Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Niggar Family

One of comedian Dave Chappelle's most controversial skits, "The Niggar Family," explores the question of what effect "the n-word" would have if it were just another name. The skit is filmed in black and white, with sets and costumes right out of Father Knows Best or Leave It to Beaver or, for a more recent reference, Pleasantville. We see a squeaky-clean family of aw-shucks pleasantness and golly-jeepers naïveté, a "typical American" (i.e., white) family named Niggar. The skit, from the second season of Chappelle's Show on Comedy Central, circled round into public discourse this spring in the discussion of Don Imus' inappropriate comments; in particular, Joe Scarborough brought it up on MSNBC's Scarborough Country, asking how it could be okay for Dave Chappelle to toss around the n-word so freely, if Don Imus was excoriated for saying "nappy-headed hos." Personally, I think the answer lies in the difference between racist humor and racial humor.

First of all, here's the skit. The transcript is of the version as it appears on the Season 2 DVD; the embedded clip is the version on Comedy Central's website, with the ending trimmed slightly.

[theme music] N-I-G, G-A-R, it's the Niggar Family. We all know, who they are, Frank, Tim, and Emily. Teaching Tim how to ride a bike, these are the Niggars that we like. N-I-G, G-A-R, it's the Niggar Family, it's the Niggar Family. Yeahhhhh.

[bright music]
[scene: breakfast table in a 1950's-sitcom home]

Emily Niggar: Breakfast is served!

Frank Niggar: Look, hon, my sister just had another baby. Look at this little bundle of joy!

Emily: She's got those Niggar lips.

Frank: I know, so thin! Is Tim still asleep?

Emily: I think so.

Frank: He sure is one lazy Niggar!

Timmy Niggar: Gooood morning, Mom. Morning, Dad.

Frank: Morning. You know, Tim, we're having a dinner party tonight; I trust you'll be here.

Timmy: Oh, I can't. I have my first big date with Jenny Halsted.

[scene: breakfast table in another 50's-sitcom home]

Mrs. Halsted: Jenny has a date tonight with the Niggar boy from school.

Mr. Halsted: What?! Oh, god, no!!

Jenny Halsted: No, Daddy, that's his name: Timmy Niggar.

Mr. Halsted: Oh, of course. That Niggar — he's a very good athlete, and so well-spoken. That family's going places. I mean, we're rich; they're Niggar-rich.

Mrs. Halsted: Oh, Bill!

[scene: the Niggar family breakfast table]

Clifton [Dave Chappelle]: Morning, Niggars.

Frank: Why, it's Clifton, our colored milkman.

Clifton: It's my favorite family to deliver milk to: the Niggars. Mmm-mmm, somethin' sure smells good. You Niggars cookin'?

Emily: We sure are! There's some leftover bacon if you'd like some.

Clifton: Ooh, none for me. I know better than to get between a Niggar and their pork; might get my fingers bit. Here you go. [pause] I hate to bother you about this, but, well, you didn't pay your bill last week, and I know how forgetful you Niggars are when it comes to payin' bills.

Frank: Golly, Clifton, it slipped my mind. Here you go. Sorry about that.

Clifton: Oh, Niggar, please; Niggar, please. Well, take care, Mr. N-word; I have a hot date with the wife tonight.

Frank: All right, take care.

Clifton: All right. Peace, Niggar. [exits, long pause, steps back in] Niggars! [pauses, then runs out]

Maitre d': Stevenson, party of four. Stevenson, party of four. [pause] Table 5, please; bon appetit. [pause] Niggar, party of two. Niggar, party of two.

Clifton: Lookie here, Jack; just because we're colored, didn't mean we came out here to be disrespected, okay?

Timmy: Uh, we're the Niggar family. [pause] Oh, hi, Clifton.

Clifton: Oh, well, hello, little Niggar. [to his wife:] These are the Niggars I was tellin' you about.

Clifton's wife: Are you the nigga that broke the bottle over Ronnie's head at the dice game?

Clifton: No! Not that nigga. The Niggars from work, the milk route.

Clifton's wife: Oh, okay. [pause] Have a nice meal.

Clifton: I bet you'll get the finest table a nigger's ever got in this restaurant. [Clifton and his wife laugh heartily] Oooh-wee! Oh, Lord; this racism is killin' me inside.

[theme music] N-I-G, G-A-R, it's the Niggar Family, it's the Niggar Family.

Clifton: Niggars!

[theme music] Yeaaah...
Okay, let's look at the context. Is Dave Chappelle making fun of African Americans? Yes, to some extent; after all, racism cuts both ways, even if it's much sharper in one direction than the other. However, it's clear that Dave is poking fun at (well, actually poking a stick in the eye of) racism itself. It's in the same vein as the skit about the blind KKK leader who is shocked to learn that he is black — and who then divorces his wife because she is a "nigger-lover." Neither the Niggar Family sketch nor the Clayton Bigsby sketch demeans blacks or whites, except to the extent that they are racist.

There was much to-do about Oprah's commencement address at Howard University, mainly because she used the terrifyingly brutal racist epithet "white folks." You can read the whole shameful transcript in the comments on my Oprah thread, if you dare. What a terrible world we live in, when black folks and "white folks" can work side by side. Progress towards racial equality is truly a stain on the fabric of our national identity — or so it must seem to those who were offended by Oprah.

In contrast, we have the "nappy-headed hos" remark from Don Imus. First, it was far from the first racially insensitive remark he has made on air. The remark itself was clearly demeaning to the Rutgers women's basketball team. It reduced their humanity to a racially tinged remark about their hairstyle and general appearance. There was no humor in it on any level other than, "Ha, ha, ain't it funny that them ugly [African Americans] can play basketball?" The intent was clearly to poke fun at the women, not at racist attitudes. That, in a nutshell, is the difference between racist humor and racial humor. For more examples of the latter, check out Carlos Mencia, or go back to Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor.

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