Some Americans Have No Penchant for Honest Humor
By: George Addison
Article first published as Chris Rock’s Independence Day – Another Teachable Moment for the Nation on Technorati.
During this year’s Fourth of July celebration, a number of folks got upset behind comments comedian Chris Rock made on Twitter. Rock said, “Happy white people’s Independence Day the slaves weren’t free but I’m sure they enjoyed fireworks.” I’m sure that many of America’s 44 million plus blacks got the irony of the joke. But, Rock was besieged by complaints and threats of a boycott. In the tradition of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and others how much more patriotic could he had been.
The fact of the matter is the truth hurts, and Chris Rock’s words don’t carry the weight to influence a society in the manner that many other prominent Americans’ words have had on the occupants of this country. His comments, taken in the proper context, should be appreciated. That they provoked a hostile response shows just how far apart we are in understanding our collective history.
Take for instance a comment made by Harvard Scientist and Writer on Race
Relations, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler in the Atlantic Magazine in 1884. Shaler said, “There can be no sort of doubt that judged by the light of all experience, these people,” –blacks- “are a danger to America, greater and more insuperable than any of those that menace the other great civilized states of the world.”
In 1904 another prominent scholar of his day, Hinton Rowan Helper, went one even further in his comments about black people saying, “Negroes with their crime-stained blackness could not rise to a plane higher than that of base and beast-like savagery. Seeing then that the negro does, indeed, belong to a lower and inferior order of things, why in the name of Heaven, why should we forever degrade and disgrace both ourselves and our posterity by entering of our own volition into more intimate relations with him? May God, in his restraining mercy, forbid that we should ever do this most foul and wicked thing.”
Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture appeared on Moyers and Company and had this to say about Thomas Jefferson. “Thomas Jefferson and half of the other slaveholders who were presidents, all lived daily contradictions. They could literally look out their windows and see enslaved people in the land of the free and the home of the brave, so on and so forth. But the fact of the matter is that they had a great responsibility for building what would become American democracy. And in that regard, they failed miserably.”
possessed “a happy talent for composition” – but he employed it for cross purposes. Whatever he was thinking when he wrote “all men are created equal,” he also believed blacks were inferior to whites. Inferior, he wrote, “to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” To read his argument today is to enter the pathology of white superiority that attended the birth of our nation.
So forcefully did he state the case, and so great was his standing among the slave-holding class, that after his death the black abolitionist David Walker would claim Jefferson’s argument had “injured us more, and has been as great a barrier to our emancipation as any thing that has ever been advanced against us,” for it had “ sunk deep into the hearts of millions of the whites, and never will be removed this side of eternity.”
So, the ideal of equality Jefferson proclaimed, he also betrayed. He got it right when he wrote about Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness as the core of our human aspirations. But he lived it wrong, denying to others the rights he claimed for himself. And that’s how Jefferson came to embody the oldest and longest war of all – the war between the self and the truth, between what we know and how we live.
So enjoy the fireworks and flags, the barbecues and bargain sales. But hold this thought as well – that behind this Fourth of July holiday are human beings who were as flawed and conflicted as they were inspired. If they were to look upon us today they most likely would think as they did then, how much remains to be done.”
I heard Moyers statements as well as the previous quotes by Nathaniel Shaler,
I can only believe that if people dedicated half as much time and energy to learning and understanding the true history of Independence Day, (4th of July) a better dialogue and Tweet exchange would have followed. As usual some of us are quick to judge before knowing all the facts!
Here’s to another teachable moment.
- Bill Moyers Essay: Thomas Jefferson’s Betrayal (politics.videosift.com)
- White People’s Day: Chris Rock July 4 Tweet Sparks Debate, Outrage (thehollywoodgossip.com)
- On MSNBC, Sub Host Dyson Defends Chris Rock Mockery of July 4th (papundits.wordpress.com)