Dave Chappelle's reluctant symposium on the n-word

In Heaven Hell Dave Chappelle, a 2006 Esquire piece, Chappelle talks about how Viacom's purchase of Comedy Central led to a symposium on how far you can go with the n-word.

Chappelle straightens his back and mimics the voice of an older white executive: ”‘Dave, we’re having a symposium on the n-word, and we wanted you to speak about your use of it. It’s just for our information.’ And I did it, but afterward I was like, That was real stupid of me. Why the fuck would I explain to a room full of white people why I say the word nigga? Why on earth would I put myself in a position like that? So you got me on a panel, me and all of these, like, Harvard-educated, you know, upper-echelon authors, me, and a rapper. So here I am explaining, and I was real defensive ‘cause of what was going on at the show at the time—we had just shot the Niggar Family sketch, and I was at a symposium on the word nigger. So I’m feeling like I’m fighting censorship. They say, ‘We just want to know how far we should go with something like that.’ And the subtext of it is, ‘Do you want to know, or do you want to tell me something?’

“You have all these Harvard-educated people saying, ‘I think the word is reprehensible’ and talking about the destructive nature of blah, blah, blah… . You know, pontificating.”

Silence. A sigh.

"But the bottom line was, white people own everything, and where can a black person go and be himself or say something that's familiar to him and not have to explain or apologize? Why don't I just take the show to BET--oh, wait a minute, you own that, too, don't you? Same thing happened with the Rick James episode. They gave us the notes and there were like forty-six or some insane number of bleeps that we would've had to put over it. 'Well, Dave, then why don't you go in and explain to them yourself.' So now I'm sitting in a room, again, with some white people, explaining why they say the n-word, and it's a sketch about Rick James, and I don't want to air a sketch with that many bleeps over it; it will render it completely ineffective. Give me another week and I'll just come up with something else. Run a rerun. 'No, we can't run a rerun, we've got ad buy-ins' and blah, blah, blah. Okay, well then, fine, I don't want to do it then. And so then there was a compromise. It was the only episode that aired with a disclaimer. But again, it was a position where I was explaining to white people why the n-word. It's an awful, awful position to put yourself in.

"I'm just saying it's a dilemma. It's something that is unique to us. White people, white artists, are allowed to be individuals. But we always have this greater struggle that we at least have to keep in mind somewhere."


Author Kevin Powell also recalls what it was like seeing Chappelle back in 1993 in New York City.

I remember being at the Boston Comedy Club in Greenwich Village and watching this tall, bone-thin young man with the contagious, toothy smile, the deep-socket, saucerlike eyes, and the perfectly oval head atop a twig of a neck wreck the mic, the stage, and the room like an old-school rapper. Only nineteen at the time, Chappelle was nicknamed by Whoopi Goldberg “the Kid.” Even then there was a razor-sharp racial consciousness to Chappelle’s material—he had a keen eye for that gray area between social satire and pop culture—and on that occasion I was lucky to witness something very special. Here was the classic working-class intellect of Charlie Chaplin’s conniving tramp, the jazzy, in-your-face audacity of Lenny Bruce’s birth-of-cool bebopper, and the gut-bucket, bluesy aches and pains of Richard Pryor’s dead-on mimes, all in one. There are comedians who have to work at being funny, but Chappelle seemed born to it.


Helluva description. [via Deadspin]

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