I was a nigger for twenty-three years; I gave that shit up. No room for advancement.
The truth really sounds funny. I’ve been wondering a lot about why that is. What it might come down to is that it’s unfamiliar, foreign even, and the struggle to locate something that is unfamiliar within the context of what is familiar can feel uncomfortable or even painful. Still, that’s the only way to internalize new information, to find a context for it inside of what we already know.
I’ve been thinking about the way that pain comes in degrees, tickling being at the lowest level. And here it seems to come full circle! The truth is uncomfortable, sometimes painful, and pain is something you have to laugh at. Sometimes–
Richard Pryor said that. “I was a nigger for twenty-three years…” He said it in 1971 during a special that not a lot of people have watched, or at least not to my knowledge. People don’t talk about it like they do, Live on the Sunset Strip. I watched it for the first time last night, and I know why it’s not as popular. It’s really fucking sad, and more than sad, it’s so uncomfortable. It appears as if he’s off of some drug- he admits that he hasn’t had any cocaine all day- and for forty minutes, he tumbles through a wide range of topics all having to do with his trauma.
It’s all very truthful, the things he’s saying, or at least it feels truthful and sometimes that’s the most important thing, that it feels true. Richard Pryor’s mother was a sex worker. Few can be certain that his stories concerning time spent at the brothel are truthful- I don’t know the most humane word for a brothel- but he tells them with such genuine hurt that at least his pain is undeniable. And of course, because this is stand up, the pain isn’t on the surface, it’s in the way his eyes search the room; the way that they’re glazed over; the way that every question he poses to the audience begs them to restore a tiny piece of his humanity. They refuse him. His audience refuses him.
I’ve been trying to think of WHITE PEOPLE as little as possible except that they’re everywhere. They were all throughout the audience during Live and Smokin. It’s not an overstatement to say that they were the audience.
White people laugh differently, I’ve observed this phenomenon in my own 23 years. All of the laughs on that recording sounded white. White people’s laughs sound a certain way because everything is so foreign to them. Whiteness is so narrow in its scope that it leaves a lot of room for what is or can be foreign, and in this way, it leaves room for discomfort and humor. Between the truth and what they perceive to be lies, white people should be able to find humor everywhere.
A few people have said, “this time feels different.” I think I can take some refuge in that. This uprising, if nothing else, feels different. There’s a pandemic happening; an unrelenting white supremacist is in office; Kim Kardashian just became a billionaire. Hopefully that changes things, and the outcome can be different this time. Maybe not.
I do hope that respectability politics can die with this one. Elijah McClain, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor were all murdered by racist police officers. Each of them was unique in their humanity as is the case for all Black people.
Perhaps more than the others, Elijah McClain’s story underscores the notion that Black people can’t do anything to evade the hatred that is embedded in whiteness. There is no level of “excellence” that one can achieve to outpace whiteness. Having acknowledged that, “Black mediocrity” is a lie. It is oxymoronic and it does not exist either in theory or in practice.
I watched Arthur Jafa’s Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death over the weekend along with lots of other people on the internet. As I watched, its two most striking images were that of the Black mother addicted to drugs who can’t be present for her son and Serena Williams crip walking at The Olympics. The seamless transitions, which eventually link the two clips are evidence to the falsehood of Black mediocrity. Both women are equally deserving of praise because they perform the incredible feat of blackness in every moment of every day.
To be Black is to foster abundance out of the scarcity that whiteness constructs and white people uphold. Every Black person, and I truly mean every one, holds within them an abundance of life that is beyond description. It is Lucille Clifton writing, “come celebrate with me that every day something has tried to kill me and has failed.” That may be at the root of Black mediocrity’s impossibility, that for as long as I or anyone else is Black and living, we prove the failure of whiteness. I did that before I got a degree; before I started writing and speaking in the way that white people would best understand me; before I knew what a white person was, I and he and she and they were excellent as Black people because we were and are.
The evidence is out there. It’s Matt Damon asking Prince if he lived in Minnesota and him responding, “I live inside my own heart, Matt Damon.” When The Dream sings about his search for “somewhere (he) can feel safe and end (his) holy war,” it elicits thoughts of our being a people with no land and having our roots burned- a people who continuously fashion a home within themselves that is completely inaccessible to whiteness- this is at the root of the universality of Blackness.
Even our language, the language that was forced onto enslaved Africans as their many languages were ripped away, was never meant to be ours and still we made it the dominant one all over the world. It’s Jay-Z making “the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can.” No one cares about American English without it coming from Black people. And it starts with the most “average” Black person you can find, that is the person who feeds the collective to be what it is. The person whose existence makes our language, culture, and survival possible. Again, Black mediocrity is a lie.
The second half of Live and Smokin is where the discomfort becomes almost unbearable. It is so uncomfortable, so truthful, so funny. Richard Pryor plays a “wino” and a person addicted to drugs and he does an excellent job at both- it’s believable and there’s a lot of feeling in his performance. A lot of people, many in that audience, might see him as placing Black mediocrity on display.
What’s happenin? What’s happenin? What’s happenin!? I see you motherfucka.
Richard Pryor as the drug addict is so funny because he asks his white audience for answers that they don’t have, which is something like catching them in a lie. Richard Pryor as the drug addict knows the truth. He knows they don’t have the answers. The drug addicted Black man knows that white people don’t know what’s going on. Black people see white people, we see everyone- including and especially ourselves, and that is just excellent.
Watching Dave Chapelle’s newest special, Richard Pryor’s influence is apparent. Just be on stage and tell the truth, or at least your version of it. What I noticed about Chappelle’s stand up is his focus on Black men. The only time he really invokes a Black woman- apart from a brief mention of Azealia Banks- is to talk badly about Candace Owens. He doesn’t mention Breonna Taylor, but he speaks of Candace Owens with such hatred. It made me think of the ways in which the world feels that Black women, very specifically, owe their labor, and when they’re murdered in their homes, there’s no need for mourning because they’re ultimately fulfilling their duty, they owe their lives to the world. Maybe that’s why Breonna Taylor’s death became a meme, it was so truthful that some mistook it for a joke.
To be clear, the truth isn’t always funny, but humor is almost always truthful. When Maya Angelou honored the woman who helps us to survive by writing, “The Mask,” she acknowledged the joke of putting on a show, wearing a lie when you know the truth.
It was our submission that made your world go round.
I’ve been coming to terms with this idea especially as I’ve seen lots of “Black at…” forums arise out of this new era for Black Lives Matter both as a phrase and a movement. There were a lot of truthful conversations that Black people at predominantly white institutions held only in private because maybe they thought they had to or because they thought no one would believe them. Now, people are feeling more empowered to tell the truth, but it happens so rarely that they say the names of the people who hurt them or attach their own names to these confessions. It’s often anonymous and no one is particularly placed at fault, no one but the institution. This is a problem for me because of course whiteness is an institution but it is upheld by every white person.
Having considered these ideas, I celebrated my birthday with an Airing of Grievances on Instagram Live. I think social media is weird and funny, and I relished the opportunity to take up space on the timeline- within a racist algorithm- and hold a public conversation with other Black people that centered a Black audience. We showed our faces and we named the people who were racist towards us. In school, these people were often nice by the rules of white womanhood- I went to an all girls school- that had at one time indoctrinated me. They also acted violently and associated with violent racists. This violence wasn’t necessarily tied to physical blows, but to their overall way of being, the things that they said and the spaces they took up without regard for others. During the live, we didn’t acknowledge comments from white people because the intention of our discussing and exposing our experiences wasn’t to educate white people, to be a catalyst for someone’s growth, but to stop hiding, to stop being so scared of our experiences and our abusers that we couldn’t discuss them publicly.
Many people who went to school with me between the ages of 10 and 18 watched my Airing of Grievances, causing me to think about who I was when we were still in close contact with one another. When I look at my younger self, the person that they knew, I see a child who believed in respectability politics to a certain degree. At this point, I’m so profoundly invested in the fall of respectability politics because I see that its practice is so plainly rooted in lies. And more than anything else, I see that lies are killing me and the people I love. My hope is that the truth becomes so big and unavoidable, so ubiquitous that it swallows our everyday living. I want the truth to be so inescapable that it’s no longer funny. In short, I think everyone should give up on being a nigger because to be a nigger is to be white and gorge yourself on lies that only whiteness can tell.
I was a nigger for twenty-three years; I gave that shit up. No room for advancement.