About That Slave Joke: Leslie Jones And Why We Need To Allow Women The Space To Be Funny

May 5, 2014  |  

Well it certainly seems that Leslie Jones, one of the first black female cast members on Saturday Night Live in so many years, has gone straight to work pissing people off for no real reason in particular.

People are mad that she told a truth. More specifically, they’re mad at what she had to say during SNL’s Weekend Update skit about Lupita Nyong’o being named the Most Beautiful woman in the world by People:

Jones: Hello Everybody, I want to come out here tonight and Congratulate Lupita on winning People’s most beautiful person and I agree she is very beautiful. But for me, I’m waiting for them to put out the most useful list, you know what I’m saying?  Cause that’s where I’m going to shine.

Collin: Most useful

Jones: That’s what I said, you delectable Caucasian. Let me ask you a question: If you walked in a club and you saw me and Lupita standing at the bar, who would you pick?

Collin: [ shrugs and stutters]: Well, I…

Jones [shrugs]: Yeah, I know. You would pick Lupita. But let me ask you this: If we were in the parking lot and three Crips is about to whup your a**, who you gonna pick then?

Collin: I would pick you.

Jones: You damn right you would! And that’s my point, the way we view black beauty has changed. Look at me, I’m single right now. But back in the slave days, I would have NEVER been single. I’m 6 feet. tall and I’m strong, Collin. STRONG! I mean look at me, I’m a Mandinga. 

Collin: Well Leslie, you’re not saying that you rather be a slave.

Jones: No Collin, that’s not what I’m saying. I do not want to be a slave. Hell, I don’t like working for you white people right now and y’all pay me. I’m just saying that back in the slave days, my love life would have been way better. Massa would have hooked me up with the best brother on the plantation. And every nine months I would be in the corner having a super baby. Every nine months, I would just be in the corner just popping them out, like: Shaq. Kobe. Lebron. Kimbo Slice. Sinbad. That’s what I’m saying. I would be the number one slave draft pick. All of the plantations would want me. I would be on television like LeBron announcing which plantation I was gonna go to .I would be like: ‘I would like to take my talents to South Carolina. I do believe that there will be lots of opportunities there for me.’ Now I can’t even get a brother to take me out for a cheap dinner. I mean, damn! Can a b***h get a beef bone!? CAN A B***H GET A BEEF BONE!?”

Listen, I laughed. And more importantly, I got the joke. But for those who didn’t get the joke, let me explain:

At the end of the day, who gives a crap what People, which for many moons has basked in the glow of Eurocentric beauty standards, thinks about Nyong’o, or any other black woman’s worth? These same colorstruck institutions have been defining our “usefulness” since our ancestors were chattel on bidding blocks. And it certainly appears that the tradition carries on based on how some folks are willing to weigh our beauty and self-worth in relation to how it twinkles in the white glare. This is a conversation, which some of the best women thinkers have been grappling with for a while (including this piece by Dr. Yaba Blay), so why not a comedienne?

There is also a bigger conversation to be had about the space in which we allow black women to be funny. On a personal note, I consider myself to be a funny person. I love laughing and I love making people laugh – the latter of which I am quite adept at doing. In fact, I have had several people suggest to me (in a sincere way) that I should pursue stand-up. Those comments usually come from folks, who know me and have become familiar with me and the concept of joking. Many other folks, however, don’t get it.

And no, it’s not the joke that is the problem, nor am I just overstating my wit. But I have actually seen and watched folks criticize a joke I made, and then turn right around to co-sign a similar joke made by a man. The crasser or bolder the joke I make, the more uptight many folks get. Even on social media, when I write an “LOL” after my joke, which as we know is the international symbol for “dude don’t take this satirical comment serious,” some will chime in and attempt to insert teachable moments and explain to me the error in my thinking, as if I was really serious. And the treatment gets more condescending, if not borderline violent, in person (I once had a dude curse me out because I made a quip about me walking a big dog while he walked a little dog).

As Jones humorously pointed out, Nyong’o is one hot lady. Sure, she may be dark skinned and African, which are two traits that normally and diametrically oppose the accepted Eurocentric standard of beauty, but she is also poised, petite and thin. And articulate too (which is a product of her highly educated background and affluent roots). But one thing Nyong’o is not, is funny. For all intents and purposes, her overwhelming acceptance and appreciation by the dominant culture follows the same trajectory of respectability and comfortability, which is often placed upon “appropriate” images of blacks in the media, by both blacks and non-black folks alike. Just two years ago, we had another dark-skinned woman land on the main stage. Her name was Gabourey Sidibe, and she too is beautiful. She also has one hell of a sense of humor. However, People and its list were not checking for her, nor were many black publications for that matter. And in fact, all anyone ever wants to do is talk about her weight.

Although she too is dark skinned, being as though she is six feet tall, thick in the waist and far from prim and proper, Jones too is outside this new “useful” face of black beauty. She also has a rough edge to her as well. She bounces around the stage and gets in people’s faces. She curses and barks really loudly too. That is okay as there are different ways to be feminine. However, that is not how we’ve been conditioned to think. We have been taught to believe that women and girls only aspire to be lady fem-bots. They’re not supposed to be animated or loud. They’re not supposed to have opinions or be contrarian. They can’t be satirical, goof-offs or act like a clown. And the closest that they can ever logically get to a punchline is by laughing at someone else, preferably a man’s joke.

So yeah, I would say that when it comes to black women, it does seem that not everyone is willing to get, or even consider the joke.

And I truly have a hard time believing that folks would be up-in-arms had this been a sketch by Dave Chappelle. Matter of fact, when Chappelle time-traveled back to antebellum South to hate on a slave master on his sketch comedy show, nobody cared. Nor do they care when tons of black male comedians do jokes about what role they might have played on the plantation had they been there. We accept that kind of humor readily from black men. We accept it because we know that comedy is often a mask for some deep-seeded pain and a space for men to work those issues out.

However, black women were there and a byproduct of it too. Our long transitioned elder grandmothers, aunts and female cousins had stories to tell too. And I’m willing to bet that some of those were humorous as well. So why can’t women descendants place themselves in the middle of plantation life and act out the various roles that they might have played? The field worker. The house slave. The breeder of big black bucks too.

There was a lot to deconstruct in Jones’ joke, particularly the use of the NBA draft to talk about the auction block and the ever-so-topical discussion around black people’s own internalized issues with loud and dark-skinned women (“Can a b***h get a beef bone?”) in general. Those topics are way too long and heavy to go into right now. However, I thought those were valued points, which Jones nailed in her satirical reaction to the People magazine declaration. And I think to deny her a space to articulate that bit of truth (and pain) is to engage in a level of erasure, for the sake of black folks’ respectability and the comfort of white folks.

I mean, what’s really offensive here? That at 6’0″, she would have likely been a breeder in a situation she has no choice in? Or the institution itself, which subjugated her into that position?

The last time this conversation came up about women in comedy, a Facebook friend reminded me that there is no such thing as a nice joke and a huge part of comedy is self-depreciation. And in many respects, he said, women are just not willing to be that vulnerable. This was his justification as to why it is largely believed that women are incapable of being funny. I resisted that notion then, but seeing how worked up folks are getting about Jones’ bit, he might have had a small point.

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