“Whole lot of things you’ve yet to understand. But instead of measuring the distance between your little-boy understanding and big-boy wisdom, you standing there plotting how to get past me. You so scarce in understanding, you think you can get past your own flesh and blood.”
— Toni Cade Bambara, These Bones Are Not My Child
What I was looking for was a way to quiet my mind, a reason to laugh in these troubled times. So, I turned on Netflix to watch Dave Chappelle’s Sticks and Stones. While I’ll admit I haven’t seen everything Chappelle has done, I consider myself a fan; I appreciate that he is a master. The great stand-up comics give you the impression that they are up there just talking. And they make their personalities felt; if a comedian does his job right, you talk about “Chappelle” the way you talk about “Seinfeld”, with great affection, as if he were someone you went to high school with, or a friend you are meeting for dinner next week.
And because Dave Chappelle very publicly walked away from the industry at a high point in his career, there is the presumption of a deep personal and professional integrity. We may assume because of his choices — and it’s not easy to walk away from money in America — that Chappelle, both as a man and an artist, is free. This freedom gives him the reputation of being a performer who says whatever the hell he wants, which can be exhilarating for an audience.
Many of us feel we are bound to silence because of issues related to money and survival. In some cases, we may even fear physical harm if we tell people in our lives what we really think. The black artist who speaks her mind in America is dangerous (and often in danger.) While comedy helps soften the blow, the truth is the truth, and stand-up comics are some of the most influential artists in our society; and, at times, the most courageous. Richard Pryor burned himself up for it, Lenny Bruce went to jail for it. I’ve appreciated some of Chappelle’s insights in the past and I wanted to hear what he had to say.
It was good to see him; Dave Chappelle has a particular gift rare in comics — he is funny before he even opens his mouth; his entire affect is funny. You know you are going to laugh as he lights a cigarette or glances around the room, before he’s even told a single joke. In fact, you may be somewhere else entirely and just hear his name, recalling the comedic pleasure he’s given you with one of the classic lines from his TV show: “I’m Rick James, Bitch!”, or (as Tyrone Biggums, the homeless addict, speaking to a group of kids about drug prevention), “And that, kids, was the first time I sucked dick for crack.” Chappelle’s great rapport with his audience means that he has very little, if anything, to prove to us anymore. His genius is established, and he knows this.
In Sticks and Stones, Chappelle dives right in — there isn’t any time to waste in this one-hour show — and begins to express his outrage with “cancel culture”. The term refers to what some people consider to be the intolerant, politically-correct world we live in, where as soon as someone makes a “mistake” — says or does something racist, sexist or homophobic — they are “out”. Fired, disgraced, humiliated, dragged or whatever else happens in print or social media, the punishment in cancel culture is swift and absolute: no grace period, no second chances, no phoning a friend…just out.
I don’t know when the term originated, but I do know that it is a complicated one and I have mixed feelings about it. While nuanced conversations should always be welcomed and no one’s life can be defined by one single comment or event, some people these days need to get cancelled. For Megyn Kelly and Roseanne Barr the term was literal; cancel culture meant the actual canceling of their TV shows after public comments they made were deemed to be racist by their employers.
Chappelle uses the term to invoke the image of a society in which nobody can say or do anything these days without getting into trouble. While he clearly presumes the audience to be on his side, he also establishes himself as one of “our” targets. The general assumption is that the victims of cancel culture, mostly men, are facing consequences for things they were once able to say and do before everyone became so uptight. Whether he subscribes to the nomenclature or not, Chappelle observes in his stand-up that patriarchy is deeply threatened in this cultural moment, and his tone is funereal in response; in Sticks and Stones we are attending patriarchy’s wake. There is a sense of bitter frustration, hostility, and disappointment as we are expected to mourn because the “thought police” — uppity women, the gay mafia, the transgender community — are ruining our freedom of speech and quality of life. A great comic like Chappelle knows how to read the room; I’ve written before about an educated white man I met in 2016 who told me he voted for Trump because there were simply too many transgender people on his TV; he felt they were taking over the country.
There is something extremely immature about Chappelle’s petulance; he wants us to rebel against these groups and their abuses of power, but it is a minor insurrection, he’s too somnambulant in his delivery to whip us up into a real frenzy of hate. He’s more like the leader of a group of kids, outraged at the new homeroom teacher. (Students: Mrs. Connelly used to let us work together in small groups if we were quiet. New teacher: Well, I’m not Mrs. Connelly.) The thought police, “meanies” or new cultural chaperones, are the people currently experiencing victories against patriarchy: women finally being taken seriously after sexual assault, gay people with equal rights under the law, and transgender women and men, more visible in our society, who continue to fight for justice and with allies who demand they be treated with dignity.
Chappelle suggests that some people — he only names very famous men, men who are his friends — are being bullied, or at the very least seriously inconvenienced by the social changes taking place. Since Chappelle is a black man in America with children, one might assume this dismantling of patriarchy, or social oppression of any kind, would be a reason for him to rejoice. If you subscribe to intersectionality and see that societal oppressions are connected, whenever patriarchy is threatened, racism and class inequality are also on shaky ground. But Chappelle is black and famous and rich, which means — in terms of economic privilege in this country and for the purpose of his rant — he’s white. And whatever you think of him, he’s a shrewd businessman: conservative reactionary whites love him for telling off feminists and the radical left in Sticks and Stones, black people love him because we tend to love anyone who is black and wealthy. As the audience, we watch an African-American man on stage telling jokes, but we’re hearing white, heterosexual, patriarchal rage run amok — Donald Trump doing stand-up at Caroline’s or The Comedy Store. Sticks and Stones, a seemly innocuous Netflix special, is actually a reactionary political rant made to appear friendlier than it actually is by Dave Chappelle’s great charisma. Chappelle is angry on behalf of his “innocent” male friends who have been harmed by political correctness, and he’s out to get even.
A white woman I’ve known for years recently said something that I felt was racially insensitive and I called her on it. After she profusely apologized and asked my forgiveness — and I knew her apology was sincere — she then said she was worried she’d now have to walk on eggshells whenever she wanted to say anything. I made it clear that if she chose to “walk on eggshells” it was because being sensitive to racism was important to her — not because she was tiptoeing over some “black minefield” to avoid getting in trouble with me in the future.
Chappelle’s Sticks and Stones appeals to the walking-on-eggshells crowd. And unlike my friend, who deepened our relationship because of her apology and our subsequent conversation, Chappelle has the stridency and sass of a swashbuckler who isn’t going to let anyone tell him — especially gays, transgender people and women — what to think or what to say. Chappelle doesn’t even care what his wife says: in a joke about how ridiculous transgender people are, he imagines himself as a black man who believes that on the inside he is really Chinese. Chappelle does a bucktoothed Chinaman impression that rivals Mickey Rooney’s in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Later in the show, he tells us that his wife, who is Asian, has asked him repeatedly to take the joke out of his act. As we’ve just seen him do it a half hour earlier in the show, clearly even his wife’s disappointment and feelings of humiliation can’t deter him. Chappelle is on a macho mission; at one point, while seemingly regretful, he acknowledges his enjoyment in making fun of transgender people. He admits to his compulsive need to ridicule them and suggests that they need to take some responsibility for his jokes; it’s not his fault that their “predicament” is hilarious.
To some watching Sticks and Stones, Chappelle’s “fuck you”s may feel like a type of liberation theology, especially when they are directed at the cancel-culture “PC” crowd. I’ve always hated the term political correctness. Not political correctness itself, but the term. What many people deem to be political correctness these days is often a black person kindly asking not to be called a nigger anymore or a woman asking that her pussy not be grabbed. It really shouldn’t be too much to ask. And still some white people and some men will groan with put-out looks on their faces when asked to be a little more sensitive in their language and behavior. The look says, “Why should I have to go out of my way to make you more comfortable in this society? I have enough problems of my own.” The PC/cancel-culture backlash means that I may still call you a nigger, but if I put it in quotation marks, I’m not actually a racist, I’m an “anti-political correctness” rebel, a hero for telling you what I really think or for saying out loud what everyone else says in chatrooms or in private.
If you come from an oppressed group, however, you probably have a different relationship to political correctness and cancel culture. You may know of someone who was permanently cancelled because of a hate crime. Or you may know gay children who, tired of being bullied every day, came home from school and cancelled themselves.
To be clear: I’m not for censorship and I have laughed at jokes that have had racial tones. I’m fascinated with the blue comics of yesteryear: comedians like Redd Foxx and LaWanda Page. Comedy can be tricky territory: At her Comedy Central roast, Jeff Ross said of Joan Rivers, “Joan is so old, if you google her, you can find her on Craig’s and Schindler’s Lists.” Funny joke? Joan thought so. (Knowing Joan, she might have written it.) Does a joke like that desensitize us and cause damage, or help us heal? I’ve heard both sides.
However, when Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino from TV’s The Jersey Shore made a joke during Donald Trump’s roast about Trump and Snoop Dogg having a lot in common — Trump owns property and Snoop’s ancestors were property — the producers felt it went too far and cut it from the televised broadcast. In some comedy, it may seem arbitrary where one draws the line. In Sticks and Stones, after a particularly ugly misogynist joke, Chappelle tells us, basically, that we knew what we were signing up for: “And if you’re at home watching this shit on Netflix, remember, Bitch, you clicked on my face. ”
I’m not entirely sure that’s true; the audience seems to hesitate at times as if they don’t know what they are in for, and there are strange tensions throughout the show. (Chappelle is clearly trying to push the boundaries of what he knows offends us, as George Carlin did, but he doesn’t have Carlin’s inquisitive and absurdist style nor sense of discovery.) The unease may be because Chappelle’s “critique” goes deeper than any one joke or punchline: it’s as if he were tapping into the zeitgeist of disaffected white men. The audience waits for him to be an equal opportunity offender and talk about other groups, white men with power, for example, but he seems to have a specific agenda to take down “bitches”, “faggots” and “punks” — those most harmed by patriarchy. Early in the show, he refers to the times we live in as “Celebrity Hunting Season.” His show is a battle-cry for the eggshell-walkers.
Walking on eggshells isn’t just for reactionary white men now, by the way. It is the way one has always survived in our society for generations as a woman, a gay person, or a person of color. You grow up and consider what to wear on a first date, whether it will give the wrong impression sexually, and, if you are ever raped, what clothing might suggest that “you asked for it”. As a black person, it dictates where you drive in the South, and how late at night you travel, it may determine what time you will leave the gay bar as a lesbian, and whether you walk home alone. Walking on eggshells means not coming out to your religious family about your same-sex boyfriend until after college, it means telling the officer that you are reaching for your registration when you open the glove compartment as a person of color, so that you don’t become another statistic or feature on the evening news. Walking on eggshells is finding the right tone in the meeting — authoritative but not strident — while forcing yourself as the female boss now supervising a room full of men not to tell the self-deprecating joke or laugh the girlish laugh that says, “Hey guys, don’t worry, I’m not threatening, I’m not a bitch.” Just because some of us have only recently arrived at the party, the eggshell game is not new.
Walking on eggshells is also the way you survive in an alcoholic family. Stand-up comedy is built on the risk of saying what shouldn’t be talked about with strangers, it centers around telling family secrets. You’re either telling on your family of origin, or on your husband or wife and kids, your boss at work, or yourself. The deeper the secret, the higher the stakes. The abuse survivor has something in common with the comic; bringing unspoken or unspeakable things to light. The difference — and it is a big one — is that nothing is funny when the abuse survivor comes forward. They may face familial rage and feelings of betrayal when they speak out. The survivor who tells, at some point, stands alone.
The comic, pacing the stage or sitting on a stool, faces a mob, and stands alone too. Humor helps the medicine go down, often making it easier to talk about things that are too difficult to face. I believe that all comics owe a debt, in some small way, to anyone who tells the truth: survivors and courageous comics share a relationship to honesty. Which is why it is so bizarre when Dave Chappelle builds the foundation of his one-hour stand-up on shaming sexual-abuse survivors — specifically Michael Jackson’s accusers and the women who, according to Chappelle, tried to “cancel” the comedian Louis CK.
It’s hard to argue that Louis CK was ever truly cancelled; a year after several women came forward with allegations against him for sexual misconduct, including masturbating in front of them in professional situations, he was appearing in clubs again. Very few performers, and only those who commit the most egregious acts, are ever permanently cancelled: actor Stephen Collins, who admitted to Katie Couric in a 2014 interview that he exposed himself to an underage girl will probably never work again. But who knows? Americans love a comeback story.
At one point, Chappelle tells the women in his audience that, as a result of going too far with the #MeToo movement and accusing men like Louis CK, there has been retaliation against them, as he predicted. He cops to having a #MeToo headache. “Ladies, I said in my last special…I told you you were right but the way you’re going about it is not going to work.”) As a result, he explains, some states are doing everything in their power to overturn Roe V. Wade, to take away a woman’s right to choose. Chappelle dismisses the allegations against Louis CK, refusing to consider that any unwarranted sexual contact, especially in a professional context, can be traumatic and a violation. As in his jokes about transgender people, Chappelle makes it clear that by speaking out “irresponsibly” and taking down good men like Louis CK, women have brought a political backlash on themselves.
Chappelle informs us that cancel culture also destroyed the dream of his friend Kevin Hart (“Poor Kevin Hart”), whose main goal in life, it seems, other than to be a stand-up comedian, was to host the Oscars. Hart’s dream isn’t presented as a savvy career move for a comic who already enjoys superstar success, but as a dying child’s last wish for a puppy while sitting on Santa’s lap. It hardly seems that Hart needs a champion in Dave Chappelle, one millionaire artist speaking for another, but Chappelle is compelled to advocate for his “abused” friend.
Chappelle encourages us to feel sorry for Hart because a homophobic joke he’d made years ago and had apologized for had not been forgiven or forgotten. The suggestion from Chappelle’s tone is that the cancel-culture people are never satisfied and that no act of contrition is enough — that it is they who forced Hart to drop out of the Oscars. (Hart wasn’t fired, he quit.) There is no serious acknowledgement by Chappelle of the ugliness of Hart’s comment — Hart “joked” on Twitter that if he were to see his son playing with his daughter’s dollhouse, he would break the house over his head and say “stop, that’s gay”— nor is there horror at the suggestion of physical harm to a child who may be gay, bisexual or lesbian. Kevin’s detractors may be the same people who challenged comedian Tracy Morgan in 2011 when he told an audience that if his son were gay, “he better talk to me like a man and not in a gay voice or I’ll pull out a knife and stab that little nigger to death.” (Why some black male comedians feel the need to strike these “patriarchial poses” before predominantly white audiences — especially when they involve harming their own children — is the subject for another essay. )
Later in the show, Chappelle talks about the alleged “hate crime” perpetrated on Jussie Smollett who is both black and gay — “Aren’t you that faggot nigger from Empire?” — and acknowledges that in a prior stand-up performance he told the audience that he’d like to smash a dollhouse over Smollett’s head. The audience laughs because it’s comedy and Chappelle’s delivery is funny; he makes homophobia and transphobia sexy and hip. We congratulate ourselves because we’re not really transphobic, we’re all in on the joke — it is other people out here in these streets, not us, who continue to murder transgender people at alarming rates.
Comedy, while often brave, as I’ve argued, can, on the other hand, also let us off the hook as cowards; like the passive-aggressive friend who puts you down constantly and follows it up with, “Hey, you know I was only joking”, it can be very difficult to call certain comedians on their ability to incite others to hate. The victim-shaming in Sticks and Stones may be dismissed as comedy, but Chappelle’s impatience with the #MeToo movement and his influence as a performer have real consequences for the woman who tries to file a restraining order against an abusive boyfriend and is not believed, for the child who wants to tell the teacher she’s being sexually abused by her stepfather but doesn’t want to make a fuss.
I’m not going to pretend that I sat there frowning in disapproval the whole time while watching Sticks and Stones. It’s Dave Chappelle, so you know that the show is often hilarious. But several times I caught myself laughing, while wincing and recoiling at what I was laughing at. It seemed that, however ugly the joke — and Chappelle is clearly aware of how ugly some of the jokes are, because he apologizes for them in advance (but tells them anyway) — Chappelle finds a way to win you back with his naughty eye-rolls and “hand in the cookie jar” delivery.
Dave Chappelle enjoys folk-hero status. (Any black person who makes real money in America does.) But there is something else going on with his comedic image in this show and it needs to be deconstructed here. Chappelle has the natural rhythms of the blues, and his comedic style has deepened and relaxed with age. In Sticks and Stones, Chappelle is almost Cosby-esque, giving us situations and commentary on life rather than just rapid-fire punchlines. He doesn’t need to rush, he’s earned the silence between his jokes and he can take his time. If the audience is dislocated, it’s because he’s entered the space and authority of the black politician or preacher and there are moments in Sticks and Stones where he might be in a pulpit. Stand-up comedians tell jokes to reveal themselves, preachers and politicians have agendas to shape the way you think.
Chappelle’s physical appearance and the soulful textures in his voice help to obfuscate the reactionary aspects of his message. Unlike most African-American male and female comics who dress in their finest before their audiences, old-school male comics come to mind, like Steve Harvey, Bernie Mack, Cedrick the Entertainer, Patrice O’Neal, Robin Harris, who, in designer suits and hats, invoke 5th Avenue’s and Harlem’s finest. Chappelle, on the other hand, is deliberately deglamorized for Sticks and Stones. In a dun-colored onesie with his name tag across the front in big letters, he looks like a gas-station attendant.
This drab, “working-class” look suggests that Chappelle identifies with the voice of the “rural” poor (the white poor; poor black people would never leave the house looking like this), obscuring the fact that he is worth, by some estimates, close to fifty million dollars. The Chappelle character in this show is the broke uncle or family member, always drunk or high, who says crazy shit at the family reunion or wedding, who says what everyone in the room is really thinking. The costuming suggests Chappelle is closer to the building’s janitor rather than the Republican white men in a corporate board room with whom he shares an economic affinity, and who may come closer to sharing the political views he espouses in his show.
Several times when Chappelle delivers his “zingers” he stumbles to the back of the stage, as if he knows he’s been bad, or because we’re cracking him up. Like a group of friends getting high together at a house party, encouraging each other’s laughter, he makes us complicit as he reaches new levels of outrageousness and hilarity. But there is an irresponsible, slightly disturbing minstrel side to this. The jokes aren’t presented full-on with authority. Chappelle becomes the naughty pickaninny, the black man-child in the white American cultural imagination. He’s the mentally-ill homeless man on the corner, a man who shouts his rage and whom you easily dismiss because he has no economic power. This is no black millionaire talking. Chappelle is pulling hijinks, rather than telling us what he really thinks full-on, like Paul Mooney or Monique, who stare directly at us in their acts and face the consequences. If you want to call out Chappelle for hate speech towards transgender people, the stumbling body language, the trips to the back of the stage say, “Come on, y’all know I’m just playing.” As a moving target, he is harder to criticize. When the laughter subsides, however, the dissonance of Chappelle’s critique reverberates. You ask yourself, Did he really just suggest that women are responsible for the attempts to overturn Roe V. Wade because of an overzealous #MeToo movement? That’s what he has to tell us as we approach the most important presidential election of our lifetime?
At one point, Chappelle shares a story about the Standards and Practices department at the studio he worked for during his taping of Chappelle’s Show. He was called on the carpet for attempting to use the word “faggot” in a script. When told that he couldn’t use the word because he wasn’t gay, he told the woman who ran the department, “Well, I’m not a nigger, either.” The audience applauds, but it’s an easy answer, because Chappelle must know that a gay man might be able to use the word as part of his oppressed group (as a black man uses “nigger” with his), but that as a heterosexual man, Dave Chappelle cannot. He does have a point, though; many people seem perfectly fine with a comic saying the n-word but take great exception to the word “faggot”; and that definitely needs to be explored. But the story is told by Chappelle as just more evidence that gay people in Hollywood are too powerful, with the tone reminiscent of the “Jews rule Hollywood” trope, suggesting a gay conspiracy. When we think of gay men and women in Sticks and Stones, the definition is very narrow: the rich and the white — no homeless black gay youth here — and for the female and male accusers of sexual assault the definitions are the same. There is a general contempt for victims of any kind in this show, always an obvious sign that patriarchy is alive and thriving, and a presumption that some of the people who have come forward about rape in “cancel culture” aren’t telling the truth.
Several minutes in, Chappelle begs us to stay away from the HBO documentary Leaving Neverland. He calls it “fucking gross”, “nasty shit”, and says he felt like “HBO was sticking baby dicks in my ears for four hours straight.” After he claims that Michael’s accusers are lying, he then does a brief bit about the allegations against R. Kelly. His assumption is that these superstars are also victims of cancel culture, even though R. Kelly probably deserves to be cancelled, unlike Michael.
Chappelle challenges filmmaker dream hampton’s assertion that when she asked him to participate in her docuseries Surviving R. Kelly he refused because the subject was “too hot for television.” hampton later claimed that she never used the phrase, that her people approached Chappelle because he had parodied R. Kelly on his show — specifically the allegation that he urinated on one of his victims — with a sketch/music video called “Piss on You.” Chappelle appeals to us in the audience in exasperation. He makes it clear that he doesn’t even know R. Kelly, as if asking him, a powerful and influential black male celebrity, would be akin to, and as random as, asking one of us. hampton is portrayed as manipulative, while it never seems to occur to Chappelle that he might have jumped at the chance to be a champion for the black children allegedly violated by R. Kelly, and that a minute of screen time from him would send a powerful message to black families, all families, as a stand against violence against black girls and women. The Chappelle character in Sticks and Stones is, at times, triflin’, indifferent, and generally can’t be bothered to give a damn. An ugly misogynist joke about the aging of women’s bodies and “thirty-six-year-old pussy” gets a groan from the crowd, and Chappelle runs upstage, in trouble again. There are jokes about how stupid R. Kelly’s is for “admitting” on the tape to having sex with someone underage, but the fact that he currently awaits trial for new allegations doesn’t factor in the comic’s tone, nor is there any empathy for Kelly’s victims.
I’d like to take a moment to talk about the allegations against Michael Jackson, because Michael, I believe, is a special case. It has become very popular to discredit all Michael’s accusers, to say they have all lied about everything, with the sole motivation of trying to make money from his estate. Because of what was later revealed as a discrepancy in the testimony of James Safechuck and one of his timelines, some viewers have dismissed Leaving Neverland entirely, while others never took it seriously in the first place or responded to the entire project with contempt.
I personally never knew Michael Jackson, and I cannot state, any more than I can state about Harvey Weinstein, exactly what happened between Michael Jackson and his accusers. What I can say, as someone who comes from a family with survivors of both rape and incest, is that sexual abuse has a texture. You know it when you see it. What touched me most about the documentary was the second half, in which the wives of the two men had to deal with their husbands as survivors, and which dealt with how childhood abuse can affect us for the rest of our lives if we don’t get the help we need. These women were bewildered by what was happening with their husbands and why these men were both shut down emotionally in their relationships with them and with their children. Leaving Neverland is really about how families deal with childhood sexual abuse — the alleged perpetrator just happens to be a pop legend.
There are details throughout the documentary that just feel right. Many of us continue to give Michael a pass because of his great talent and because of how much his music has meant to us. As a teenage boy, I, like most boys of my generation, black and white, wanted to be Michael Jackson. But the truth is, as an adult, I’ve always believed Michael harmed those boys. If it wasn’t sexual abuse, it was the “romantic obsession” of calling them every day and spending hours on the phone, traveling with them and allowing them to stay in his private hotel rooms with him and without their parents, which Michael never denied. The documentary includes actual voicemails and faxes from Michael Jackson to these boys’ families. It may not all be sexual abuse, but we know from published photographs at the time that Michael would often dump one kid when he got to be too old and just pick up another — as some narcissistic men leave their wives (or husbands) of twenty or thirty years for younger ones.
It’s one thing to lose the affection of someone you love or to deal with a narcissistic man or woman when you are an adult, it’s quite another when you are ten years old, and the man you are “involved” with is the biggest star in the world. There were established stars in the Eighties, legends themselves, who became weak in the knees when Michael Jackson would walk into the room. How much power would he have in the life of an adolescent boy from Simi Valley, California?
I only once saw Michael Jackson in person. There was an event in Carnegie Hall for one of his organizations or charities, as I recall, and he’d brought together a panel of experts. The hall was packed because it was advertised that Michael, who wasn’t onstage for the event, would make an appearance. At the very end, literally the last two or three minutes before the evening ended, Michael Jackson walked onstage in full regalia and thanked everyone who had participated. It felt as if the entire hall jumped out of their seats and rushed towards the stage. I was fairly close to the front and ran forward, allowing the surge to carry me. I remember a woman pushing to get me out of the way, her elbow dug into my ribs, and for just a moment I felt a spark of panic, like when you can’t swim very well and you realize you’re drifting further into the sea, into imminent danger. I understood for the first time how someone could get killed in a crowd, and I also understood the other side of the screaming, tearstained faces in rock movies, of the hysteria that can surround a famous performer. And yet, I was in there too, pushing and straining, trying to get closer to Michael.
Then Michael waved and walked off the stage, and we were left with that dreary panel again. He took all the magic and the electricity with him. Later I thought, most kids have a hard time negotiating the adult world of fourth grade teachers, school principals, boy scout leaders, babysitters, stepparents, priests. How do you even enter the world of Michael Jackson, sit in a room alone with him and watch movies, share his bed? And if something did happen that was wrong, how would you ever be able to tell anyone, how would you ever be able to face the crowd I saw at Carnegie Hall, the woman who pushed me to get to the stage, the entire world? And how could you tell your parents, if they were in love with Michael too?
I can’t prove that Michael abused those boys any more than you can prove he didn’t. But this is what I know to be true: “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” is my jam, a song with Holy Ghost power. I will be dancing to that song at my funeral. Thriller, the album, will always be a part of my boyhood, and will define a specific time in music history- the racism of MTV and how Michael overcame it. I’ve argued that the dance sequence in the music video to “Thriller” has a connection to Toni Morrison’s Beloved and is a commentary on African American burial grounds and America’s refusal to acknowledge our racist past, those lost in the Middle Passage and the brutality of slavery. Toni writes, “People who die bad don’t stay in the ground.” No matter what accusations Michael faced, some part of me will always be grateful for his almost otherworldly, mesmerizing talent and how it has informed my life.
But looking at Michael and loving him, which is not unlike looking at our own family members, means acknowledging that it is possible he may have lied to us. Because sometimes the Jacksons lie. Except Latoya: occasionally she tries to speak the truth and when she does, they — metaphorically — kidnap her and put her in the trunk of a car until she gets her story straight again. (There’s always one person in every family with abuse who tries to tell.)
Sometimes the Jacksons’ truth comes out in creative, subversive ways. In her 2017 State of the World concert, Janet Jackson has a video interlude projected on the screen while she is offstage. (The music played over the short film is “Idle” by Corbin Smidzik aka “Spooky Black”. On YouTube there is a clip of the concert footage with the same title.) Janet presents an image of herself as an austerely dressed black woman, hair pulled back Audrey Hepburn style, someone who appears very much in control. Grace Jones may be invoked, as well as Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”. (And we later see a pose that recalls the rage in Janet’s and Michael’s pop-duet “Scream.”)
Through a series of black and white images, we see a woman who is wrecked, violated, devastated by trauma. Janet smears something dark, like blood or excrement, onto her skin. She appears dissociated, bewildered, outraged and numb. She stares out at us directly, then covers her face with her hands in shame. She is a woman in a police station after reporting a domestic assault, in a hospital room awaiting a rape kit, or who has just murdered her abuser. None of these interpretations is confirmed, but they are all possible in Janet’s performance. We are shown in flashes the original woman, who attempts to stay in control, but the battered survivor keeps coming through— a devastating comment on every survivor’s inner turnmoil. In a final shot, Janet resembles a child, her hair disheveled, her face soiled, a tear streaming down her cheek. This image doesn’t recall the Grammy Award-winning superstar Janet Jackson from Los Angeles, California, but rather a young black girl who grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Gary, Indiana with her eight brothers and sisters.
The piece is all at once horrifying, and brutal, and breathtakingly honest. As I watched, I remembered being seven years old, watching Janet Jackson’s beautiful performance as Penny Woods, an abused child, on Good Times, trying to understand why Penny’s mother burned her with an hot iron for coming home late from school. Janet says in a voice-over as the video ends: “Don’t ever let anyone try to control you, manipulate you or abuse you”, and then she leads into “What About”, her song on domestic violence from The Velvet Rope. I called a friend immediately after I saw this and told her, “Janet just told me everything I need to know about what it sometimes means to be in that family.”
I took the time to share all this because often the debate about Michael disintegrates into “He did it!”, “He didn’t do it!” and I think it is more profound than that. I wanted to believe Michael’s denials, and I also knew as a fan that Michael wanted me to believe that his children were biologically his. But I’m a black person in America, a recovering addict who is supposed to be rigorously honest, and as much as I wanted to support him, I felt that what he was saying just wasn’t true. Michael, my childhood friend, the beautiful face on my sixth-grade Trapper-Keeper notebook, was so ashamed to raise a black child, he went out and bought some white ones. What did that say about me and my self-worth? The subject was too painful to consider so I turned his music up louder.
Many of us are polarized when it comes to Michael Jackson. But I think there is a place in most people’s hearts where we can acknowledge his extraordinary talent and still suspect that Michael may have been sick. When I watched the Leaving Neverland documentary, I listened for the grooming process of adults who violate children, whether that violation is emotional, sexual or spiritual. Adults who know how to get inside a child’s head operate in similar ways. The tricks of the trade aren’t really that different whether you are a pop star or a basketball coach. The way that I know something was wrong is when I place any other living adult in the Michael spot, and imagine a forty-year-old man talking about sharing his bed with a child — a grown man and a child behind a locked door all night. In that context, his choices just don’t make sense.
But Michael was “magical”, Michael was “different”, “he was special”, “he was abused (have you seen his childhood?)”, etc, etc. Yes, Michael may have been all those things, and yet it is possible that he still harmed children. And I can appreciate the thoughtful viewer who attempts to weigh the evidence, who listens and eventually comes to the conclusion, “I just don’t think Michael did it.” What feels intolerable are the fans who refuse even to consider that the allegations might be true, who know that childhood sexual abuse is rampant in our culture, who know family members who have been abused and have been abused themselves and still refuse to look, because they loved his 1983 Motown 25 performance of Billie Jean.
It is disturbing to watch Dave Chappelle dismiss the two men in Leaving Neverland —in a patriarchy society a man’s admitting to being raped is complicated in a special way — and rebuke the women who came out against Louis CK. We know what that will mean for other men and women who want to come forward and have watched survivors openly ridiculed as they are in Chappelle’s show. The fact is that some performers and artists bring so much magic into our lives that we are willing to ignore what they do wrong in order to sustain that magic, even if it means creating a fantasy about who we think they are. After watching Sticks and Stones, and some of the ugliness behind his message, I considered that Dave Chappelle, to some of us, may also be that kind of performer.
One of the iconic sketches from Chappelle’s Show was of a black man, Clayton Bigsby, who is blind and, unaware that he is black, is a leader in the white supremacy movement and Ku Klux Klan. In a mock interview with “Frontline”, the interviewer, who also discovers that Clayton is black, asks, “How could this have happened? A black white surpremacist?” At one point Clayton says, “Don’t let the liberal media tell you how to think and feel. If you have hate in your heart, let it out.” The sketch from 2003 is prescient of our current political climate, and a bitterly funny commentary on the relationship of the black American to cultural assimilation, capitalism and greed.
The black capitalist is tempted, in ways the white capitalist isn’t, to be complicit with patriarchy in order to make — or keep —his money. Polarizing times like the ones we are living in are always going to be lucrative for someone; war is profitable, whether it is the war in Afghanistan or race wars in America. I listened to two men the other day arguing in a convenience store about Jay-Z. He was being criticized for comments he made at a media event suggesting that boys in single-parent households (translate: raised by black mothers) were more likely to resist the police with “an adverse feeling toward authority” which “leads to the loss of lives”. Resistance here is equated with pathology, and there is no conversation about the economic and social terrorism directed towards many communities and enforced by state -sanctioned violence. “An adverse feeling towards authority” becomes, in this context, a personal flaw to overcome. Working-class black women, the least economically powerful in a patriarchal society, are perceived as the ones to blame, the ones who need to change. It’s a disappointing perspective, to say the least. Black boys watch black men, and specifically famous black men, for clues on how to negotiate patriarchy. Blaming leads to contempt, and contempt too often leads to violence against women.
The two men were also arguing about Jay-Z’s new deal with the NFL and his comment at a press conference that we are “done kneeling.” One man felt that Jay-Z had sold out his friend Colin Kaepernick and the movement to end police brutality. The other felt that as a mogul — the exact word he used — Jay-Z was doing what was right for business, thinking, always thinking, as moguls do, of new ways to make money, keeping his eye on the bottom line.
On a radio program recently, some comics were discussing the Chappelle special. A man called in and said part of the reason that Chappelle says the things he does now is because he’s got “fuck-you money”. He doesn’t have to care anymore what you or I think. It is this “fuck you money” tone that inspired a woman on Twitter to express her deep admiration for Chappelle, for his “audacity” as an artist. I appreciated the caller for bringing Chappelle’s audacity back to an economic bottom line.
The problem is, when you say, “fuck you” to transgender person, not because of her personality, but because of her identity, you end up with hate speech. Chappelle has a section on gun violence that seems to be saying something about the absurdity of gun use, but the tone throughout the show, and the people he’s chosen to target, end up sounding dangerously close to the musings of the shooter in El Paso. Chappelle contributes to the manifesto of people who are outraged at the dismantling of patriarchy in our culture, and then makes money from that anger.
Without his soulfulness and jive delivery to amuse us, Chappelle’s musings on Sticks and Stones are those of a crusty, old-timey white man, Archie Bunker in blackface. Some people are calling Chappelle fearless, like his champions on Twitter, but there is nothing going on in this show like Michelle Wolf’s stand-up at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. She had the guts to call Sarah Huckabee Sanders a female “Uncle Tom” directly to her face, and reminded us at the end of her set that Flint still doesn’t have clean drinking water. Wolf offended the Establishment so spectacularly that they have fired comics from the event indefinitely. Last year they chose a literary historian. That’s what a brave comic can do.
Here are the jokes that we don’t get from Dave Chappelle: anything about Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Kellyanne Conway, Ben Carson, Rudy Giuliani, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Betsy DeVos, Michael Cohen, The Mueller Report, Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Melania Trump, Roger Stone, Eric and Don Jr., Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, or anything about Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Sean Hannity, or Brett Kavanaugh: he’s so focused on transgender people, he lets some of patriarchy’s serious gatekeepers off the hook. Chappelle has a bit near the end about shooting white meth-heads who break into his house, but it’s an easy laugh, the “meth heads” presented as overgrown children. In a way, they are victims too because they are sick, and poor, and he jokes about sexually exploiting one of them. He doesn’t go after any rich Republican white men or women in his show, nor does he tackle any of the topics that threaten the real echelons of power, he presents no deconstruction of what is happening in the White Power movement, from the insane blogger in his basement to the former White House press secretary.
When the audience laughs uncomfortably or gasps in shock at a Paul Mooney show — usually after he’s called out white people or made some devastating observation about race — Mooney can be counted on to say some version of, “I know a lot of you house niggers are scared right now: ‘Paul, you gon’ get us in trouble’…You real niggers know what I’m talking about, you house niggers don’t have a clue.” Chappelle doesn’t have to tell his audience that; in Sticks and Stones, the house nigger isn’t hiding in the audience, he’s onstage.
You can’t talk about Dave Chappelle and Paul Mooney, black cultural comedy, or comedy in general, without talking about Richard Pryor. Chappelle covers some of Pryor’s territory; in his 1983 stand-up concert Here and Now, Pryor talks about drug abuse in the black community and how white politicians and white America ignores black pain. Pryor on the white response to drug abuse when it hits the white community:
“They call it an epidemic now. That means white folks are doing it. Cause y’all used to drive through our neighborhoods and shit and go: ‘Oh look at that, isn’t that terrible!’ You’d get home, your fourteen-year-old be fucked up and you’d go, ‘Oh my God, it’s an epidemic!’ Maybe next time you see black people in trouble you’ll help. Maybe.”
Chappelle makes a similar observation in Sticks and Stones: “This opioid crisis is a crisis. I see it every day…It’s ruining lives. It’s destroying families. Sadly, you know what it reminds me of? It reminds me of us. These white folks look exactly like us during the crack epidemic…I even have insight into what the white community must have felt watching the black community go through the scourge of crack. Because I don’t care either. Hang in there, whites. JUST SAY NO— what’s so hard about that!
Remember when y’all said that to us? But it’s okay…now you’ve finally got it right, once it started happening to your kids, you realize it’s a health crisis.”
After a series of jokes about the suffering of poor white people, Chappelle says, “If you’re in a group that I made fun of, then just know that I probably would only make fun of you if I see myself in you.” He then shares his experiences about growing up poor and relating to his father; and it is one of the most poignant and honest parts of the show.
I wondered later if that identification with groups he made fun of also applied to gay and transgender people. Chappelle says a lot about queer people in this show, including an extended section on rifts within the LGTBQIA community. (He calls us “the alphabet people, the people who took twenty percent of the alphabet for themselves.”) He envisions the queer community on a road trip and describes the divisions that exist between lesbians, gay men, transgender men and women, and “queers”. It is interesting to see a heterosexual black man’s perception of LGTBQ “tribal warfare”. I didn’t expect Dave Chappelle to come out as gay in this show, but I was curious how he personally related to queerness — seeing himself in us — other than as a victim of the gay mafia.
If Chappelle had “gone there” in his show, it wouldn’t be unprecedented; the queer waters aren’t uncharted by other black male comedians. Some, in fact, have been pioneers. Early in his stand-up career, Richard Pryor acknowledged that he had sucked a dick and that sucking dick can be addictive. Martin Lawrence, in his stand-up comedy movie You So Crazy describes two black male childhood friends who get high together. The friend is clearly communicating to Martin— with very strong weed facilitating their discussion– that he is sexually attracted to him. Finally, when Lawrence insists his friend come out with what he is trying to say, the friends asks, “Can I please…suck your dick?” Lawrence doesn’t humiliate him, suggest violence as an easy way to handle the situation, or call him a faggot, to play to the audience’s fears. He indicates that he actually accepts a blow-job, while singing the Dionne Warwick/Elton John hit as his friend goes down on him: “That’s What Friends Are For…”
In another stand-up segment, Lawrence describes driving across country with a friend who offers to massage his shoulders while he is driving, then, a few miles later, rub his neck with a bit of ice to cool him down. The sketch is a series of hilarious misunderstandings between two “straight” men, until Lawrence, who has reacted with heterosexual bewilderment and anger at the seduction, finally acknowledges that, “It felt so good, by the time we got to [the next town], I asked him to suck my dick”. It’s his friend’s turn to appear shocked.
While some of the laughter Lawrence gets is based on a straight man’s fear and repulsion towards homosexuality, Lawrence never lets his audience off the hook by humiliating the gay men in the story, or himself. And despite the personal issues and accusations of macho insensitivity he’s had in his own career, Lawrence can be deeply insightful in his comedy as a witness to patriarchy — an extended commentary on what motivated Lorena Bobbitt to cut off her husband’s penis, the dynamics in an abusive relationship and what might drive a woman to that point, is both funny and deeply felt.
And finally, Pryor joked at the roast for the cast of TV’s The Richard Pryor Show in 1977 (on the dais were Sandra Bernhard, Marsha Warfield, Robin Williams, and Paul Mooney — to whom he refers, at one point, as “Miss Thing”) about a same-sex or transgender sexual liaison he had. He said: “Paul was with me when I fucked my first faggot. And he’s been holding that over my head for two years. I fucked a faggot, I just want to say it now so no one else can tell. I liked it. I would have married him but he had to go away to get an operation.”
In Sticks and Stones, Chappelle acknowledges that the transgender community is angry with him, “the T’s [transgenders] hate my fucking guts”, but still he refuses to stop making jokes about them. In a previous stand-up show, Equanimity from 2017, he explains the source of some of his anger at transgender people:
“The only reason I have ever been mad at the transgender community is because I was at a club in LA and danced with one of these niggas for six songs straight. I had no idea. Then the lights came up and I saw them knuckles. I said, “Oh, no!” And everybody was laughing at me. Then I heard that sultry voice. “I didn’t say anything, Dave Chappelle, because I was having a wonderful time. And I wasn’t sure how you’d feel about it.” I said, “You knew how I’d feel.” And she said, “I’m going home. I don’t want any trouble from you.” I said, “Home? It’s only two songs left. I mean, we might as well… finish the night.”
And we ended up having breakfast together. Oh, grow up. That doesn’t make me gay. I just titty-fuck them. Those titties are as real as any titties in LA. It was two o’clock in the morning. I was just borrowing a little friction from a stranger. Whoops! It’s the madness of youth. It’s the type of mistakes a man makes when he’s young. I wouldn’t even know that it’s necessarily a mistake. It was a wild night out. But I don’t do it like that anymore.”
Chappelle acknowledges sexual contact, but he refers to it crudely and there’s no suggestion of real intimacy. The transgender person is still othered, even though through humor he has acknowledged an attraction of some kind. Still, he jokes, he has this experience, not entirely through genuine sexual attraction, but desperation, boredom, naiviety and because of a transgender person’s duplicity. While seemingly more nuanced than Sticks and Stones, it is still a variation on the transgender person as freak and trickster, indirectly justifying straight male “panic” towards transgender women that provokes some men to violence.
There is something very sad about this show, but we may not realize it until much later, when some of the hysteria around cancel culture and political correctness dies down. Some of us may choose not see it at all. Here is a man who demonizes a group of people as “other”, when we all know that true white supremacist ideology sees him with exactly the same level of contempt as the people he targets. Because he’s made a few coins and has some fame, he’s convinced himself that it is he who now makes the distinctions.
But if the shit really goes down and if the white supremacists have anything to say about it, Dave Chappelle will be locked in the same cell as transgender activist Laverne Cox. And time is being wasted — time in which real allegiances could be made — furthering the white supremacist cause of demonizing difference. Aggression against transgender people becomes just another form of “nigger-ing”. The irony in this show is that a nigger does it. In Sticks and Stones, Dave Chappelle, by maligning the transgender community, aligns himself with the forces in our society that are determined to destroy him.
Chappelle may not have empathy for what it means to be transgender, but he can appreciate what it means to be “othered” by members of his own creative team and audience. It is part of the Chappelle legend that while working on a sketch for his comedy show in 2006, a bit about good and evil “pixies” sitting on a black man’s shoulder and encouraging him to be either “refined” or “ghetto” in different contexts, he observed a white spectator “laughing too hard” and, he later said, “the laughter felt wrong”. Chappelle wondered to himself, “if the new season of his show had gone from sending up stereotypes to merely reinforcing them.” Sometimes the line is very thin. For some, white people laughing at Chris Rock’s routine Niggas vs. Black People — “Boy, I wish they’d let me join the Ku Klux Klan. Shit, I’d do a drive-by from here to Brooklyn” — falls into this category. Many of us still cringe, but Clayton Bigsby, Chappelle’s black klansman, would have been proud.
Chappelle ended his show that same year and didn’t return, despite the extraordinary amounts of money thrown at him. It was a bewildering choice for a black capitalist and performer at the height of his fame; but it was the right choice for a black artist wanting to protect his sanity and his gift. Richard Pryor, at the height of his popularity, was in great demand in movies, recording albums, and performing stand-up to sold-out audiences. He was also abusing alcohol and cocaine. It was someone’s idea to add a weekly television show in 1977 to this volatile mix. When pushed to write material Pryor told his team he was overwhelmed. He said (as quoted by a Newsweek reporter at the time and later referenced in Pauline Kael’s review of Pryor’s autobiographical film Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling):
“You know something? I don’t want to be on TV. I’m in a trap. I can’t do this — there ain’t no art.” (Pryor breaks into tears.) “I’d rather you know it than 50 million people. I bit off more than I can chew. I was turning into a greedy person. They give you so much money, you can’t refuse.”
When a black woman writer in the room pleads with him and suggests that he can do something different on television, he replies: “You want to see me with my brains blown out? I’m gonna have to be ruthless here because of what it does to my life. I’m not stable enough. I don’t want to drink and I don’t want to snort and I can’t do it no other way.”
Rather than blow his own brains out, Chappelle booked a ticket to South Africa and walked out on his 50-million-dollar contract with Comedy Central, shocking the industry. He told an interviewer from Time magazine: “I’m interested in the kind of person I’ve got to become. I want to be well-balanced. I’ve got to check my intentions, man.”
Chappelle’s decision was deeply inspiring to many of us. We’d forgotten it was okay to say no to “power”, no to white people, to fame. He was affirming that there was something more important than just making more money. It was an incredible act of self-love from a great artist and his decision left a stunned silence in the comedy world.
A childhood memory: watching Whoopi Goldberg: Direct From Broadway on HBO when I was fifteen with my mother and my sister. It was a revelation. We lost a major artist when Hollywood called Whoopi; we got Sister Act when we needed The Moms Mabley Story. Still, I will always love Whoopi for that Broadway show. We still get flashes of her brilliance these days, but too often the woman who championed victims in 1985 now explains away or apologizes for perpetrators, Bill Cosby, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Mel Gibson, because she counts some of them as her Hollywood friends.
But the Whoopi I watched on TV in my living room at fifteen revealed a gallery of characters, and they were all fresh: a heroin-addicted academic who finds himself in the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, philosophizing about people being “good at heart”; a black girl with a shirt over her head who dreams of one day having blond hair and being white (a comedic version of The Bluest Eye), a white Valley Girl who terminates her own pregnancy when her mother throws her out of the house; an “older” Jamaican black millionairess who fearlessly discusses her sexuality; and a physically challenged woman engaged to be married. At one point, the disabled woman doesn’t trust the man she’s fallen in love with. She yells at him about trying to “pull the wool over this crip’s eyes.” When she asks why he is in love with her, he says, “Because I happen to think that you are a very foxy chick.” She confides to us in the audience: “And let me tell you, that was the right answer.”
My life expanded after that night. It was the artistic equivalent of being lifted in an air balloon to a great height. Whoopi didn’t have people running around with complicated backdrops and furniture in her show; she stood alone on stage. Her props were minimal: a hat, a shirt, a pair of sunglasses, a scarf. Her effects were achieved by a true actor’s gift: modulations of voice, tensions in the body. She even mimed the disabled woman’s crutches. There were five characters but it was all her: vulnerable, exposed, prodigious, insightful. And black. Whoopi showed me what an artist was capable of through revealing the vast landscapes of her own creativity and imagination. How we can experience compassion through art.
And my fear is that for the fifteen-year-old transgender boy who is watching Sticks and Stones, as my life has expanded, his life will contract. Children are watching. And not just our children, but the neighbors’ children as well. I’m concerned about his classmates, who are being encouraged at some schools to consider empathy towards transgender students even when one doesn’t always understand, while Dave Chappelle, their hero, basically tells them through his stand-up: Why bother with understanding? These are the freaks, these are the people you can harm.
Something is clearly wrong with us. Perhaps it is the meanness from the White House trickling down into our personal lives, or the violence from too many mass shootings, but we are seriously on the edge. In the last two weeks, I’ve seen three people “go off” in public, real scenes — it was very scary to watch. Like the feeling I had in that crowd in Carnegie Hall with Michael Jackson, a signal of imminent danger, the ruthless surge of the masses. We push each other with rage and determination to get somewhere. But where are we going?
I’ve lived in New York now for twenty-six years, and I saw something on the train last week I have never seen before. A woman was in the back corner of the car listening to a very loud program on her phone. I was irritated because I was trying to read, and as I got up to leave the train, I stood by the doors and glanced at her in a passive-aggressive way to express my annoyance. She was black, looked to be in her mid-thirties, casually dressed, beautiful, and was curled slightly inward, turned away from the crowded train for privacy. She was also sucking her thumb as if she were two years old.
We talk about the sexual abuse of women, and survivors, but I think for many of us it’s an abstract conversation, or at least for many men; a heated debate with friends about an overzealous movement, fodder for a comedy act. We don’t acknowledge enough the lives that are personally affected, one by one by one. I don’t know what happened to this woman in her life, but I can imagine a few things that might make her watch Saturday morning cartoons on a crowded train with her thumb in her mouth. I wondered as I watched: was she sexually abused, and if she was, did she tell, and if she told, was she believed?
We are at a time in our history when it has become more and more attractive to scapegoat, to point a finger at the ones whom we can comfortably hate. We will be tempted to violate because we feel violated; when people have to compete for love and resources, they become aggressive. They hurt one another. We’ll be on the look-out for whom we can trash. We’ll beat our daughter with a belt when she comes out to us as transgender and not even realize that the origin of that beating was a joke about a dollhouse being broken over a gay child’s head. Our artists will either encourage us to greater understanding or inspire us to greater depths of brutality.
And it’s not just about R. Kelly, or Michael Jackson, or Louis CK, or even Dave Chappelle. To the average person, these are faces you click on a computer screen, as Chappelle said. Some stars are so famous they become mythical, unreal. They might as well be Harry Potter or Santa Claus. They are untouchable. They do their jobs, they count their money at the end of the night, and they go home.
But I can’t stop thinking about that woman on the subway. She looked to be the same age as my sister. It only occurs to me now, days later upon reflection, that I never thought once to pause for a moment and say, “Excuse me, Ma’am. Are you all right? Do you need some help?” I was appalled by her pain and by how it felt like an indictment of my own.
If Dave Chappelle ran to Africa the first time because he felt that a racist entertainment industry was using him to harm his own people (and black transgender women and men are his people), that he was speaking for “the man” and not being true to his spirit, then Sticks and Stones is a true return to form. It may be time for him to book another flight.
New York City
September 10, 2019
(this piece was revised on 9/14/19)
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 “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”, and A Little Respect, Just a Little Bit: On White Feminism and How “The Handmaid’s Tale” is Being WeaponizedAgainst Women of Color/.