Before he won the Grammy for Best Comedy Album for his 2017 Netflix specials The Age Of Spin and Deep In The Heart Of Texas, the often elusive and much-worshipped comedian Dave Chappelle took the stage for a brief interlude during Kendrick Lamar’s performance.
“I just wanted to remind the audience that the only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America is being an honest black man in America,” he said.
As Chris Rogers watched, he wondered, what about black women? What about black trans folks?
Rogers, 29, a Philly educator who’s helping organize The National Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Our Schools, used to swear by Chappelle. At the latter end of the 2000s, especially, it was Chappelle, along with artists like The Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder and comedian Patrice O’Neal, whom he felt spoke to his experience as a black man.
But since the comedian has emerged from his more-than-a-decade-long performing hiatus, Rogers says it feels like he’s out of touch with the times.
“I think [during] the first Netflix special, I recognized how I became sensitive to certain things that just weren’t in his canon,” he said.
Rogers is talking about the many transphobic, homophobic and rape culture jokes Chappelle made in his recent Netflix specials, and he’s not the only one.
(If you haven’t seen any of the specials, here’s a sample joke: “LGBTQ? I was like what the f— is the ‘Q’? Does that even make sense, ‘Q’? Turns out ‘Q’ is like the vowels, that s— is sometimes ‘Y.’ It’s for gay dudes that don’t really know they’re gay.)
Philadelphia Magazine reporter Ernest Owens, who is gay, wrote about his visceral reaction to The Age Of Spin and Deep In The Heart Of Texas. “I felt like a punching bag for an immature, rich, grown a — straight man to unleash his fragile masculinity,” he wrote on Global Grind in March. “The viewing experience wasn’t cool at all — Chappelle’s perspective was just straight up unintelligent, harmful, and downright unnecessary.”
Sameer Rao, a Philadelphia-based writer for the news outlet Colorlines, criticized the way that Chappelle describes “black struggles and trans struggles as irreconcilable.”
“He ignores how trailblazers of color like Marsha P. Johnson fought to make the world where Caitlyn Jenner could openly transition — and the fact that Black trans people like Johnson even exist,” Rao wrote. “He also dangerously makes comedy out of trans people’s struggles while pretending that they’re not dire.”
Some, like Brooklyn-based writer Myles E. Johnson, called out Chappelle’s artistry.
“As a Chappelle fan, I was disappointed for reasons that were less political. I had an artistic beef with Dave Chappelle in this moment. When did he get so lazy?” Johnson wrote on the blog of clothing brand Philadelphia Printworks, pointing out that “there is money to be had by performing ignorance.”
Of course, not everyone agrees with the critiques.
“The genius stand-up comics always make us uncomfortable,” wrote Complex’s Angel Diaz in a piece that said his The Age Of Spin and Deep In The Heart Of Texas prove that Chappelle is still “comedy’s king.” A Washington Times writer called Chappelle’s critics “politically correct scolds.”
But Rogers expects more from Chappelle. Not as a comedian, he said, but as a human.
“Even though,” he said, “I recognize that he represents one of those lines where my black men friends will ostracize me for it.”
Still, Rogers said, it’s important to remember: “He never claimed to be a freedom fighter or anything. I definitely think we, the fans, put that mystique around him.”
But Chappelle’s jokes “speak to a very long history of black male ‘leaders’ who harbored very limited views around gender privilege, sexual abuse, and heteropatriarchy,” and consequently, “speak to the work that black men must lead around exploring these topics.”
When it comes to a performer’s responsibility to the public, Rogers thought Janelle Monae’s speech at the Grammy’s was particularly apt. Speaking about Hollywood’s Time’s Up movement fighting gender inequity and sexual harassment, she said, “Just as we have the power to shape culture, we also have the power to undo the culture that does not serve us well.”