By now, most of us have heard accounts of Dave Chappelle's ill-fated performance in Hartford, Connecticut last week.
On Thursday at Hartford’s Comcast Theater, the comedian was clearly stupefied during his performance at the “Funny or Die Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Tour” to a mostly White audience. Heckling reportedly prompted a pause in his comedy sketch, during which he nonchalantly sat on stage, smoked a cigarette and read a book until his allotted 25-minutes ended.
Several attendees claimed that racial animus was at the root of the disruption—something Chappelle himself obviously felt, choosing to walk off the stage to Kanye West’s “New Slaves”: “F*ck you and your corporation/Y’all n*ggas can’t control me/I know that we the new slaves…”
Those who cling to post-racial fantasies might see him as “unprofessional,” wishing he had eschewed a rowdy crowd littered with White drunkards. He should have suffered in silence with a minstrel-like grin. Apparently, their failed imagination didn’t grasp an alternative reality of a man who, like Richard Pryor before him, once traveled to the continent of Africa, had a profound experience and realized he was not a “n*gga” there, reaffirming the notion that race shapes the cultural eye and stains social interactions. And place matters.
In short, Chappelle just didn’t feel like tap dancing for master Charlie in Connecticut, even if he paid $50 for a ticket.
Location is a crucial unit of analysis for Chappelle’s supposed “meltdown.” It’s especially apt because many people perceive Connecticut as a liberal state, the cradle of the abolitionist movement and a respite from Jim Crow segregation. And it touts the story of a 17-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., who mingled freely with Whites there before his ascendancy in the civil rights movement.
But many Black locals once dubbed Connecticut as 'the Mississippi of the North.'
When Blacks migrated from the South to “the land of steady habits,” they were surprised to find racial animus and segregation not by law, but by custom. In the 1940s, Southern Blacks and West Indians poured into what was then the richest city of its size to fill jobs on tobacco farms, in households and factories. They lived primarily in Hartford, cordoned off in the North End with the oldest housing stock. Today, most Blacks still live in the North End. But many weren’t in the Comcast Theater.
Shows at that theater usually attract suburban Whites, who may compare Chappelle’s response to that of Andy Kaufman—who famously read The Great Gatsby on stage when booed.
Chappelle was once booed at the Apollo Theater's famed "Amateur Night," an incident that he credits with giving him the courage to make it in the business. However, the subtext of the White, drunk hecklers faced by the former Comedy Central star last week was markedly different.
That courage, which fueled his meteoric success, morphed into defiance. Dave Chappelle knows he doesn't have to debase himself before a White audience and so, he won't.
To better understand why Chappelle walked off stage on that now-infamous night in Hartford, consider this: Connecticut has a long history of demotivating Black and brown people, especially students. Consequently, Connecticut has the highest academic achievement gap and one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation. Additionally, it has one of the highest suspension rates for kindergarteners. The 'Nutmeg State' also wrestled with slavery and servitude well into the early 20th century, a history erased from the public’s consciousness until 2002. Moreover, the state required the only school desegregation case in New England and maintains both one of the highest unemployment rates for Blacks and a high premature birth rate for Black women.
In addition, claims of job discrimination and racial bullying abound. The most prominent was of a Hartford Distributor employee Omar Thornton, who claimed racial harassment for years before he shot and killed several White co-workers in 2010 in a town that has been dubbed "Klanchester." Since the 1980s, the Ku Klux Klan has taken a firm root in Connecticut’s soil. And like Mississippi in the 20th century, the state just may be ground zero for the century's civil rights' efforts.
Incidentally, Connecticut perfected the idea of 'post racialism' long before it enveloped the country. New Englanders don’t talk about race openly. In fact, silence is a political strategy. But this imposed silence is also a form of oppression.
The Chappelle incident in Hartford masterfully shattered that silence. More importantly, it revealed the oppressive burden of race and racism in the land of steady habits.