When the Gem City Shone, but Violence Persisted
by Jason Harrison @presenttensefit
Photo: Jason Reynolds /WYSO
Who keep it a hundred when everything's partial?
Dignity and sanity is what the game cost you
Wake up to the paddles on your chest, we had lost you
Two years ago almost to the day, Dave Chappelle brought Stevie Wonder to our backyard for Gem City Shine, a veritable cookout to which we were all invited, and we were able to experience just a few weeks after the Oregon District shooting one of the best days this city has ever birthed. Looking back on that day now in the midst of a stubborn global pandemic, it’s amazing to think of all the daps and hugs that took place among friends and strangers alike, all seeking at least temporary refuge from the violence of existing in these United States of America.
The very next week after Gem City Shine, I remember seeing reports in social media about a Netflix special called “Sticks and Stones” during which Chappelle joked about rape and people in the LGBTQ+ community while complaining about the supposedly dangerous environment for celebrities at risk of being canceled for what he appeared to believe were minor transgressions.
A consistent theme in his Netflix specials “The Age of Spin” (2017), “Equanimity” (2017), and “Sticks and Stones” (2019) is that he finds it unfathomable that transgender people have been able to force a discussion about their equality into the forefront of American consciousness, presumably at the cost of tackling racism, in his mind because white men have an interest in the discussion playing out this way.
In March 2017, I wrote, “If I'm reading Chappelle's comedy correctly--and like any art form, standup comedy is an aggressively subjective thing to analyze--I think Chappelle is purposefully playing the fall guy. He puts himself in a position to be criticized in order to give audience members permission to analyze their own less than perfect behavior.”
But something shifted for me in the two years between “The Age of Spin” and “Sticks and Stones.”
As he’s repeatedly returned to topics like rape and the transgender community--and, probably more importantly, as I’ve listened to and read voices from the marginlized communities who claim his comedy harmed them or made their lives more dangerous, I’ve found his analysis increasigly grating, particularly when he mocks close examination of his work. He sounds like a wealthy man less interested in shedding light on the hypocrisy of powerful people than in settling scores with marginalized and physically vulnerable communities.
That’s obviously his artistic choice to make, but we cannot let him pretend that there is an absence of thoughtful Black critique of either his jokes defending rape culture or his transphobic standup set pieces.
“Transgender women and transgender people of color are at elevated risk of fatal violence,” according to the Human Rights Campaign. “Such risk is especially true for Black transgender women, who comprise the vast majority of victims of fatal violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people as they face the daily injustices of racism, sexism and transphobia.”
He’s too smart not to understand that dehumanizing trans women--the usual target of his jokes dealing with trans issues--with such specific venom makes their lives more dangerous, just as dehumanization remains one of white supremacy’s most effective and pernicious tools.
I will always remember Gem City Shine and how good we felt on that day, just as I will always remember the bitter disappointment of the whiplash, where we celebrated life on one day and listened to one of this country’s most significant cultural figures, one of our very own, make the very act of existing more dangerous for women on the next.
I can’t help but wonder whether part of the allure of the more recent pandemic-era shows in Yellow Springs for Chappelle was the comfort of knowing that the import and reverence with which we hold him here serve as a shield against critique, hardened with the Miami Valley’s time-honored tradition of minimizing or completely erasing the voices of Black women and LGBTQ+ people. There’s safety in assuming we either don’t know any better or won’t say so because we just want to feel good and bask in the shine of celebrity.