A Letter To My (Sort Of) Neighbor, Dave Chappelle

Update after the Rittenhouse trial: If you construe my letter to Dave as diminishing the struggle of Black people in the US, you’ve got two problems. It ain’t either/or – both can be true. Second, you got the wrong guy.

If you are unfamiliar with the controversy currently surrounding Netflix and Dave Chappelle, a good primer written by Saeed Jones is here: https://www.gq.com/story/chappelle-the-closer. There was also a rally today outside of Netflix: https://nypost.com/2021/10/20/dave-chappelle-fans-clash-with-trans-rights-protesters-at-netflix-rally/

Hi Dave. I live a town over from you, in Dayton.

I’m probably not the first guy you wanna hear any critique from. And yeah, it feels really strange writing this.

I’m also the guy who got your autograph for a Black friend of mine in Starbucks who was too shy to approach you about a decade ago. You probably don’t remember, no worries.

You were skeptical when I first approached you, and I thought I understood that then. Celebrity means you get bothered all the time, and that was right in the middle of your disappearance from public life. I was too naieve in my own privilege to realize that you probably got a lot of asshole white guys bothering you around that time, too.

Still, I was polite to you, and you were kind enough to sign a napkin for my friend. That was cool. I’ve told that story to a lot of people to show what kind of guy you are in real life. And I’ve also told it as a metaphor for the role that white people should play, to amplify voices and to use privilege to help others whenever possible,

I agree with your frustration and anger Black civil rights in our country, and even our corner of Ohio.

It wasn’t that long ago that John Crawford III was shot in a WalMart local to both of us for holding a BB gun while Black. It was this month that local police dragged a paraplegic Black man from a car during a traffic stop. And so on. You know this, and know there’s always dozens or hundred more stories like them that do not make the news.

Which is why I’m so confused, man.

You put up with all that shit from white people, and you succeeded. You had made it, and on your terms!

And then you released The Closer.

“In our country, you can shoot and kill a n-gga but you better not hurt a gay person’s feelings.”

Dave Chappelle – The Closer

First, let’s cut the bull. I know enough comedians to know that what’s on a TV special isn’t off the cuff. Making it look that way is what makes for great standup. You wrote, knew, and honed every joke in that special until it was exactly the way you wanted it. So let’s skip that.

“We Blacks, we look at the gay community and we go “Goddamn it! Look how well that movement is going.“”

Dave Chappelle – The Closer

We can skip going over trying to compare the struggles of people of color and LGBTQIA+ folks, or issues of intersectionality. The GQ article explains that well, and, well, you live near Antioch university. I know there’s folks there, at Wright State, Sinclair, and Edison who literally make a living teaching about it, and I’m sure they’d be happy to let you audit a course or something.

But that’s not what has confused me, Dave.

What confuses me is that your jokes in The Closer are punching down.

Man, Dave, I loved when you made me feel uncomfortable with your show. I didn’t – and don’t – always agree with you, but damn, your work skewered society. Amid the laughs, you made me question my own prejudices and culture and behaviors, and that made it great.

Your work also wouldn’t let me look away from the racism and bigotry in our society. Your work made me question assumptions. You didn’t educate me – that’s not the job of Black people! – but you sure as hell inspired me to educate myself and to keep doing so.

But this anti-gay jokes, these TERF jokes… they aren’t that kind of joke. These are different.

They’re the kind of joke that racist comics use. The kind of joke that bullies use.

And that’s what I don’t get, Dave. You used to get mentions and praise like this one from 2010:

George Lopez literally brings nothing to the table except jokes about how Latino, black, and white people differ from one another. If you want to see someone be on point about racist issues, just watch Dave Chapelle. In fact, watch Dave Chapelle, then watch George Lopez immediately after. You will see such a large gap in comedic sensibilities that you will become angry.

Mike Byhoff, Gawker, “The Most Hated Comedians of All Time”

You got so much crap, man, I literally cannot imagine it. You – and all Black entertainers – have been bullied so much by bigots your whole life that I can only barely begin to comprehend it. That you not only survived, but thrived, is a testament to you.

You don’t have to keep doing that work, Dave. There are more voices now fighting against the bigots and bullies. I bet lots of the new comics of color were inspired by your voice and work.

It’s just,,, now that you’ve overcome the bullies and bigots, now that you are, to quote, “rich and famous”, it looks like you’re no longer fighting the bullies.

It looks like you want to become one of the bullies too.

Thanks for reading, and man, if you’re ever up for coffee, let me know. I’ll buy, and then call up that old friend and see if she’d like your autograph on a napkin again.

Featured Photo by Anirudh Koul on Flickr with a CC-BY 2.0 License.

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