Jokes about slavery? Some people aren’t laughing


Saturday Night Live writer Leslie Jones’ recent on-air appearance on the iconic sketch show has sparked outrage among those who have argued that when it comes to comedy, certain topics should be off-limits, including slavery — the subject of Jones’ remarks.

In case you missed it, she did a bit Saturday night describing how, as a taller black woman, she might have had more “dating” opportunities during slavery because she’d have been paired up with (read: forced to pair with) any number of black (or white) men to produce a “super baby.”

But what’s interesting, to me, is that no one seemed to have much of a problem when Chris Rock told what I consider to be one of his funniest routines ever — also having to do with slavery.

I laugh every time I think of him telling it, and I know I’m not alone, and I don’t recall anyone demanding an apology.

He also made light of the fact that slaves were “bred” with each other to create “super slaves,” which Rock claims has resulted in the “NFL.” In other words, the substance of his joke is very similar to the substance of Jones’.

So why is Jones being held to a double standard? For starters, Twitter didn’t exist when Rock first did his routine. Jones, on the other hand, is unfortunately the latest victim of modern-day media’s most predictable story arc, consisting of the following stages:

Step 1: Someone says or does something that someone believes is offensive.

Step 2: People who may find it legitimately offensive say so on social media.

Step 3: People who have no idea why it is or isn’t offensive chime in because everyone else is, and because doing so may be a reliable way to increase their own Twitter following.

Step 4: People who already have plenty of Twitter followers chime in with their opinion, whether they really care or not, because they don’t want to look like they are behind the curve.

Step 5: A few people who want to up the ante, in terms of getting attention for themselves, demand that someone be fired, or at least apologize, although they usually make it clear that an apology probably won’t actually satisfy their outrage or stop their tweets.

Step 6: People who write for a living finally weigh in — and the word count with which they weigh in is usually commensurate with how much social media attention the story has received.

Step 7: People who missed the original social media kerfuffle make sure that they are first out of the gate in the second wave, by using social media to critique the articles written about the original kerfuffle, and the social media storm that started it all in the first place.

Step 8: Seventy-two hours after the original offense was taken, everyone moves on.

Step 9: Wait a couple of days and start all over again.

I’m writing this piece right now, so I guess that means we’re on step 6 of the Leslie Jones controversy.

I’ve heard comedians say that you can joke about anything as long as it’s funny. And part of why Jones got in trouble, I think, is that her jokes — and her delivery — just weren’t as funny as Rock’s. But the other reason her bit didn’t work is that, like a lot of the most cutting humor, it comes not from a place of laughter but from a place of pain.

Jones wasn’t trying to diminish our understanding of slavery. She was “joking” about the fact that while black Americans, in general, are far better off today than during slavery days, black women are often as devalued today as they were then.

That’s not funny. That’s reality. Our society is not kind to larger, darker-skinned women. That was the point of Jones’ joke. The realities of her experiences that probably inspired the joke could likely be summarized by the mantra “laughing to keep from crying.”

“Look at me,” she said. “See, I’m single right now. But back in the slave days, I would have never been single.

“I’m just saying, back in the slave days my love life would have been way better. Master would have hooked me up with the best brother on the plantation, and every nine months I’d be in the corner having a super baby.” But now? “I can’t even get a brother to take me out for a cheap dinner.”

You don’t have to laugh at Jones’ joke, and you are entitled to tweet that you don’t find her funny. But just because you don’t find her funny does not mean that her humor does not come from a place of truth.

Keli Goff is special correspondent for The Follow her on Twitter: @keligoff

© 2014, The Root

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