At Saturday’s annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, guest host Larry Wilmore ended his high octane extended riff on race, politics and President Obama by spraying a local and international audience with the verbal accelerant of a shopworn valedictory among Black American men.
In full view of the non-Black public, Comedy Central's The Nightly Show host mixed his trademark dash of “authenticity” in satire into the fragrant stew of private Black desire and public Black defiance that, more than anything else, will define what some have labeled the “Black Presidency.” A clearly rattled live audience was still chewing on Wilmore’s (and prior to that, Obama’s) barrage of send-ups of race-obsessed critics when Wilmore declared to a smiling Obama, “So, Mr. President, Im’a keep it a hundred: Yo Barry: You did it, my nigga. You did it.”
A cascade of reactions could have been expected.
Wilmore has emerged as one of the more prominent Black public race translator comedians in the “Age of Obama.” Members of this group are frequently characterized as “pushing the envelope” on racial topics with easy smiles and semi-mock righteous indignation. They range from the affable W. Kamau Bell, a long-time performer and the latest entrant into CNN’s fascination with the trope of non-Whiteness, to the sharp-toned Hannibal Burress, whose controversial mockery of Bill Cosby put him on the comedy fast track.
Wilmore and Bell occupy the overlapping center of a collage of Black American comedy that includes a cluster of masters of racial irony such as Bert Williams, Moms Mabley, Godfrey Cambridge and Paul Mooney, to name a few. The patron saint of this brood, and arguably the finest Black comedian to practice the art, remains Richard Pryor. The heir apparent to the genealogy probably continues to be Dave Chappelle. The living paterfamilias is Dick Gregory, who sat counsel over a private and uncensored gathering of his juniors after last October’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which was awarded to Eddie Murphy.
Beyond this center of Black comedic irony in one direction of the diagram are Black comedians who “transcend race,” whose standard bearer was, unfairly and inaccurately for those familiar with his entire body of work, Cosby. Murphy follows largely in the Cosby posture, his profane disposition, faux Oedipal feigns and Cosby’s late inward political turns notwithstanding. In the other directional sphere lies a circle of Black comedians from Redd Foxx to Millie Jackson to Robin Harris that gives self-celebratory and at once self-critical succor to Black public spheres.
The word “nigger” is part of the genetic code of Black American identity that binds all three comedic spheres together. The word and its externally-imposed definition shares common parentage in the White racial imaginary with its diasporan cousins: Kaffir. Bushman. Moreno.
The writer Henry Dumas the slur in its proper context in his short story, The Bewitching Bag, or How the Man Escaped from Hell. He writes, “to the White man, a Negro is a nigger. And that’s his name all the way. If another man can give you a name and you go by it, then that man owns you. It’s a simple law of nature that most people have forgotten. You go up to the average Black man and ask him what a nigger is and he’ll hem and haw, but he’ll probably say it’s an offensive term for Negro, if he don’t misunderstand you first and go upside your head.”
In other words, nigger is an adjectival riff on “Negro,” “Black,” “Colored,” even in many ways, even “African. “ All of these names were externally imposed labels for management and exploitation and have been reimagined and repurposed, according to time, place and manner, by communities forced to wear them. Each has been used as a political weapon, as a “term of endearment” and/or as an epithet, sometimes at the same time by different communities.
This speaks to a central meaning of Larry Wilmore and Barack Obama’s final exchange on Saturday night. The intimacy of a shared experience of oppression and struggle is the foundation of modern Black identity. However common recognition is expressed, the feeling of inclusion is the cement which holds many Black communities together, regardless of the epithet used to communicate that feeling, one to the other. The exchange is most frequently shielded from non-Black consumption, even when “hiding in plain sight.”
Last February, I encountered a Black man working in my neighborhood grocery. As we passed each other, I said, “What’s up, bruh?” Glancing over from his stocking task, he offered“ I’m here, baby.” “No doubt,” I replied, without slowing down. I paused in the parking lot long enough to tweet the exchange, adding the appendage #BlackMenGreetings. Within hours, it had been retweeted hundreds of times and, over the arc of the next several days, literally thousands of variations on this most common and widespread practice of Black acknowledgement had been shared on social media. Black men and women shared how, in this simple ritual, a community had never not recognized that “Black lives matter.”
When exchanged between members of the group while in mixed company, however, like a flash of Black lightning, any of the visible forms of Black greeting can evoke feelings of anxiety among those not in the group. “Nigger/nigga” is the linguistic nitro glycerin of Africana. Black people sharing the word in public create a dilemma: They have evoked the possibility of an un-policed, intimate, sacrosanct (though not monolithic) and inviolate Black identity. The American Experiment does not yet allow for cross-racial commentary on this possibility, which is a reason that there has been no useful “dialogue on Race” during the Obama years or any other time. Even Beyonce’s evocation of symbols of African spiritual traditions in “Formation” and “Lemonade” are too unsettling for most of the white gaze. Nate Parker’s forthcoming The Birth of a Nation, like the subtle exchange of head nods between Black men greeting each other, displays the power to declare collective purpose in full view, without apology or permission.
Each generation of Africans in America defines its own internal “politics of respectability,” ones that the aforementioned “internally-focused” comedians evoke. Books from Gregory’s Nigger! and Robert McCoy’s The Nigger Bible to Randall Kennedy’s Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word have grappled with how that word reveals the absurd calculus of modern Black identity. Through every generation, Nigger somehow endures, like the smell of smoke that cannot be erased from clothing that has survived a fire. The house fire of modern Black life is the African Diaspora. The word “diaspora” speaks to a forced dispersal, like smoke from a common source.
Perhaps the word cannot be excised. Perhaps it can only be occupied, marginalized, outgrown and then transcended, like some other more debilitating trace elements of Western Civilization itself. By showing a wider public a glimpse of a marker of private Black spheres on Saturday night, perhaps Larry Wilmore edged us a little closer to sapping that “niggerization” of its power and, in so doing, forcing us to choose whether to finally discard it completely and to abandon the roles of “negro” and “nigger” that have been so useful to maintaining our common oppression.
I work as an educator to embrace the sentiment expressed in H. Rap Brown’s 1969 book Die Nigger Die! which urges our communities to tear down the class barriers that cause a Cosby (or an Obama) to lecture us that personal choices are best equipped to help us negate the effects of collective oppression. Pryor himself, in an October 1980 interview with EBONY, declared that, after a trip to Africa, he would not use the word any longer. Famously, he commented that “there are no niggers in Africa.” Chappelle, widely mocked for his own African sojourn after abandoning “Chappelle’s Show,” expressed the feeling that he was becoming the butt of the comedic riffs he was exploring. Once niggerized, it seems, it is difficult to do anything but play to type.
The Last Poets still have it right, as far as I’m concerned. The last words of their 1971 song “Die Nigga!!” place the challenge squarely before us:
So Black folks can take over.
Gregory Carr, Ph.D. is Associate Professor and Chair of Howard University's Department of Afro American Studies.