Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Lawd Today!: Would it have promoted racism?

Most everyone of our generation has seen, been entertained by, and almost certainly laughed at David Chapelle's Chapelle's Show. Fueled by controversy, Dave Chapelle pushed the boundaries of propriety over and over again, constantly mocking the social habits of every race, but always concentrating his comedic efforts on African-American stereotypes. Over Christmas break, I had the eerie experience of watching Spike Lee's Bamboozled, a 2000 film about a black man who re-popularizes the minstrel show with a modern television series. Eventually, he is so devastated by the realization that his success is dependent on a capitalization of his own race's stereotypes, that he goes insane and through a convoluted series of events ends up shot. The movie was pretty mediocre, but the way it mirrored Dave Chapelle's own efforts, a full three years later, was rather disturbing.

Richard Wright's Lawd Today!, minus the incredibly depressing nature of Jake's condition, has some incredibly funny moments that make me think it could have succeeded as a mainstream publication. The way Wright captures the dialect of his characters (the title itself is worth a laugh a day) is consistently amusing, and scenes like the one where Jake "does battle" with his hair are hilarious. But with every laugh, there's always that twinge of guilt. Lawd Today! is not a satire, like the other two works I mentioned here, but it does have moments that are so ridiculous, so overly stereotypical in its portrayal of its characters' ignorance, that I, as a reader, couldn't help but be amused.

The problem, of course, is that a great majority of the American mainstream, especially at the time of its publication, wouldn't have seen this comedic aspect of Lawd Today! as an exaggeration serving to enhance the meaning of Wright's work. I grew up in the South, and I recall that a great many of my peers in my small-town Southern private school took the depictions of blacks in Chapelle's Show rather seriously, which is pretty frightening considering that it was so recently popular. In a great number of cases, especially in the South, I think Dave Chapelle's efforts served to perpetuate the stereotypes he was attempting to mock. In reading Lawd Today!, I feel like Richard Wright would have spawned a similar reaction with a wide publication of his novel.

1 comment:

Erin Sells said...

This is a very good point. Wright is not working in satire--he's dead serious about Jake Jackson and his friends. But the moments of levity--and I agree, much of it is very funny--are meant to be as realistic as the rest of the story.

When Wright finally succeeded in getting "Native Son" published many people who supported the book did so because they felt it provided the world with an important warning about the dangerous nature of young black men like Bigger Thomas--not quite Wright's point. One of the dangers of satire is that people might not understand you're kidding--one of the dangers of realism is that people might understand the wrong things as real...