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  • Teaching Satirical Literacy and Social Responsibility through Race Comedy
  • Jessie LaFrance Dunbar (bio)

In 2005, Dave Chappelle abruptly parted ways with Comedy Central, the network that aired his wildly successful sketch-comedy series, Chappelle's Show. Speculations concerning Chappelle's sanity pervaded the media, but the comedian exercised radio silence until his 3 February 2006 interview with Oprah Winfrey. During the segment, he described a white employee's discomfiting reaction to a sketch in which a pixie in blackface appears whenever otherwise normal human interactions veer into potentially racist categories. This employee, Chappelle asserted, was laughing at rather than with him. Although he intended the mark of blackface on the pixie to denote a physical representation of the N-word, it quickly became apparent to Chappelle that "the way people use television is subjective" ("His"). In Chappelle's estimation, his employee chose to accept the stereotype of black inferiority that the pixie represented rather than reading the pixie as an indictment of racialized systems of oppression. The interview lends itself to inquiries about the function of racialized comedy, the responsibility of its practitioners, and what it means to properly use comedy as a consumer. This last question is the most important inasmuch as the function of racialized comedy and the responsibility of comedians overwhelming rely on the manner of consumption.

To be sure, "improper" use involves some form of consumptive appropriation—or the use of productions in ways not intended by or beneficial to the "manufacturer." The probability of "misuse" is exponentially increased with texts such as Chappelle's race sketches, which rely on consumers to reject surface readings of ironic and satirical treatments in favor of actively deriving higher meanings (Perks 293). Rather than read "The Blackface Pixie" as an indictment of black stereotypes and post-raciality, for example, many viewers are prone to view it as a vehicle through which minstrelsy is exalted as a form of entertainment. One way to attempt to answer Chappelle's call for the proper usage of comedy—that is, pursuing higher meaning—is to create literate consumers of palimpsestic texts. This is one intervention of my undergraduate course "Walking the Line: The Role of Comedy in Eradicating and Exacerbating Racism," which grapples as much with the audience's responsibility as [End Page 79] consumers of sociopolitical comedy as it does with the fine line comedians walk in balancing entertainment value with the sociopolitical realities of marginalized audiences.1 There are two other interventions to which I aspire with this course: to teach students to read and decipher stand-up comedy routines as texts and to emphasize the real-world ramifications of misreading sociopolitical comedy. It is my contention that dismissing the violence done to marginalized people through stereotyping as merely a form of entertainment is to participate in that violence. When laughter is not followed by an attempt to derive higher meaning, it is possible to retraumatize people who are impacted, in tangible ways, by the stereotypes that appear in sketches such as those that Chappelle presents. These are lofty goals because the process of decoding demands a level of sophistication to which typical television audiences are unaccustomed.

In addition to taking up the challenge presented by Chappelle, I designed this course in response to heightened political anxieties surrounding race. The inscription of a post-racial dialectic on Barack Obama's presidency and the global resonance of the Black Lives Matter Movement have substantive impacts on pedagogical practices and responses, some of which we, as instructors, are taught to sidestep like the landmines they appear to be outside the "safe spaces" of educational institutions. Although addressing social issues with a stifling awareness of panopticism in the form of student evaluations and tenure assessments has been anxiety-inducing for me as a black assistant professor of African American literature and African American Studies at a predominantly and historically white research institution, I am equally apprehensive about dismissing valid student concerns in the interest of professional expediency.2 Student protests at the University of Missouri, Harvard, Yale, and Emory suggest both that these spaces have always been affected by racism and that students are eager to engage intellectually with the problems that persist in...


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pp. 79-91
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