I hate to say “Be careful what you wish for” as it relates to demanding diversity in entertainment. Alas, it seems that once again, it’s been proven that your skinfolk ain’t always your kinfolk. This time, it’s a grossly offensive skit about slave rape that’s got many of us shaking our heads.
A public conversation about the longtime absence of Black women on Saturday Night Live led to the casting of Sasheer Zamata and the hiring of not one, but two Black women writers: Leslie Jones and LaKendra Tookes. Any excitement over the splash of color added to the 39-year-old show was tempered by the debate over why these women were hired got pretty ugly (Black women ask to be represented on the show, get added to the show and then are chided with “But they only added them because you complained.” Because affirmative action is a bad thing, right?) and the fact that the quality of the show remained…consistent. Fans and detractors alike have been complaining about the inconsistency of SNL for many years---a skit that leaves you in stitches is often sandwiched in between two that put you to sleep--- with the show’s glory days being as long gone as some of the current cast has been alive.
But while Zamata’s presence has failed to revolutionize the show (duh), it was nice to see that Black female characters could be played by an actual woman. Alas, we got something far more offensive to Black women than Keenan Thompson in a dress when Jones made her on-camera debut on the long-running “Weekend Update” sketch, reporting on Lupita Nyong’o’s “Most Beautiful” honor.
I missed the sketch, but was urged by writer/comedian Mary Pryor to check it out early Sunday morning. I was, of course, horrified. My anger changed shape over the course of the day. At first, I was disgusted that Jones dared make light of slave rape AND dismiss the significance of The Lupita Moment all in one fell swoop---and that she jumped and hollered like some sort of banshee while doing it. While I am typically disinterested by the concept of putting on a “good” face for White folks, it was appalling to see this sister gleefully acting like she was auditioning for Birth of a Nation 2: We’s Really Like Dis!
Leslie Jones is not a slave. She chose to both develop and perform this skit and for that reason, she should be ashamed of herself, but put her to the side for a moment. What about the producers, directors, cast members who watched this play out? No one said, “You know this is going to upset a lot of people, right?” SNL now has at least five Black actors and writers…one would hope that that would have been enough to stop this train. That is why we wanted Black women in the writers’ room in the first place, to prevent exactly this. Because I am willing to bet that had a Jewish writer conceived an ‘Anne Frank meets Justin Bieber’ skit after the singer made his regrettable comments about the young Holocaust victim, someone would have had the good sense to shut it DOWN.
(When does someone shut down jokes about slavery? And how bad are the racist jokes that don’t make it past the drawing board?)
But what really saddened me was Leslie Jones’ defense of herself. Aside from the typical, trite ‘I’m a comic and you just didn’t get it’ defense, she also admitted that the bit---which she has been doing in her stand-up for years--- is based on her own issues:
Where is the rape idiots. I said nothing about rape you fucking morons. I was talking about being match to another strong brother.— Leslie Jones (@Lesdoggg) May 4, 2014
Not being rape by white man. What part of this joke that wasn't true? I would have been used for breeding straight up. That's my reality.— Leslie Jones (@Lesdoggg) May 4, 2014
And it saddens me that BLACK PEOPLE bitch and moan about the most stupid shit. I'm a comic it is my job to take things and make them funny— Leslie Jones (@Lesdoggg) May 4, 2014
to make you think. Especially the painful things. Why are y'all so mad. This joke was written from the pain that one night I realized that— Leslie Jones (@Lesdoggg) May 4, 2014
black men don't really fuck with me and why am I single. And that in slave days I would have always had a man cause of breeding. If anybody— Leslie Jones (@Lesdoggg) May 4, 2014
It’s disturbing to imagine that Jones’ own understanding is so limited that she actually believes do ‘better’ with men if forced breeding were on the table---that she actually doesn’t understand that mating between enslaved Africans was often under duress---and, also, even if there was some shred of humor in this routine, that SNL is the wrong venue for it. It was White co-star Colin Jost who she asked “Who would you pick, me or Lupita?” (The “I don’t want either of y’all!” was so awkwardly written all over his face, btw.)
I don’t know if she’s just doubling down and committing to defending a completely indefensible (IT WASN’T REALLY WASN'T FUNNY, MA) skit, or if she really just doesn’t grasp what was wrong with it. But it's depressing that Jones would play out her own issues with feeling undesirable in a way that not only made her, in that moment, perhaps as unattractive as humanly possible, but also mocked other Black women who may be taller, larger or outside the ‘norm’ in the process. Comedy can be cathartic, dark, subversive...but that takes skill that wasn't displayed here. She didn't call to question why women like her are, by her accounts, less wanted than the Lupitas and Beyonces of the world; she talked about fighting Crips for a White dude and popping out NBA-worthy babies on demand.
Jones also tweeted that had Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle performed a similar routine, they would not have received the same criticism. While I don’t disagree that there is a double standard for Black women in most spaces, it should be noted that that both of their potentially controversial career moments-to-date played out before Twitter gave anyone the ability to respond instantly---and please believe I’d be first in line to let either of them have it if they were to ever do a skit so disgusting as this one.
Black women are so often the butt of the joke. If any of us deserve to be protected from such, it is our ancestors who endured the indignity and dehumanization of slavery. Furthermore, sisters who have their own issues with dating should not have to deal with the indignity and dehumanization of another (hurt) sister making light of their pain for an audience of White folks, or anyone else, for that matter.
Whether SNL will ever get it right when it comes to Black women remains to be seen, but I'm even more curious to know when Leslie Jones will get it right for herself---and our ancestors.
Jamilah Lemieux is EBONY.com's Senior Editor.