Rachel Dolezal, the Spokane, Washington, NAACP president who was outed by her parents as white, would seem to be a ripe target for comedians. But Dave Chappelle says he’s going to wait.
Backstage at the commencement address to the graduating class of his alma mater, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., the star of Comedy Central’s Chappelle’s Show explained why he would wait a while before he incorporated any Dolezal jokes into his act, if he decides to do so at all.
“The thing that the media’s gotta be real careful about, that they’re kind of overlooking, is the emotional context of what she means,” Chappelle said thoughtfully, between drags of American Spirit cigarettes. “There’s something that’s very nuanced where she’s highlighting the difference between personal feeling and what’s construct as far as racism is concerned. I don’t know what her agenda is, but there’s an emotional context for black people when they see her and white people when they see her. There’s a lot of feelings that are going to come out behind what’s happening with this lady.
“And she’s just a person, no matter how we feel about her.”
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Yes, the man who came up with the idea of Clayton Bigsby, a blind black Klansman (who doesn’t know he’s black), was reserved when it came to Dolezal.
“I’m probably not going to do any jokes about her or any references to her for awhile ’cause that’s going to be a lot of comedians doing a lot. And I’m sure her rebuttal will be illuminating. Like, once she’s had time to process it and kind of get her wind back and get her message together.”
Even though Sunday’s address marked a warm homecoming for Chappelle, complete with standing ovations as he entered and exited the stage, the comedian said it was “nerve-wracking” to address the students. He was clearly humbled by the honor. Chappelle graduated, “barely,” he said, in 1991.
“It seems like just yesterday, when they announced my name to walk across the stage, it was like I had won a prize,” Chappelle told the crowd. “It didn’t feel like something I had earned. And then — I'll never forget — I opened up the little book and there was no diploma in it.”
Chappelle asked why.
“They were like, ‘You owe books, man.’ ”
Chappelle recounted the time his algebra teacher told the students they would need to pay close attention because they would use the information for the rest of their lives.
“I have never needed a single algebraic equation,” Chappelle said. He paused. “And I have made millions of dollars.
“The world’s a changing place. Turns out, you don’t need to be smart because the Internet. Most of the things you need to know — somebody’s already thought about them.”
One of his most valuable lessons, he gleaned from another comedian: that he didn’t have to be constantly funny as long as he was always interesting.
“Most comedians gauge success solely on laughter,” Chappelle said backstage. “But basically, he put me on to the idea that it’s other metrics besides laughter to gauge whether the show is going well. A guy who only thinks about laughs is like having a 64-(crayon) Crayola box but only using about 13 colors.”
So if laughs aren’t the metric, what is?
“Well,” Chappelle said, “I’m not going to give you the secret recipe, but I'll tell you this: I have done, on many occasions, shows that have gone as long as six hours. Nobody left. They weren’t uproariously laughing the entire six hours, but I was interesting, and they were fine with that.”
Soraya Nadia McDonald
The Washington Post