This morning I was awakened to a text: "Alert! Alert! OCI is up!"
For all who do not know, OCI is the Yale's online listing of classes. This may seem like a mundane moment, but OCI's emergence into my summer consciousness is not unlike that beautiful day in May when your local stores start putting up their back- to- school displays.
As unenthused as I am at the prospect of summer's end, I ran to my laptop and searched for cool classes. To best explain OCI's impact on a well-worn senior: "oci this year is like looking at what used to be the candy shop and seeing it rot." Thanks for that one, Josh.
However, after being excited and disappointed by Yale's offerings, my mind began to travel to September, recounting all of the things that mark the beginning of a school year. Camp Yale, bazaar, A Cappella rush, shopping period, the first issue of most major publications.
The Yale Record will likely publish another faux- blue book, with its own course offerings delivered to us Yalies in only the wittiest of ways.
Let us not forget last year's Record, which included black power and genocide jokes. A flurry of protest catapulted the Record to great notoriety within black circles at Yale. In a defense akin to that of the Rumpus, the staff of the Yale Record justified their work as satire, which as a form is likely to offend.
And I agree! Successful satire will offend. But it is not successful satire BECAUSE it offends. I think we have to look at the history of satire in this country and the figures who have marked its short history before we go around giving everyone a pat on the back for offending my social and political sensibilities.
Now here is a plug for a book I had to read for a class which explores the "hip" in American culture, the rise of the white hipster and the black trickster figure as the model for American satire and popular culture: John Leland's "Hip: The History" get it read it love it email me about it.
Leland asserts that the American satire from Twain to Bruce to Pryor is tricksterism, not at all divorced from the legacy of Brer Rabbit stories. Filled with polarities, a trickster's work posits white against black, rich against poor, man against woman, extracting from these binaries the sheer comical value of disrupting these artificial dichotomies in favor of the chaos that they hope to suppress. Leland says it best:
"Nontrickster heroes help societies distinguish between right and wrong;tricksters violate the boundary between the two. In a nation artificially divided into black and white, inside and outside, tricksters open channels of exchange."
Above is an example I thoroughly enjoy. In “Black Bush,” Chappelle uses black vernacular culture, most specifically “the trickster,” to lay bare the absurdities of President Bush’s public statements. Inserting Bush into a black aesthetic and providing him with a “street” entourage fully equipped with an imposing bodyguard and a hype man in a sweat suit, Chappelle presents the Bush administration as nothing more than sly thugs. In a press conference regarding the war in Iraq, Chappelle takes an actual Bush quote and highlights its meaning, much of it which was lost in the real- life incident:
President Black Bush: He tried to kill my father, man. I don't play that shit.
Black Vice President: Say word he tried to kill your father, son.
President Black Bush: THAT NIGGA TRIED TO KILL MY FATHA!
Chappelle takes the “what if” joke, but this time, turns it on its head, as if to say: “it is.” Chappelle removes the veneer of the White House staff and replaces it with assumedly trifling gangsters illuminating the very double-speak that our President and his cohorts employ in order to deceive us. Who better to “out” a trickster than one of his kind? Chappelle asserts that perhaps our government is no more than street hustlers with a lot more terrain on its plate and a lingo that is harder to deconstruct and identify.
But the joke isn’t over. This joke, as Chappelle is so brilliantly aware, is dependent on the audience’s willingness to charge black characters with deceit and shiftiness. Would the joke have worked well with an Italian mafia boss posited as Bush?? Maybe. A group of suburban Mean Girls? Unlikely. A white, white-collar criminal? Nope. Chappelle knows what he’s doing. He picks the lowest of the low: black, male hustlers in hip hop gear—a site of much notoriety and disgust for most Americans. Here, Chappelle tells a joke so drenched in satire and commentary that he fools some people into thinking they understand why they are laughing. So most people can laugh at Chappelle’s Black Bush, but do they know he’s laughing at them?
Chappelle’s genius is predicated on his ability to unearth tensions that we would rather go unseen or unprobed. Tricksters of this nature operate on a level of genius sustained by a knowledge unimaginable to most. Sitting outside of society and peeking in at moments at a time, its unforeseeable what they can reveal to us. Their satire is inventive and informative BECAUSE of this very straddling of lines of inside/ outside. They show us that it is not merely enough to RE- present what society looks like, but you have to reveal it for what it is: a tenuously ordered ruckus.
Yale Record: Please don’t re-present your lack of understanding of racial sature. Try again, if you will. I'll be waiting.