by Max S. Gordon
This article is dedicated to my sister, who I watched get beaten with a belt for not finishing a plate of food when I was four and she was two.
I don’t want to talk about Tracy Morgan. I’ve found him funny sometimes, but I haven’t paid much attention to his career, and I don’t watch his show. But I have to write about him, because he’s in the news for saying in his stand-up routine that if his son came home “acting” gay, he would “stab that little nigger to death.”
If the trouble is deep enough, a career may end. Or if we refuse to go away, immune to universal contempt (Elliot Spitzer), or make someone enough money, all may be forgiven. So by the time you finish this article, or perhaps when you start it, Tracy Morgan’s words will probably be old news.
But what happened on that stage in Nashville on June 3 is bigger than Tracy Morgan. And I have to talk about it, because frankly, I’m exhausted and outraged that this shit happens again and again. And as a black gay man, I need to deconstruct this, because Chris Rock and Roland Martin of CNN clearly refuse to, defending Morgan’s right to say what he did, without exploring why he said it. I’m not surprised by Rock, but I’m disappointed with Martin, who I once respected, and who usually seems to care about civil rights. And I have a little rage left over for the woman who twittered, in response to Martin’s, “WTF….Comic Tracey Morgan Has Offensive Material” that Martin was “on point.” On another site, someone wrote, “It’s comedy, remember,” and “Can’t gay people take a joke?”
In 2004, I wrote an article entitled Jesusland about hate crimes towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in America. I argued that the former president’s attempts to legislate against gay marriage directly led to violence against our community. But I failed to acknowledge that it isn’t only presidents who have the power to influence. It’s actors, it’s comics, it’s neighbors, teachers, pastors, rabbis, your father, your best friend, it’s anyone with any power, and people who have no power. It’s the guy sitting next to you at the bar who says, “What’s that faggot across the room looking at?” because he’s drunk and decides he wants to fight a stranger. It’s all of us, all the time, in a constant moral conversation about which people deserve to be hated, and therefore destroyed.
I think black people who hate are often let off the hook; we’re not usually the haters, we’re the hated. But there’s condescension in giving us this free pass – either we’re not refined enough to know better, or we’re so damaged ourselves, we can’t help but hate back. When a straight black man hates homosexuals, the assumption is that what he really hates is white men, and the white culture where homosexuality “originates”. Morgan has been quoted as saying that being gay is a choice that comes from the media and programming, which is code for “white people”. A black son who comes home “acting” gay should be killed not only because of his behavior, but because he’s a traitor - choosing the white gay world over the straight black one. I’ve heard this argument before, although stated less violently: when I came out to my mother, she mourned my going to the University of Michigan where I came out of the closet, and wished she’d sent me to Morehouse instead. (No homosexuals there, of course.)
In writing this article, I started to defend some of the examples that Martin used as not being hate speech, arguing that there was a difference between Chris Rock talking about killing his wife in a stand-up about O.J. Simpson, or Bernie Mac’s disciplining a child by beating him with a hammer - but maybe there is none. At first, I thought those examples weren’t the same because Rock wasn’t talking about all women, just “his wife”, Bernie Mac wasn’t advocating beating all children, just the ones who misbehaved. But the fact is, according to The Domestic Violence Resource Center, 1 out of 4 women has experienced violence by a partner, and a statistic once published by the FBI said a woman is beaten in the U.S. every 15 seconds. It's been estimated that five children die a day as a result of child abuse in this country, a majority of them under the age of four.
It’s dreary, citing statistics, when what we want is to be entertained. We laugh at shock comedy and shock jocks, because of the horror and supposed freedom and naughtiness - the fact that “you just can’t say that.” We have reached a point, it seems, where anything is okay for a laugh. Lisa Lampanelli said to David Hasselholf in a comedy roast on Comedy Central, “Your singing is huge in Germany. If they had played your music at Auschwitz the Jews would have sprinted for those ovens.”
Greg Geraldo on Jon Lovitz: “There hasn’t been a more effeminate Jew in the closet since Anne Frank.” You may or may not be ashamed if you laughed, and maybe nothing is sacred anymore; but I think about children, because we’re fooling ourselves if we think our children aren’t watching. We “appreciate” the irony, if there is any, but can they? Is anything fair game?
I cringed when I heard Rock’s stand-up because I remember thinking, I can’t put this in a container, I can’t fix the world so only black people can hear this. I was ashamed, not of “niggers” but of black wretchedness, which by any other name is called poverty, and which was on display yet again, for public consumption and delectation. Rock looks hip onstage and the camera shows a predominantly black audience, but the audience at home is mostly white. I imagined the laughter as Rock said, “Books are like kryptonite to a nigger”, and wondered, Are they really getting the joke? Is it really that different if a black man says this, than if a white man does? Rock further blurs this line when he says, “I wish they’d let me join the Ku Klux Klan, I’d do a drive-by from here to Brooklyn.” Blacks may understand his contempt, but racist whites may feel vindicated because, finally, a black man is saying what they’ve been feeling all along. The horror that maybe they aren’t getting the joke at all, because there may not be one to get anymore, that what was once irony, has become full-on contempt, is what drove Dave Chapelle to drop the multi-million dollar contract from his show and head straight to Africa for what was rumored to be a nervous breakdown. Where can we send Tracy Morgan – Christopher Street?
I still sometimes curse Eddie Murphy’s Buckwheat routine on Saturday Night Live. White kids at my high school found it so funny that I endured several weeks of humiliation when I took my jerri curl out and let my hair go natural. Exasperated, I finally cut it all off. Looking back, I had a beautiful afro, but I was pursued with the jeers of classmates flashing minstrels’ grins and saying, fingers raised in an okay symbol, “Oh-TAY!” I hope Eddie was paid well.
But Madea is not about killing children, she’s about beating them when they need it, like Bernie Mac’s comedy about running a daycare where he hits your child with a hammer. Even though Tyler Perry has publicly discussed the abuse, physical and sexual, that he suffered throughout his childhood, Madea continues to reassure us with her behavior: “Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child.” When you sit in the audience you laugh because you remember the good old days, when we didn’t have all this pop psychology and rules, back when if you wanted to discipline a child, you didn’t have to reason with him, or talk about time outs, where there weren’t social workers or agencies. When a child was yours, and if you wanted to, you picked up whatever was nearby and you beat his ass.
He’s glad he got whipped, it made a man out of him; she beats her own kids, but only when they really need it. Pam can’t stop eating and throwing up, Tom’s addicted to crystal meth, Chris is in prison again for armed robbery and assault, Shawn stutters when his father walks into the room; James sleeps with his eyes slightly open even though he’s forty, because sometimes he had to run in the middle of the night, Linda can’t remember anything before the eighth grade…but we all laugh at Madea because she knows how to handle those damn kids. And of course, if Madea is too old school for you, and Bernie Mac too evil, you may need something a little smoother, like Jello for dessert. Bill Cosby talking to his kids in his stand-up routine: “I brought you into this world and I’ll take you out.”
I’m not surprised that some people laughed at Morgan’s comments. People are different in an audience. An enthusiastic audience can become a mob - any performer who is fighting for his life on stage knows that. And people do things in mobs they would never do on their own. In James Allen’s book, Without Sanctuary, lynching photographs record groups of white men, sometimes even women and children, in the deep south, standing around the charred remains of a black body. I believe there were a few sociopaths in the crowd who could have held the actual match, but there were probably many others who stood around because they were fascinated, or bored, or it was hot, or everyone else was there, or their husband dragged them, or whatever other reason someone has for watching another human being burned to death.
The problem is, the mob isn’t only in the theater. It’s on the sidewalk, it’s in our homes as we watch television, it’s us, all the time, not just one night watching comedy, but making decisions every day, and comparing notes. That’s why it’s important that people denounce hate speech when it occurs, not defend it. Perhaps one day there will be a man like Adolf Hitler, sitting in a bar with his friends, who will stand up and say, “You know I really hate those people over there. Let’s go put them and their kind in camps.” And one of his friends will say, “No, they’re good people. You’re drunk. Now shut up and sit your ass back down.” And that, as far as genocide goes, will be the end of that. It takes two. But for now, nobody’s saying that, and so all that’s required is for a group in Nashville who saw Morgan’s show and thought it was hilarious, to see a man coming out of a gay bar across the street, walking “funny”. The rest is history.
copyright Max Gordon 2011
If you are interested in additional articles on this theme, please read "Jesusland" at www.americaforjesusland.blogspot.com