VOICES: A letter to my (sort of) neighbor, Dave Chappelle

Hi, Dave. I live a town over, in Dayton.

I’m probably not the first guy you wanna hear any critique from. And it feels really strange writing this.

I’m also the guy who got your autograph for a Black friend of mine in Starbucks who was too shy to approach you about a decade ago. You probably don’t remember, no worries.

You were skeptical when I first approached you, and I thought I understood then. Celebrity means you get bothered all the time, and I met you in the middle of your disappearance from public life. I was too naïve in my own privilege to realize that you also probably got a lot of annoying white guys bothering you around then, too.

Still, I was polite to you, and you were kind enough to sign a napkin for my friend. That was cool. I’ve told that story to a lot of people to show what kind of guy you are in real life. And I’ve also told it as a metaphor for the role that white people should play, to amplify voices and to use privilege to help others whenever possible.

I agree with your frustration and anger over civil rights in our country, and even our corner of Ohio. We could talk about what has happened locally to John Crawford III or Clifford Owensby. You know this, and we’re both aware there’s always dozens or hundred more stories like them that do not make the news.

Which is why I’m so confused, man.

You put up with all that from white people, and you succeeded. You made it, and on your terms!

And then you released The Closer.

First, let’s cut the bull. I know enough comedians to know that what’s on a TV special isn’t off the cuff. Making it look that way is what makes for great standup. You wrote, knew, and honed every joke in that special until it was exactly the way you wanted it. So let’s skip that.

We can skip going over trying to compare the struggles of people of color and LGBTQIA+ folks, or issues of intersectionality. The GQ article Saeed Jones wrote explains that, and, well, you live near Antioch university. I know there are folks there, at Wright State, Sinclair, and Edison who literally make a living teaching about it, and I’m sure they’d be happy to let you audit a course or something.

But that’s not what has confused me, Dave.

What confuses me is that your jokes in “The Closer” are punching down.

Man, Dave, I loved when you made me feel uncomfortable with your show.

I didn’t – and don’t – always agree with you, but your work skewered society. Amid the laughs, you made me question my own prejudices and culture and behaviors, and that made it great.

Your work also wouldn’t let me look away from the racism and bigotry in our society. Your work made me question assumptions. You didn’t educate me – that’s not the job of Black people! – but you sure inspired me to educate myself and to keep doing so.

But this anti-gay jokes, these TERF jokes… they aren’t that kind of joke. These are different.

They’re the kind of joke that racists tell. The kind of joke that bullies tell.

And that’s what I don’t get, Dave. You used to get mentions and praise like this one from 2010:

“If you want to see someone be on point about racist issues, just watch Dave Chapelle. In fact, watch Dave Chapelle, then watch George Lopez immediately after. You will see such a large gap in comedic sensibilities that you will become angry.” - Mike Byhoff, Gawker: “The Most Hated Comedians of All Time”

You have dealt with so much, I literally cannot imagine it. You – and all Black entertainers – have been bullied so much by bigots your whole life that I can only barely begin to comprehend it. That you not only survived, but thrived, is a testament to you.

You don’t have to keep doing that work, Dave. There are more voices now fighting against the bigots and bullies. I bet lots of the new comics of color were inspired by your voice and work.

But now that you’ve overcome the bullies and bigots, now that you are, to quote, “rich and famous”, it looks like you’re no longer fighting the bullies.

It looks like you want to become one of the bullies, too.

Steven Saus has lived in the Dayton area since 2002 and his work has appeared in anthologies and magazines both online and off. You can read more of his work on his blog at ideatrash.net.

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