A Note on the RHO Civil Rights
Last week, Fallon posted a clip of a comedy bit, The Real Housewive of Civil Rights, and asked whether the sketch was funny and/or totally inappropriate.
It’s probably hardly surprising that I’m on #teamfunny with this one. I think this clip–as well as the one about the first black pilgrim, Bartholemew Winslow (see below)–is pretty hysterical. The portrayal of Rosa Parks was perfect–really, when did she ever say much–and I’m so glad I’m not the only one who finds Maya Angelou thoroughly obnoxious. The combination of the profound with the absolutely ludicrous, the seemingly sacred merging with the profane create this space of ambiguity, an aperture through which we might be compelled to understand why making civil rights deities funny, or more precisely, as silly as we are makes so many of us profoundly uncomfortable.
I laughed at this clip without shame. But I know others who may have been embarrassed to laugh, or just didn’t find it funny at all. I think discomfort or the inability to laugh at the clip can’t be chalked to simply lacking a sense of humor. Rather, I think this resistance to even utter a chuckle points to the ways that we’ve both mythologized and deified these figures to the point that we fear that being critical or laughing at them may result us waking up one morning to find a Colored Section at the neighborhood Starbucks. Nobody likes a pissed off God. (See: Testament, Old)
What I like about this clip is that it confronts us with images that demand we reconsider the ramifications of mythologizing people. We should be asking: Why is(n’t) this clip funny? Why does it make me (un)comfortable? Why can(‘t) I find humor in it? The fact is, laughing at a portrayal of Malcolm X as Peter Thomas does not in any way alter the former’s legacy, nor does it quell the profound sadness I feel when I recall that 46 years ago today he was killed in Harlem. I think Coretta Scott King probably had a day for three when she was so over MLK marching–not because she didn’t believe in the cause, but because she was human. A real person who had feelings. And that’s what this sketch, for me at least, reminds me.
I was having a conversation with my internet boo, Ashon, wherein he totally forced me to come up with jokes Harriet Tubman might tell. I had a couple of goods one, but I won’t share them here. I bring up that exchange because the conversation was about the ramifications of implicitly denying the humanity of these black heroes we celebrate every February by deifying them in the process of remembrance. Our impulse to make them superheroes does not allow us to recall that these people were, well, people who given their set of circumstances did incredibly extraordinary things. We forget that they laughed, cried, ate, slept, and probably told a joke or two. I think the reluctance to laugh at this clip may also stem from the possibility that laughing would either mean that we were 1. laughing at God (see above paragraph) or 2. being goaded into realizing that they were never gods in the first place.
At that last point is scary, because it indicts us. It does not simply indict our impulse to deify the figures we respect most, but it makes us question why we don’t continue some version of their legacy. If we mythologize someone to the level of superhuman, we in effect say that we, since we are regular folk, are not like them, and therefore cannot do what they did. We are, then, justifiably lazy in the fact that we spend our lives ignoring the injustice in the world that continues to exist despite their heroic efforts. If we look at the clip in question and realize that Betty Shabazz, et. al. were not deities–and therefore fodder for a comedy sketch–but just like us, that the only difference between us and them is that they made (a) decision(s) that altered the world, then we have to ask ourselves why we haven’t done anything that would require us to be willing–and ready–to die. But that’s an unpleasant thought, so we’d rather keep them gods. And each February we’ll continue to exalt all the shit George Washington Carver could do with a peanut, instead of questioning why the only thing we ever did with our lives is make it to middle management at, and/or consume a whole bunch of Jif.