Can’t You Take A Joke?: On Free Speech vs. Hate Speech

(Islan Nettles 1992–2013)

(Can’t You Take A Joke? was originally published online June 12, 2011.)

This essay is dedicated to my sister, who I watched get beaten with a belt for not finishing a plate of food when I was four and she was two.

I don’t want to talk about Tracy Morgan. I’ve found him funny sometimes, but I haven’t paid much attention to his career, and I don’t watch his show. But I have to write about him, because he’s in the news for saying in his stand-up routine that if his son came home “acting” gay, he would “stab that little nigger to death.”

In this media-driven world we live in, we say things we shouldn’t, we get into trouble, we send apologies that don’t sound anything like us through hired publicists and lawyers, and hope the trouble goes away — or that someone else says or does something they shouldn’t and everyone will forget what we did. (Anthony Weiner should send Tracy Morgan flowers.)

If the trouble is deep enough, a career may end. Or if we refuse to go away, immune to universal contempt (Elliot Spitzer), or make someone enough money, all may be forgiven. So by the time you finish this article, or perhaps when you start it, Tracy Morgan’s words will probably be old news.

But what happened on that stage in Nashville on June 3 is bigger than Tracy Morgan. And I have to talk about it, because frankly, I’m exhausted and outraged that this shit happens again and again. And as a black gay man, I need to deconstruct this, because Chris Rock and Roland Martin of CNN clearly refuse to, defending Morgan’s right to say what he did, without exploring why he said it. I’m not surprised by Rock, but I’m disappointed with Martin, who I once respected, and who usually seems to care about civil rights. And I have a little rage left over for the woman who tweeted, in response to Martin’s, “WTF….Comic Tracey Morgan Has Offensive Material” that Martin was “on point.” On another site, someone wrote, “It’s comedy, remember,” and “Can’t gay people take a joke?”

In 2004, I wrote an article entitled Jesusland about hate crimes towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in America. I argued that the former president’s attempts to legislate against gay marriage directly led to violence against our community. But I failed to acknowledge that it isn’t only presidents who have the power to influence. It’s actors, it’s comics, it’s neighbors, teachers, pastors, rabbis, your father, your best friend, it’s anyone with any power, and people who have no power. It’s the guy sitting next to you at the bar who says, “What’s that faggot across the room looking at?” because he’s drunk and decides he wants to fight a stranger. It’s all of us, all the time, in a constant moral conversation about which people deserve to be hated, and therefore destroyed.

Last week, I read in the paper that a group is planning a Gay Pride celebration in Harlem this year. A local black pastor responded by saying that he felt all children should be kept indoors on that day. He said to expose children to the Pride events would be the same as telling them that pedophiles were also okay, or people who have sex with animals.

I think black people who hate are often let off the hook; we’re not usually the haters, we’re the hated. But there’s condescension in giving us this free pass — either we’re not refined enough to know better, or we’re so damaged ourselves, we can’t help but hate back. When a straight black man hates homosexuals, the assumption is that what he really hates is white men, and the white culture where homosexuality “originates”. Morgan has been quoted as saying that being gay is a choice that comes from the media and programming, which is code for “white people”. A black son who comes home “acting” gay should be killed not only because of his behavior, but because he’s a traitor — choosing the white gay world over the straight black one. I’ve heard this argument before, although stated less violently: when I came out to my mother, she mourned my going to the University of Michigan where I came out of the closet, and wished she’d sent me to Morehouse instead. (No homosexuals there, of course.)

Martin, in his blog, describes several stand-up comics who have also used “hate” to entertain, as if to argue that just because others have done it, it’s okay for Morgan; or that hate speech is a function of comedy, and if you are easily offended, you should know better and stay home. Then there is the argument that we don’t know the inflection with which Morgan said his comments, so we can’t judge. As if, after hearing or watching a recording of the performance, we’d say, “Oh, that’s different. With that wry little smile at the end and the way he lowered his voice, now I understand what he really meant.”

In writing this article, I started to defend some of the examples that Martin used as not being hate speech, arguing that there was a difference between Chris Rock talking about killing his wife in a stand-up about O.J. Simpson, or Bernie Mac’s disciplining a child by beating him with a hammer — but maybe there is none. At first, I thought those examples weren’t the same because Rock wasn’t talking about all women, just “his wife”, Bernie Mac wasn’t advocating beating all children, just the ones who misbehaved. But the fact is, according to The Domestic Violence Resource Center, 1 out of 4 women has experienced violence by a partner, and a statistic once published by the FBI said a woman is beaten in the U.S. every 15 seconds. It’s been estimated that five children die a day as a result of child abuse in this country, a majority of them under the age of four.

It’s dreary, citing statistics, when what we want is to be entertained. We laugh at shock comedy and shock jocks, because of the horror and supposed freedom and naughtiness — the fact that “you just can’t say that.” We have reached a point, it seems, where anything is okay for a laugh. Lisa Lampanelli said to David Hasselholf in a comedy roast on Comedy Central, “Your singing is huge in Germany. If they had played your music at Auschwitz the Jews would have sprinted for those ovens.”

Greg Geraldo on Jon Lovitz: “There hasn’t been a more effeminate Jew in the closet since Anne Frank.” You may or may not be ashamed if you laughed, and maybe nothing is sacred anymore; but I think about children, because we’re fooling ourselves if we think our children aren’t watching. We “appreciate” the irony, if there is any, but can they? Is anything fair game?

I’m sure Chris Rock is proud of his stand-up routine, “Blacks vs. Niggers” which arguably took his career to another level, made him rich, and spoke to some of the anger black and white people felt against blacks. It was okay, of course, because Rock wasn’t talking about respectable blacks like himself or Oprah. He was talking about “niggers”, the ones who irritate us because they are too loud in public, or fight outside movie theaters, or have babies they can’t afford, so we knew who he meant. Like a woman who lives in my building, and was overheard saying to a black woman having trouble with her public assistance card at the supermarket, “It’s bad enough that you’re on welfare, but do you have to hold up the goddamn line, too?”

I cringed when I heard Rock’s stand-up because I remember thinking, I can’t put this in a container, I can’t fix the world so only black people can hear this. I was ashamed, not of “niggers” but of black wretchedness, which by any other name is called poverty, and which was on display yet again, for public consumption and delectation. Rock looks hip onstage and the camera shows a predominantly black audience, but the audience at home is mostly white.I imagined the laughter as Rock said, “Books are like kryptonite to a nigger”, and wondered, Are they really getting the joke? Is it really that different if a black man says this, than if a white man does? Rock further blurs this line when he says, “I wish they’d let me join the Ku Klux Klan, I’d do a drive-by from here to Brooklyn.” Blacks may understand his contempt, but racist whites may feel vindicated because, finally, a black man is saying what they’ve been feeling all along. The horror that maybe they aren’t getting the joke at all, because there may not be one to get anymore, that what was once irony, has become full-on contempt, is what drove Dave Chapelle to drop the multi-million dollar contract from his show and head straight to Africa for what was rumored to be a nervous breakdown. Where can we send Tracy Morgan — Christopher Street?

I still sometimes curse Eddie Murphy’s Buckwheat routine on Saturday Night Live. White kids at my high school found it so funny that I endured several weeks of humiliation when I took my jerri curl out and let my hair go natural. Exasperated, I finally cut it all off. Looking back, I had a beautiful afro, but I was pursued with the jeers of classmates flashing minstrels’ grins and saying, fingers raised in an okay symbol, “Oh-TAY!” I hope Eddie was paid well.

I feel uncool criticizing Family Guy, a show I don’t watch, but you’d have to be from another planet not to catch an episode or two in a hotel room or a friend’s house. And I’ll admit, I’ve laughed, but I’ve also recoiled from the brutality. But even that feels silly to acknowledge about something as supposedly innocuous as a TV show: I mean, what is brutality….can’t you take a joke? In the episode I saw, Peter Griffin, in a fantasy sequence, attacks a teenage girl who has insulted his daughter at school. He grabs her by the hair and smashes her into a glass encasement eighteen times until her face is broken and bloody, leaving her battered on the ground in a pool of her own blood. I imagine what they write on the show is justified because if you watch Family Guy you’re supposed to know it’s “crazy”, just like if you go to Morgan’s show, you should be expecting violence against gays.

Tyler Perry’s Madea is a powerhouse character, standing up to abusive husbands, the police, the court system, and any other adversary that gets in her way, her gun always at the ready. I often find her hilarious, but what isn’t particularly funny once I’ve left the theater is the way Madea often hits and threatens children. Of course, this is part of her “I don’t take shit off no one” fabulousness, and makes us cheer because finally someone knows what to do with these damn kids. Even though, at the time of this writing, Casey Anthony is on trial because she allegedly knew what to do with her damn kid, and you don’t have to wait very long to read a story in the New York Daily News about some child who is scalded or beaten to death because they cried too much, or someone threw them against the wall, or whatever. There’s always a neighbor who heard crying, there’s a social worker who meant to stop by more often, and now another child is dead.

But Madea is not about killing children, she’s about beating them when they need it, like Bernie Mac’s comedy about running a daycare where he hits your child with a hammer. Even though Tyler Perry has publicly discussed the abuse, physical and sexual, that he suffered throughout his childhood, Madea continues to reassure us with her behavior: “Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child.” When you sit in the audience you laugh because you remember the good old days, when we didn’t have all this pop psychology and rules, back when if you wanted to discipline a child, you didn’t have to reason with him, or talk about time outs, where there weren’t social workers or agencies. When a child was yours, and if you wanted to, you picked up whatever was nearby and you beat his ass.

I’ve talked to adults who tell me how they were glad they got those whuppins, forgetting, I suppose, the actual ritual of getting a beating. For those kids who aren’t numb and haven’t learned after years to sit there, eyes glazed over, and take it, there is the begging, pleading, being dragged across the floor, the belt taken down from the closet, being jerked by one arm, twisted, the screaming, the emphatic phrasing with each hit, “Didn’t, I, tell, you, not, to, come, home, late…”

He’s glad he got whipped, it made a man out of him; she beats her own kids, but only when they really need it. Pam can’t stop eating and throwing up, Tom’s addicted to crystal meth, Chris is in prison again for armed robbery and assault, Shawn stutters when his father walks into the room; James sleeps with his eyes slightly open even though he’s forty, because sometimes he had to run in the middle of the night, Linda can’t remember anything before the eighth grade…but we all laugh at Madea because she knows how to handle those damn kids. And of course, if Madea is too old school for you, and Bernie Mac too evil, you may need something a little smoother, like Jello for dessert. Bill Cosby talking to his kids in his stand-up routine: “I brought you into this world and I’ll take you out.”

I’m not surprised that some people laughed at Morgan’s comments. People are different in an audience. An enthusiastic audience can become a mob — any performer who is fighting for his life on stage knows that. And people do things in mobs they would never do on their own. In James Allen’s book, Without Sanctuary, lynching photographs record groups of white men, sometimes even women and children, in the deep south, standing around the charred remains of a black body. I believe there were a few sociopaths in the crowd who could have held the actual match, but there were probably many others who stood around because they were fascinated, or bored, or it was hot, or everyone else was there, or their husband dragged them, or whatever other reason someone has for watching another human being burned to death.

The problem is, the mob isn’t only in the theater. It’s on the sidewalk, it’s in our homes as we watch television, it’s us, all the time, not just one night watching comedy, but making decisions every day, and comparing notes. That’s why it’s important that people denounce hate speech when it occurs, not defend it. Perhaps one day there will be a man like Adolf Hitler, sitting in a bar with his friends, who will stand up and say, “You know I really hate those people over there. Let’s go put them and their kind in camps.” And one of his friends will say, “No, they’re good people. You’re drunk. Now shut up and sit your ass back down.” And that, as far as genocide goes, will be the end of that. It always takes two. But for now, nobody’s saying that, and so all that’s required is for a group in Nashville who saw Morgan’s show and thought it was hilarious, to see a man coming out of a gay bar across the street, walking “funny”. The rest is history.

I’m writing this article, not because I hate Tracy Morgan, although I do hate what he said. I’m asking, Where is the fucking bottom? How far do we have to go before people will stop this hate and realize that they will lose this war; that gay people will get their rights, as black people have (sort of), and we won’t stop fighting and demanding justice until we do?

I spoke with a black gay man recently who says that he and his friends use the phrase, “BF, GS…” meaning they consider themselves black first and gay second. That even if they encounter homophobia from time to time from other blacks, they are black men who happen to be gay, and not the other way around. You won’t see them at a gay rally led by white men. I thought about it, and wanted to agree, so as not to be seen as a traitor to my community — but my mouth crunched on the words. I am not black first or gay first, and I’m frustrated at having to choose. I’ve explored both those identities separately: as a black man I know how we as blacks have fought for our rights in this country — desegregating lunch counters and all-white schools, being hosed down in the streets, marching against Jim Crow; as a gay man I claim the horrors of bars raided by police, gay people arrested because of their identity, the belief by some that AIDS is a gay disease that we deserve, of having to come out to parents, employers, friends, and standing up against gay-bashing and violence. Then there is the place where my black and gay identities come together beautifully: Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Richard Bruce Nugent, and other incredible black, gay artists now and from all the way back to the Harlem Renaissance. I don’t want to have to choose.

And I’m not so sure if I’m facing persecution and the white world is hot on my heels, that I can run into any black church as a gay man and ask for help. Can I run into the church of that pastor in Harlem who said those words about pedophiles and Gay Pride? Can I run into any of the black churches that voted for Proposition 8 in California? Whenever I bring that up, of course, someone is quick to remind me that the black vote that helped get Prop 8 passed wasn’t really the black voters’ fault. They were manipulated by diabolical white people who tricked them with big words and scary stories and led them to the polls with the promise of fried chicken dinners. I guess these are the same white people who tricked me into being a homosexual. Clearly, diabolical white people are busy on both sides of the gay fence, recruiting and destroying. You’d think paranoid straight and gay black people would at least find an allegiance there, but even with our common enemy, they are still locking the church doors on our black gay asses.

While I defend Morgan’s right to say what he said, that doesn’t mean people should pay money for him to continue to say it. Sometimes I wish that these so-called “equal opportunity offenders”, who always act as if they make fun of everyone, really did. Charlie Sheen might be the most honest, or the dumbest of them all –at least he made fun of his bosses (while, unconscionably, suggesting a religious slur.) Morgan, and Eminem, and all the others who trash gays, know who they can’t touch, who they won’t go near. They don’t bash the white men who sign their paychecks, that’s for sure.

Morgan is tired of gay people complaining of being bullied? I wish we could stop complaining too, so stop bullying us. How much courage do you have to have to bully a gay person or to hit a woman, to beat a child? When everything in the culture seems to give you a green light, these are the easiest targets of all. Especially when there is a mob behind you saying it’s okay. A hundred years ago, people sent pictures of lynchings as postcards; now we Tweet our hate. It’s all the same.

I want to say that all this will be over with Tracy Morgan, whatever happens, but experience tells me it won’t. There was the story just in the news last week of Kirk Andrew Murphy, experimented on in a study as a child for being “overly feminine”, and who recently killed himself. I winced, but I turned the page, like I’ll turn the page with Morgan.

And like I turned the page in 2000 when I read about Steen Fenrich, a 19-year-old black gay man from Bayside, Queens, who was murdered and dismembered by his stepfather. I wonder how Steen walked when he came in the house the day he died. Was he swishing, or limp wristed, or “man enough”? Probably not. I guess that’s why his stepfather decided to stab that little nigger to death.

Max S. Gordon is a writer and activist. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos (University of Michigan Press, 1991), Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-​American Lesbian and Gay Fiction (Henry Holt, 1996). His work has also appeared on openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-​line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally. His essays include “Bill Cosby, Himself, Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence”, “A Different World: Why We Owe The Cosby Accusers An Apology”, “Faggot as Footnote: On James Baldwin, ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, ‘Can I Get A Witness’ and ‘Moonlight’”, “Resist Trump: A Survival Guide”, “Family Feud: Jay-Z, Beyoncé and the Desecration of Black Art”

Max S. Gordon is a writer and activist. His work has appeared in on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally. Follow Max on twitter:@maxgordon19

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