Once again, I find myself on the slippery slope of pop culture commentary, in a position that requires full disclosure. Recently, I wrote a piece about Marvel’s announcement that Sam Wilson, a black man better known as Falcon, will be taking over at the new Captain America. I also admitted that I know writer Rick Remender, who will be chronicling the adventures of Black Captain America. With that in mind, it is only fair that I admit to knowing Aaron McGruder, creator of The Boondocks, as well as a new television series that is about to debut, Black Jesus.
My relationship with McGruder is far more complex than my relationship with Remender, to the extent that I’d say at one point Aaron and I could’ve been considered friends. We haven’t spoken in a long time, and based on his work as of late, I’d say that we exist in differing ideological universes. If that’s not the case, he is more than welcome to get in touch with me, as I’m sure he still has my number, and we can talk about how his work often makes me want to vomit in the corner.
Yesterday, shortly after I finished posting my rant about Black Captain America, I saw the trailer for McGruder’s new show, Black Jesus. Now, I want to be careful, and not jump to conclusions about how something might be, when I haven’t seen it yet. Black Captain America might turn out to be the best comic of all time, though I doubt it. And though the trailer leads me to believe that Black Jesus will be the sort of show that makes me cringe, all the while wondering if it simply wouldn’t have been better to get white people to perform in blackface, it might be a great show. It might not be the minstrel show it looks like it is going to be, and again, I don’t want to rush to judgment. Okay…I do want to rush to judgment…but I’m fighting that urge.
Now, before I go an further, let me make a promise to everyone. Here goes: I will buy the first issue of Black Captain America (not the real title, BTW), and I will watch the first episode of Black Jesus, and if either leaves me pleasantly surprised and forces me to rethink my initial reactions, I will admit to be a pre-judgmental jackass. But until that time, I’ve got some things to say, especially about Black Jesus.
Long before I met Aaron McGruder, I was a fan of The Boondocks—the comic strip that is, not the show. The show had some funny moments, but by and large it was a disappointment on many levels. I get why some people like the show, in the same way I get why some people like McDonald’s hamburgers, or drinking cheap beer until they black-out. That’s to say that even though I had problems with The Boondocks—just like I have problems with McDonald’s hamburgers giving me the runs—I’m cool with people liking the show. I just wish the show was more like the comic strip. You know…intelligent and not pandering for cheap laughs derived from low level jigabafoonery. I wish that the character of Uncle Ruckus was not a break-out hit of the show, because the market is already flooded with minstrel-like shenanigans. And if I thought Black Jesus was going to be anything other than minstrel-like shenanigans, I’d be excited. But the truth of the matter is that the minstrel—whether it be a white person in blackface, or a black person shucking-n-jiving—is alive and well, even though it needs to be laid to rest with a stake made of a fried chicken drumstick driven through its heart.
Look, I get that comedy is one of those things that can divide the room. What one person finds funny, another person finds offensive, and yet another person is left scratching his or her head, mumbling, “I don’t get it.” And while I have no doubt that some people will find Black Jesus funny, based on what I’ve seen so far, I won’t be one of them. Call me a bourgeois, hi-yella Negro, but I tend to shy away from anything that uses malt liquor as a comedic tool. But more important than that, I recognize the incredible power of comedy, both as a tool of oppression, and as a tool revolution.
For black people in America, comedy and music have been the two most powerful forms of social protest. Both comedy and music are the two greatest tools in shaping how black people are perceived—even more so than sports. Black music was the secret language we used to communicate with each other. Black comedy was the secret weapon we used to express our rage. This is part of the reason why I take black comedy so seriously—because it can either make black people, or break black people.
Most of the ideological views of the race and racism in America have been greatly formed by comedy. It was through the comedy of the minstrel shows of the 1800s that some of the worst stereotypes of blacks were introduced into American popular culture. White performers in blackface defined who black people were through a comedic framework, first on the stage, then in motion pictures. Black performers in the 1800s and well into the 20th century had to perform in blackface, simply to be accepted, at which time many of them were able to subvert some of the ideological conventions that defined blacks as inferior. But make no mistake, the paradigm of racial inferiority never went away, it just changed appearance.
Perhaps the best-known perpetrator of the myth of black inferiority as seen through the lens of comedy is Stepin Fetchit (Lincoln Perry). To be sure, Stepin Fetchit was a comedic genius. But his comedy was problematic then, just as it is now. It was comedy derived from the misplaced ideological belief that blacks are inferior, and that is a tool of oppression. My concern is that Black Jesus will be pretty much the same thing—comedy derived from stereotypes and ideological beliefs that keep blacks stuck in a role of inferiority. It may be a funny show, but if it doesn’t defy existing socio-political constructs used to define black people in America, then it is just one more thing to add to the already long list of things that can kiss my hi-yella ass.
To be perfectly honest, I’m looking forward to Black Captain America more than Black Jesus—though not much more. I already have a good idea of what Black Captain America will be like, and I know that it is just a gimmick that will be relatively short lived. And in the end, I’m not that worried that it will perpetuate damaging stereotypes. I suspect the worst we’ll see from Black Captain America is the same sort of writing that fails to give black characters real depth or resonance. And I can handle one-dimensional black characters written by white people, because to be honest, I’ve been raised on that crap. But it is the stuff like Black Jesus—or more specifically, what Black Jesus looks like it will be—that really gets me to worrying.
I hope I’m wrong. I hope Black Jesus is so intelligent that it raises the bar not only for what is expected from us comically, but how we are perceived—both by ourselves, as well as by others. I hope that it is a show that celebrates what is good and strong about black America, as opposed to mining the depths of our despair and depravity for some cheap laughs. Most of all, I hope the show doesn’t suck. But I ain’t holding my breath.
When all is said and done, the thing that bothers me the most are the limited options presented in the form of both Black Captain America and Black Jesus—not just for black people, but for everyone. What we’re being given are options that are about as limiting as the oft-asked question, “You want that original recipe, or extra crispy?”