism of the policies and actions of the Obama Administration. Unfortunately many of the same people who read the National Enquirer for their news and get their facts from seminars held in barber shops and beauty salons are the same people who will pay attention to the likes of Cornel West. And they all vote – or don’t vote, based upon bits and pieces of information and nonsensical chatter such as the squawks that recently emanated from one of Princeton’s Finest.

If left unchallenged, over time commentary becomes fact. Cornel West has questioned whether Barack Obama is a “progressive”; he has also questioned whether he is truly connected to the black community in America. When Cornel West was selected as the arbiter of these matters is certainly a matter of some debate and mystery. Yet there are otherwise intelligent men and women who will listen to this nonsense. And they all vote -–or don’t vote.

The many critics of Professor West have pointed out the validity and need for a robust discussion, and where necessary critique, of the policies of President Obama, as would be the case for any president. But any African American who doesn’t recognize that the first African American President of the United States is a special case needs their head examined, and soon.

The insults, degrading remarks and insane rhetoric directed at Barack Obama by the right wing of the right wing are unprecedented. To suggest that these attacks are not in some way connected with the racial and racist concerns would be delusional. That Cornel West would join in this madcap chorus is minstrelsy, pure and simple. Professor West may not lecture about the Stockholm Syndrome in his classes at Princeton, but he is certainly a walking illustration of this malady.

When queried as to how his attacks are different from those emanating from the G.O.Tea Party and the right wing of the right wing, West had a facile response. He (correctly) pointed out that much of the so-called grassroots Tea Party movements are financed by “billionaires and plutocrats”. He then (insanely) stated that he spoke for the otherwise voiceless “masses” that have either been ignored or further oppressed by the Obama Administration.

My research does not indicate the moment in time when Cornel West was anointed as the voice of the “masses”. He presumably considers the thousands of black congressional, state and local elected officials (elected by the “masses”) as being mute and complicit in the sins of President Obama. And finally, Professor West is seemingly oblivious to the great harm that he can be the result of his attacks.

Much in the same way that Ralph Nader was directly responsible for the election of George Bush in 2000, Cornel West’s ravings born of personal pique and misplaced self-importance could persuade just a few voters to not vote for Barack Obama in 2012. A relatively few black voters in key states that stay home in solidarity with Princeton’s Finest could tip the election in favor of a Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann.

Clearly it is news to Professor West that politics is about the achievement of the possible while striving for perfection. Questioning Barack Obama’s “blackness”, calling him a “black mascot of Wall Street” and suggesting that he is afraid of “free thinking black men” (which presumably includes the Princeton-based bit actor in “Matrix Reloaded”) does nothing but energize the right wing of the right wing while degrading and corroding support for the president.

Perhaps Cornel West will be satisfied with a Palin or Pawlenty presidency in 2013. This is not the future that I wish for my son or the children of this country. If he can’t see the error of his ways perhaps he might have the good grace to just be quiet.