The "Nigger Joke" is back. With a vengeance.
It never went away, of course. But in recent years, by my reckoning, it has staged a roaring comeback. In the past year, I have gotten more emails hooting and snickering at the tacky shenanigans of "ghetto" blacks than I have in all of the previous online years of my life -- and most of the emails come from my black peers. "Hot Ghetto Mess," now demurely renamed "We Got to Do Better," is all over Black Entertainment Television and all over the Web. Flavor Flav (remember him as half of the take-no-prisoners politico-rap duo that once nicknamed itself "the black CNN?") is now TV's latest KIngfish character. (Huh? Go here.) License to chortle at niggerly behavior is now being granted in living rooms and at water coolers across America.
This coincides -- and not by coincidence -- with the rise of a large black middle class with just enough pennies to rub together to laugh at the poor, and with the mainstreaming of ridicule as a corporate media spectator sport.
As Eddie Murphy used to say in a stand-up sketch about people who made fun of Stevie Wonder, "Ha, ha, very funny, motherfucker."
So what puts me in this humor-challenged funk? An email I just received from a black person I know who, disgusted, forwarded it to me so we could commiserate. She, as it happens, received the email from a white co-worker who thought she would find it funny. Which I guess is understandable, since throngs of black folk have now elbowed their way to the front of the millions-strong crowd cackling and shooting popguns at the latest troupe of black characters with "kick me" painted on their behinds.
Anyway, down to business. Here is the email, verbatim:
Subject: Walmart Cake
Date: Thu, 17 Jan 2008 14:26:44 -0800
.....the leaders of tomorrow......
Keep in mind this actually really did happen!!!! This is someone who was leaving an insurance claims office.
Okay so this is how I imagine this conversation went:
Walmart Employee: 'Hello 'dis Walmarts, how can I help you?'
Customer: ' I would like to order a cake for a going away party this week.'
Walmart Employee: 'What you want on the cake?'
Customer: 'Best Wishes Suzanne' and underneath that 'We will miss you'.
Okay. So let's ignore the inability of the semantically smug email-writer to correctly punctuate a sentence. And let's overlook the very real possibility that the whole gag, like a zillion knee-slappers now careening around the Web, is a fake, a scam of a joke cooked up by some sniggering yahoo with a sheet cake mix and a digital camera. Let's just choose to take it at face value: Another mocking portrait of those dumb-assed minimum-wage ghetto blacks misspeaking and misspelling and poorly dressing and misbehaving their sorry way through life. A regular laff riot.
Take my advice and don't even try the "What makes you sure it's a reference to black people?" gambit. If you insist, I dare you: read the faux dialect and try to tell me it's not a grinning reference to black people.
Listen. I laugh at plenty of tasteless and flat-out stupid things. I think the restaurant projectile vomit scene in The Meaning of Life is a side-splitter. I think the whistling crucifixion scene from Life of Brian is a stroke of genius. I fall on the floor during Ernest Goes to Camp.
But what's wrong with the cake picture is this: You don't get to make sport of what you fancy as the pathetic doings of low-income black folks and then walk away laughing. You don't get to laugh at all, actually, until you've given some halfway serious thought to who works and shops at Wal-Mart and why they do; how much they get paid or don't; how much they get in health benefits or don't; what kinds of public schools they went to; how many pleasures in life they get to choose from; what kinds of role models they inherited; and who and what you would be if you spent your life in their skin.
Bill Cosby doesn't get this when he rants against ghetto culture without ranting with equal ferocity against the poverty, rage and resulting nihilism that create it. Black folk who have a mortgage and a car-and-a-half in the driveway -- and who amuse themselves by sending out smirking emails about the continuing exploits of Shaneeka Tareeka Lasheeka Jackson -- don't get it, either. Or, more accurately, maybe they do get it, and maybe that is precisely the point of their self-reassuring laughter. And non-black folk who chuckle at the ongoing Nigger Clown Show surely do not get it, although when they plunk down in front of their televised or emailed ghetto nigger jokes they do get to enjoy a sweet little hit of classier-than-thou superiority after having spent their day slaving at two jobs to be able to afford health coverage.
To borrow a term from Cornel West, the real problem behind the laughter is that so many of us -- black, brown and white, working, non-working and struggling -- are being niggerized these days on a corporate plantation that we do not own.