COLUMN

Popcorn, and a Circumcision

On Dave Chappelle and Comedy as Joy, Resistance, and Invitation

Breai Mason-Campbell
The Cultural Theologian
Issue 5, Winter 2022

A theologian studies and teaches us about the biggest forces shaping the universe, and that’s what Breai does for our society and culture. For this issue, her jumping-off point was one word:
“popcorn.”


“Circumcise yourselves… and take away
the foreskins of your heart.”
Jeremiah 4:4

The purses came first. Then the weaves. Then the nails. Then Tony asked us to call her Trina, and that was that. She wore her jeans cinched tightly at the waist and walked from corner to corner with her head held high, past the venomous curiosities of prying eyes. The densely packed brownstones housed families, and limitations, and expectations, blaming her and shaming her. You ought to know better than to come outside like that. 

Trina’s little sister was in my class. She often got into arguments defending her older sister to some other child who lived here, at the intersection of police violence and abject poverty. In the hierarchy of neighborhood controversy, Trina’s choice of clothing rivaled the drug traffic at the end of the block and the train some dudes ran on a girl in a van out back for first place. To respond to her with acceptance was to cultivate kindness, against the odds, in a world full of inescapable cruelties. To withhold it was to know the power of the oppressor: a sadistic thrill of authority, and victory, and violence.

Blackness as an affinity group is often a shelter in a shit storm of mistreatment and misunderstanding: a brown face in a sea of whiteness is a safe zone on a campus, in an office, or past dark in a sundown town. Adding the modifier “Trans-” to “Black Woman” throws an elephant-sized monkey wrench into this formula. The circle around our community, a sentinel defending our safety and sovereignty, cannot decide whether to admit her. It has forgotten that she is one of us. This internal discord has pushed her away from the dinner table, the barber shop, the beauty salon, and the church pew that are the threshing floor of Black American culture. She is no longer in the conversation, but the subject of it. 

“Characters and lines from films become

part of our cultural shorthand, like

society-wide inside jokes.”

Read issue five’s feature story,
Making Concessions.”

Of these places where Black people have turned to parley — drawn together by love, forced together by hate — the comedy club is a paragon. Black comedians know our pain and our experiences and have the prophetic power to transform the most tragic aspects of our collective memory into gut-busting laughter. Murphy, Mack, Lawrence, and Rock may as well be Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Their jokes have become a part of black vernacular knowledge, quoted and referenced as gospel. 

It takes trust to tease and be teased, to argue and still love. To make an alley-oop of the deepest pain, only to slam dunk a joke. Playing the dozens as children teaches boundaries and resilience, self-defense and creativity. The cruelty, internalized racism, gender essentialism, and sexism that accompany the comedy are bathwater; the laughter is the baby. We probe the fault lines in our culture by jabbing at each other with plastic knives until we draw blood.  

Dave Chappelle’s Netflix comedy special, The Closer, was one such plastic knife. Live from The United States of Covid’s movie theater, the living room, Chappelle set out to reissue an invitation to the cookout to our trans cousins. He laments that we turned our backs on them when they came out and that we haven’t been speaking, and invites them over to be knocked around with the steel bat of comedy, to demonstrate that they’re part of the family. 

“Although both imperfect and illusory,

social cohesion emerges from shared

experiences, even when we complain

afterwards.”

Issue Five’s feature is about popcorn,
and so much more: “Making Concessions.”

Standup comedy, like most other pulpits, is a male-dominated space where we rely on moments of benevolence and windows of clarity about misogyny or homophobia to move our culture forward. (And Taylor wore a dress to meet the sheik. It is what it is.)  Laughing raucously together breaks down walls of apathy and silence, so we emerge together with greater comfort around a difficult topic and an opening to discuss even the hardest truths. Beautifully human, comedians’ work is full of affinity and antipathy — of all of the reasons we love to be Black, and of all the reasons we hate it. All of its safety and all of its dangers. 

It is dangerous to laugh at trans people. If the Gospels teach us anything, it is the call to care for “the least of these,” for those who would be passed over, injured, or abused otherwise. Dignity and humanity for transgender people are not foregone assumptions in our culture or community, so laughter in their direction is often a weapon, a tool of oppression versus liberation — minstrel show versus situation comedy. As Black community rules prevent White folks from making unsanctioned jokes about us, even to say something we would say ourselves, so too must cisgender folks recognize that we don’t get to make jokes about trans people. Only when you are with someone can you punch straight, not down.  

Still, Black joy — Black comedy — is resistance. It creates an in-group, daring to have hope and wholeness in a system designed to undermine both. If you are not in the joke, you are not guarded by the family sentinel. Dave Chappelle understands this. He recognizes the humanity of transgender people and strives to be with it. He was, I think, trying to invite our trans cousins to the cookout in a way that made them safe to be out and proud and on equal footing in any area of disagreement. Maturity and understanding do not emerge from legislation or policed language, but from community, and conversation over Spades, dominoes, fried fish and hot sauce, or a Netflix standup special and a bag of microwave popcorn.

Maturity and understanding do not emerge from legislation or policed language, but from community, and conversation over Spades, Dominoes, fried fish and hot sauce, or a Netflix standup special and a bag of microwave popcorn. 

The first entertainment craze in colonized North America was the minstrel show. This dehumanizing abuse of African American dignity was designed for White (and later, Black) audiences to laugh at Black people. Anything African was painted as disgusting, amoral, and inferior. Our skin color, our hair, our rhythm, our culture: a total joke. Was Chappelle trying to dehumanize trans people in this way, or was The Closer an attempt at challenging the Black community to consider the humanity of Daphne Dorman and other women like her?

Weeks following the release of The Closer, I happened upon a table of Black men seriously grappling with it; daring to peek over the ramparts of their heteronormativity to see Chappelle’s point.

A table. Of hetero(sexist) Black men. Discussing trans identity. Repeating over and over again that Daphne was “having a human experience.”

Civil rights laws did not end racism, structural or otherwise. The circumcision of the heart is a delicate surgery requiring time and dialogue. Patience is an enemy, certainly; no one should have to wait to be safe or to be treated with the full measure of dignity that humanity dictates. As we press forward toward that goal, we must talk through our biases and prejudices in order to overcome them. 

What will it take for the animosity to disappear from our laughter? For the cookout to be trans-friendly? How do we take care of Trina and make her smile with a joke, instead of cringe? 

“Thank y’all for coming out. God bless you. Goodnight.”

Breai Michele Mason-Campbell is a Baltimore native, community activist, teacher, dancer, and kinetic storyteller. A Harvard graduate, Breai Michele is the founder of Moving History, an arts-integrated dance curriculum that teaches students and communities about the contributions of African Americans to American history through movement. Her work has been supported by grants from Teaching Tolerance, the Frankie Manning Foundation, and the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund, which supported Moving History’s efforts to bring racial equity to education with a $179,000 grant in 2018, and another in 2019. She’s the proud mother of three.

Breai is a regular columnist for Pipe Wrench and the
author of April 2021’s feature, “Seeing in the Dark.”

Portrait by Libby Greenfield.

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The Projectionist