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Are You What You See or Are You What You Want To Be?

Blackface minstrelsy was the first distinctly American theatrical form. It began more than 300 years ago with whites in blackface doing exaggerated depictions of enslaved Africans. In time Blacks began playing themselves, deriding their own personas. This spawned vaudeville which morphed into television variety shows which eventually became late night programs with comedy hosts and various television amateur contest shows.

During the European Middle Ages the king had his own clown, the Court Jester, whose job it was to entertain the monarch and his guests. Often he would “play the fool,” making fun of the common man. The Court Jester was the most prominent representative of the vast body of serfs and servants under the nobility. Between the Court Jester and the modern day comedian came Black minstrelsy. In a society with masters and the enslaved, who better to play the fool than one of those in chains?

And when did minstrelsy end? It never did.  So what is wrong with comedy and tomfoolery? What’s the problem with relaxing, laughing out loud at oneself and having a good time? The problem is the white gaze, the outsider looking in at how African Americans see themselves. And making judgments? So what? Why focus on how others may see you? What’s important is how you see yourself. But you are what you see! Or is it that you can be what you want to be?

African American Bert Williams was the Father of standup comedy.  Said a colleague, “He was the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew.” Sad truths seems at the heart of comedy.  Recall the Court Jester. Yes, he made a spectacle of himself and his people, but he would occasionally tell the king things that others could not, dare not. America’s foremost comics are our “official” court jesters, like a Lenny Bruce, or a Richard Pryor, or a Chris Rock or a Louis C K. Sometimes the Court Jester would go too far as did Lenny Bruce and Bruce Pryor who both went over the edge. On the other hand, recall the Watergate scandal and the embattled Nixon presidency. When Tonight Show host, Johnny Carson, began cracking jokes at the president’s expense, all knew that Nixon’s resignation loomed.  The cautious comedian with his national spotlight would not have gone there were it otherwise.

Spike Lee said, “Each artist should be allowed to pursue their artistic endeavor, but I still think that a lot of stuff that is out today is coonery and buffoonery. And I know it is making a lot of money, breaking records, but we could do better. Tyler Perry responded, “Do you see the millions of people that are coming to see this? Why the hell would I worry about a Spike Lee or anybody else? . .Why are black people complaining about what other comedians are doing? It’s a comedic moment, people just need to chill. Well which is it? You are what you see, or you can be what you want to be? With which side do you agree?  ( Arthur Lewin, )