On Saturday, May 3, 2014, Saturday Night Live featured standup comedian and SNL writer, Leslie Jones in a segment on Weekend Update about standards of beauty. Amongst the jokes made, she described herself as a “mandingo,” postulating an improved sex life during slave times, and being forced bred. I ask you to check out the video, because the writing of jokes are an insult to them.
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The issue at hand here is one of time and distance. She made jokes on a topic that is still a deep wound in the US, even if the bleeding has stopped. The long lasting effects of slavery continue to reside today, with societal imbalances and civil rights very much ongoing domestic problems, despite slavery in the traditional sense being gone. By making offhand (I’m being careful not to use the term off color) jokes about forced mating and eugenic-like desires, she presents herself in a very sterile way: too distant from the actual wound to feel any of the pain.
And the reason why she is distant is because neither she nor any of her most recent family, were slaves. Nor does she know any slaves or any slave owners. The atrocities of slavery were not performed by anyone against anyone living in the United States today. We linger over the pain slavery caused us, but have no one to blame because we all know the descendants of slave owners are not proper scapegoats. This is how time slowly heals. As we learn to move on, and realize the true criminals have long since passed, we can focus our energies instead on the bigger issues of today that the world has left us, rather than linger in pain. We should not ridicule or harass Leslie Jones for her jokes, just because while many of us are still in pain, she’s ready to show the world her scars.
Time and distance are incredibly important to the larger issues her performance has brought up. Being a black woman using slavery as a stage for her comedy, she marches very close the invisible line people have created separating appropriate and wrong. Because she is so close to these issues in a country that bears the weight of the everlasting problems, she has been criticized. The issues themselves are not why people are upset and angry; this distance causes the anger. I cannot say whether or not the joke would have lead to much less upheaval had she chosen a different group of oppressed people, say the concubines of China, but I will say that her joke would not have landed nearly as well without putting herself intimately at its center.
As an aside, I think we need to constantly remember or at least be constantly reminded, how important time and distance are for our reactions. I cringe every single time I hear a joke about North Korea, Kim Jong Un, or the things that happen in that country. Here is an example where terrible, sickening atrocities on human beings are performed as we speak. Time is not a factor here because we are living in it, just a couple thousand miles away. But whenever someone makes an obvious joke about the situation (I mean come on, his haircut can only provide so many laughs), we very rarely hear shouts of anger at the insensitivity. Should we be absolved from laughing at the jokes just because our ignorance provides us with distance?
But the beauty of comedy is that it can make us laugh when we are feeling pain. And while we laugh, we don’t forget. Some far distant time from now, jokes in the context of slavery might become much more common, as time separates us further, and pioneering comedians like Leslie Jones, help us along. I hope that in that future, when we are laughing at these jokes, it reminds us of our history. That our ancestors suffered and died, facts we should never forget. If humor can remind us of where we came from, that sure beats forgetting about what we were crying about.