Monday, December 8, 2014
A Rock and a Hard Place
Chris Rock is a very successful black comedian. He's hosted some of the biggest award shows, like the Oscars. Bob Hope and Johnny Carson used to host the Oscars. Chris Rock may not be the equal of either of them, but he has something that neither Hope nor Carson had - quasi-seriousness. "Quasi" because no matter how serious Rock tries to be, his comedic credentials both prevent and protect him from being wholly serious or being taken quite seriously.
He's a funny guy. Get him on the subject of race and he can be bitingly funny - as funny, in his own way, as Richard Pryor. But there was an edge to Pryor's humor that Rock's lacks. Pryor made us laugh at things like race without trivializing them or diminishing their force in people's lives. He contributed something to the discussion of race by pointing out its rock-bottom absurdities. He made us laugh at racism and softened its blows. His target was racism itself.
Chris Rock targets racists, not racism. He makes us laugh at one another, not at what afflicts us. Some of what he says is controversial, but he is immune from prosecution because, no matter how closely he comes to seriousness, he's a comedian. Pryor was a satirist.
People who are interested in Rock's opinions about race get plenty to contemplate from him. But he can be terribly glib at times. When the DNC was on the verge of nominating either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton as their presidential candidate in 2008, he remarked on SNL that Obama was preferable to Hillary because black men have suffered more than women throughout history. (I presume that he includes black women in his calculation.) The history of man's inhumanity to man has had only one constant: man's inhumanity to woman. The suffering of black men is a brief episode in comparison. Pointing this out to Rock would probably be pointless.
Not to be countermanded, Rock had something to say recently about the police killings of blacks and the failure of the justice system to bring charges against their killers. "When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress," he told Time Magazine's Frank Rich, "it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before."
Wow. There are no race relations? Really? What about Rock's humor, which has a lot to do with race? Can't white people relate to it, or are they closed off from ever really getting it by the color - or lack thereof - of their skin? Is there no humanity common to everyone, or is humanity (like the humanity that it took to create the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, to end slavery in America) forever limited by race? Would Martin Luther King have agreed with Rock? Many of King's most effective tactics in fighting against racism were borrowed from Gandhi. Would Gandhi have agreed with Rock's remarks? If there are no race relations, then what are all the white protesters across America doing in the streets?
I get Rock's point that it's white people who have had to progress over the centuries, not blacks. It was whites who had to get used to the idea that blacks were their equals before progress could be made. But didn't Chris Rock once point out something else to us? In a concert of more than a decade ago, he made these controversial remarks:
"Who is more racist - white people or black people? Black people! Because black people hate black people, too!"
Certainly the self-image of black people has improved since the times when they were deemed sub-human or second-class citizens? Wouldn't this account for the black self-hatred we encounter in Rock's performances?
Or was Chris Rock just trying to be funny?