Melissa Harris-Perry: Here's how it went down. On October 5th, Netflix released a new Dave Chappelle comedy special called The Closer complete with a promo voice by Morgan Freeman.
Morgan Freeman: It looks as if is about to say something. What could he possibly have left to say?
Dave Chappelle: Would you shut up Morgan Freeman?
[end of audio playback]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, people tuned in to watch because you know, he's Dave Chappelle. He's the comedian who brought us some of the most memorable comedy of all time. Now, in my very expert opinion, the Chappelle show skit, I Know Black People, is quite possibly a perfect TV comedy sketch.
Dave Chappelle: Why did Black people distrust Ronald Reagan?
Participant 1: Because he was white.
Dave Chappelle: That is correct.
Participant 2: Because he took away money.
Dave Chappelle: That is correct. Why did Black people distrust Ronald Reagan?
Participant 3: He wasn't supposed to be trusted in the first place.
Dave Chappelle: He is correct.
[end of audio playback]
[00:01:14] Melissa Harris-Perry: When viewers tuned in on October 5, they didn't get the edgy, sharp, nuance of those unforgettable Chappelle show skits. Instead, Dave Chappelle seemed angry, whiny, small, and mostly I think just plain unfunny. He did deliver punch lines and that unmistakable Chappelle tone, but the closer it sounds like a rant than a routine.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's a rant with a clear target, transgender people.
Dave Chappelle: They don't hate transgender women, but they look at trans women the way we Blacks might look at blackface. It offends them like [beep] doing an impression of me.
[end of audio playback]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Seriously, you all, Dave Chappelle was so singular and his unrelenting abuse of transgender folk that I started to think he was running for a seat in the Texas State Legislature.
Melissa Harris-Perry: To be clear, many loved it. On Rotten Tomatoes, Chappelle's The Closer had a ninety-six percent positive rating with ordinary viewers. Among professional TV critics, the rating is a measly 43% Rotten Tomatoes. This gap for me, this is where it gets really interesting. How should we understand this profound perceptual difference? By one reading, this is about an overthinking out of touch, self-proclaimed, woke minority, trying to impose unrealistic politically correct discourse values on everybody else.
There's something else here, coming across this culture clash narrative of free speech, comedic artistry, political correctness, and elite discourse is an older and far more simple divide, race. It's possible to read Dave Chappelle's newest special and the upward that is followed as a masterwork performance art project, displaying both the limits and the reach of Black male privilege.
For example, Jaclyn Moore, a white trans woman and former showrunner of the hit Netflix series, Dear White People, said she would no longer work with Netflix as a result of their decision to release and defend The Closer. As a result, more has received personal vile and violent anger and abuse in social media, and much of is racialized.
If you want a summary, it gets simplified something pretty close to how dare a white woman, cis or transgender, speak against a Black man, even if he is a multimillionaire with a massive global platform, as a Black man, he's inherently endangered, and the criticisms of a queer white woman are inherently invalid. It's an argument that Chappelle anticipates in the special and delivers as a punch line.
Dave Chappelle: A lot of the LBGTQ community doesn't know the baby's history. "He's a wild guy. He was shot [beep] and killed him in Walmart, nothing bad happened to his career." Do you see where I'm going with this? In our country, you can shoot and kill a [beep], but you better not hurt a gay person's feelings.
[end of audio playback]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Do you see what he did there? By this logic, there are Black people and there are queer folk. In a nation where the lives and labors of Back people are ignored, maligned and endangered Black folk have free rein to ignore queer folks, please for humanity, security, and Justice.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Which means Chappelle is not only guilty of mediocre comedy, he's guilty of bad logic. Because you see, Black folk and queer folk are not separate communities. They're overlapping, intersecting, and enmeshed. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. That intersection is where we begin today on The Takeaway.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're talking with Aryah Lester, Deputy Director of the Transgender Strategy Center. Aryah, welcome.
Aryah Lester: Hi, Melissa. Thank you for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Absolutely. Let's begin at the intersection of Black and queer identities. What are some of the specific vulnerabilities of Black trans women?
Aryah Lester: The Black trans women, I always say are on the lowest rung of our societal ladder, not only here in America, but pretty much worldwide. When you're looking at the racial intersectionality, myself being a Black woman of trans experience. I say that because the Black comes first. That's the first thing that someone notices about a person is their physicality.
The civil rights movement is relatable to the LGBTQ movement, but in essence, even within that movement, the trans community is so far behind that in essence, it has become one of the oppressed communities that we saw within the prior to the '50s and '60s here in America for Black and African American communities.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It always feels to me like one of the most profound challenges of intersectional work in community is this question of the sources of violence and vulnerability, so for both trans and cisgender Black women there is vulnerability to state violence, just as there is for cisgender Black men, but there's also profound vulnerability to violence from Black people, from people in the community.
Aryah Lester: It's like our community is almost being mentally tricked, and not by one entity or by one person, but by the retelling of certain stereotypes and paradigms that we see one our example of power since the institution of this country has been white male heterosexual cisgender. Just says heteronormative type of look with that white overlay on it, is what we as a people has always seen as the face of power.
When you're looking at the direct opposite of white as Black, man as woman, cisgender as transgender, you just come down to the Black trans woman, and you don't see as much violence against trans masculine individuals within the Black community, although it does happen. I don't want to take away from the things that our trans-masculine siblings go through.
There's almost like a reflex of, "Oh, you took away a piece of our power as a community by identifying yourself as something that is directly opposite to what we see as power in America." Unconsciously, there's a backlash. We see a lot of interpersonal and our community harm and violence against Black trans women in particular.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Thank you so much for that insight. I've been puzzling over what is at stake. As I watched the Chappelle special. There's a part of me that was like, "What is cultivating this anger? What is it that this person sees that being so at stake around the identity of Back trans women", but I feel like you just helped me to identify it, that it's about as though Black women of trans experience are pulling away the little bit of patriarchy or male privilege that exists within a still marginalized, racial community.
Aryah Lester: Yes, we don't see that with white trans women. They don't go through the same violence and barriers from their own community because white people haven't made it. You have the first trans billionare is a white trans woman. Look at Caitlyn Jenner and she has all of their privileges that just comes with their racial-ethnic type of identity. I see it in that person's eyes when they look at me and when I'm in streets and I come across my community and have to hear hateful things. It's almost like they take a personal offense. Where is that personal offense coming from, but from a lack of power and a lack of access?
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is also a moment when lawmakers legislation is actually introducing new legal barriers, particularly for trans children and young people, setting records for the number of anti-transgender bills that are being introduced. I'm wondering about these cultural moments like the Chapelle Closer happening at the same time that this legislation is being introduced.
Aryah Lester: We've seen this before, back in the late 1800s, remember the minstrel shows, there were a form of comedy that really stereotyped, lampoon, and put down Black individuals and the Black community under the guise of comedy. At that same time, there was rhetoric being put out there that Black men were dangerous for your white women and for your children.
What are we seeing now? The exact same thing with trans individuals to where we use as the punching line in punching back within comedy specials. Then at the same time, there's a fear-mongering that's being created politically and using the trans community as a scapegoat that put pressure on the insecurities that we feel and the lack of knowledge that we have as a nation for trans people, on the same way of what happened in the past with us as Black people, and I just don't see how people aren't seeing it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What you just did there is so powerful because that minstrel show or Blackface. Chappelle actually describes the trans experience as though it is Blackface and says, "Oh, it's about impersonating womanhood." For you to invert that and actually show that, "No, it's actually quite the opposite." It's about the vulnerability of bodies that are on the margins.
Aryah Lester: In our bodies are the most vulnerable. Just a few years ago, the life expectancy for Black trans women was the age of 35 and that's just due to murder, violence, high rates of HIV, sexual assault, and murder because our community is against us. Of course, society is against us, even our own families are against us, so it just all sets us up to not be able to even live long here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to talk for a moment about Daphne Dorman who Chapelle references directly, as I hear you talk about the cultural, the familial, and the community rejection. Can you tell us a little bit about Daphne's story?
Aryah Lester: Daphne, there's an impulse by one of Daphne's best friends, Mia Satya, on Facebook, who I am friends with and spoke at the first National Trans March here in DC. Daphne was a comedian who it seemed that Dave utilized her for his own efforts in his own claim to fame in a sense. As we say, Daphne's story was used by Dave in the last special, and not long after that, Daphne took her life on.
Unfortunately, we don't know the exact reason why, but the timing was very telling. From what was told in that Facebook posts, Dave Chappelle never reached out after the death, never sent any condolences, never did any type of acknowledgment until the special. To see exactly how Daphne has been portrayed after such one of colorful and amazing life, and then such a horrible into it, that I don't see how that storyline can be used in any type of way of comedy.
That's what we see period around the whole cross the line for trans women. Our deaths are laughed at and overlooked, and there's a lot of victim-blaming for everything that we do. It's just really sad that Daphne was not someone that they felt the need to really address the death of, but yet you're going to use her story for something that's so hurtful and create so much miseducation at a time that we're trying to educate the masses on what it means to be human, basically. What it means to have basic respect and empathy for each other, and understanding that we're all individuals and we're all just trying to figure out ourselves within this life. As a Black person, trying to figure out ourselves and having to navigate a system that's not built for us.
What I think Dave is doing is just feeding into that system and not knowing that it was built by our oppressors and therefore, is not going to work for us. I think Frederick Douglas when he talked about the minstrel shows, he said that it was a way to pander to the corrupt haste of their white fellow citizens. This is a pandering to the corrupt haste of America that we see now after our racial George Floyd disputes and everything we've been through and to come to now. For Dave as a Black man to just take a community and just pushed them down even further and hold down our proverbial next is just, I'm just really lost as to the why's.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Aryah, you said something powerful here, many things powerful, but when you just said we're talking about what it means to be human. What I want to do as we come to the end of our conversation, I want to pull back up to that humanity, which always means we are more than simply the sum of the oppressions that we survive. Talk to me about the work of the Transgender Strategy Center or about the joyous, beautiful community that you and so many other Black women of trans experience are building despite the hate.
Aryah Lester: The Transgender Strategy Center, our goal is just trans liberation. Specifically, elevating the liberation of our Black family within our transgender and non-farming and nonbinary communities, because what we need is fighters, so we go out, we go to corporations and we help them learn what it really means to be human, basically. We all come into this world knowing what we're comfortable in, our clothing, our favorite colors, our favorite games. Then as we go through school and we go through society, we then learn what is expected of us that may be quite different to what we know is innate. We all have that experience trans or not, so myself and my organization really tries to teach corporations on how to intertwine that within their rhetoric, within their policies, and procedures, and onboarding for employment.
I'm also helping our community in building up leadership development, capacity building, technical assistance, and assisting translate organizations who are really helping those who are still facing that 35-year life expectancy, and trying to make it to where we're able to retire and grow old. We're assisting them with grantmaking and funds, and helping them just learn how to navigate this world where you've got to have a lot of more Dave Chappelle's specials and a lot more anti-trans legislation. Learning what we can do to combat it and to educate America and the world into just becoming better people,
Melissa Harris-Perry: Aryah Lester, deputy director of the Transgender Strategy Center. Thank you for your work, your empathy, and your voice.
Aryah Lester: Thank you for yours, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I Want us to switch gears just a little bit and talk more about comedy because I just want to say, I'm not at all against comedy that pokes funded aspects of the transgender experience. Flame Monroe is a transgender Black comedian, who I find hilarious. She reflects on potentially terrifying moments of transgender vulnerability, like being stopped by a traffic cop who is likely to ask for a driver's license, a license, which will reveal a gender and name that don't match her self presentation but Flame makes it funny, inverts the power and still manages to teach us a little something about the challenges of living as a Black trans woman.
Flame Monroe: He say, "Excuse me", I said, "I'm sorry, officer, is there a problem?" He say, "Yes, ma'am, you were speeding." I said, "Oh, I'm sorry. I'm running late for work. I promise to slow down." He said, "Well, hold on, pretty girl, hold on." I said, "Woo".
[end of audio playback]
Melissa Harris-Perry: See this inversion, the surprise this playfulness with the self. That is what I love in comedy. To help me think more about the comedic aspects of Dave Chappelle's The Closer, I talked with Mx. Dahlia Belle, a writer and comedian who penned a letter in The Guardian to Dave Chappelle. It's entitled, Dear Dave Chappelle Transgender Comedians Can Take a Joke But Why Are Yours Are so Unfunny? I asked Dahlia, what do you find funny? What cracks you up?
Mx. Dahlia Belle: When someone says something I've never heard before. It's the element of surprise. You're embracing yourself for one thing and then they throw this other thing at you. Especially if it's a perspective that only they could possibly give you, I think is what makes a joke legendary.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Got it. I love that. Because I was trying to think about this myself. What do I find funny? I think it's a little bit of both what you've said here and this is, again, just for me, is both that I want it to be surprising but also familiar. For me something probably cracks me up the most, I just think in my day-to-day life when it's a little bit of an inside joke but then also a completely surprising spin on it. I probably actually can't find things funny if I have no reference point for them. I like Southern jokes, I like Black jokes. More and more these days, I like old lady jokes as I age. I don't think in my 20s, I would've at all thought that jokes about your 50-year-old body were funny, but they're hilarious to me now.
Mx. Dahlia Belle: I would agree with you, but I think one of the challenges for a comedian is being able to make the unfamiliar feel familiar. Obviously, I'm coming at this from the perspective of a very very queer comic. It is a challenge that I had to overcome in order to do what I do. Because I have to make jokes that are written specifically for queer people. Because it's the only context I have. Funny, and accessible, and digestible for straight cis people.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When you're writing jokes are you thinking of it that way? Or are you-- again, I'm just interested in the creative process, and let me explain in part why I'm sticking on this for a minute. I think I'm hilarious. I find myself very funny and I will say that my beloved consistently tells me that I am the person who thinks that I am the funniest and that I should probably not laugh quite so hard before I even get the punchline out. I'm wondering, when you're actually producing comedy and not just basically singing in the shower, which is my version of comedy, how do you've hit it? You're like, "Yes, this is it. I've got this line. I've got this delivery right".
Mx. Dahlia Belle: For me, to be honest, my first priority is that I think it's hilarious. I'm with you there. Every singer starts in the shower. Then once I'm laughing in my own house, then I have to go on stage and I have a very specific strategy that I live by where the moment when I start performing, I look to find the audience member who likes me immediately because I want them to continue liking me till the end of my set. Then I don't care how they feel. Then I want to find the person who likes me the very least. I hit a punchline and both of those people are laughing together, I win.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I love that. I get that. I absolutely get right you want that audience member who's with you from the beginning and who's absolutely not with you. If you've got them both, then you've got it. That makes perfect sense to me. I want to pivot just a little bit now to today Chappelle. Let's just start with-- it's something you told my producer.
Mx. Dahlia Belle: But we're having such a pleasant conversation.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I know, really. We'll come back to pleasant in a moment, but you told my producer in part you didn't even want to watch this special. Can you tell me why?
Mx. Dahlia Belle: I thought I knew what trying to do. I'm like, "Okay, Dave is going to say some stuff that's invalidating towards women and he's going to go for the cheapest trans jokes you can think of at the moment." I just didn't need to. What I definitely didn't want to do and what I have avoided doing for-- let's see, he's been at this since 2017. For the last four years, I've avoided responding to anything he has done because right now I think he owes me at least $3,000 in publicity. I just knew what the special was going to be. I knew it wasn't going to be valid. I knew it was going to be intentionally insulting. If I want to have my identity or existence called into question, I can just watch the news.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm interested in what you said a few moments ago about, "He probably owes me some thousands in publicity." I'm not naive. I spend a little bit of time on the Twitter machine and I think there are those -you're not naive either- who claim that it's the opposite, that you are trying to make your career from writing about Dave Chappelle. You want to respond to that?
Mx. Dahlia Belle: I do. In the last 48, 72 hours, a lot of transgender writers and social media folk have been banned from our platforms or locked out of our platforms. I currently have no access to my main Instagram account. What Dave Chappelle achieved with his most recent special was a battle cry. It was a rallying cry for trans folks to come out of the woodwork and troll, and bully, and pressure transgender people to not speak because Dave Chappelle is allowed to have absolutely any opinion. This is the argument they constantly make. If you don't like Dave's opinions then you don't have to listen. Yet they spend hours a day berating transgender people into silence for saying, "We don't find Dave Chappelle funny anymore".
Melissa Harris-Perry: There are ways to speak, to have voice, to not be silenced, but also not that have to center Dave Chappelle in your work?
Mx. Dahlia Belle: I guess that's really the sticking point for me in all of this, because when people throw that accusation around of, we're trying to make names for ourselves on Dave Chappelle's back or whatever, Dave Chappelle has already made $60 million on our lived experiences. He's made $60 million mocking us and calling us into question, and for Black people especially, and especially Black trans women, he has erased our existence very intentionally, very skillfully for $60 million, and we've gotten nothing.
When trans comics only get the spotlight during controversies, I think that's really the issue. If we could reach a point where Netflix reaching out to transgender comics to have specials expressing the funny side of being trans, that would be fantastic. If Dave Chappelle's voice is the only voice being heard for what the trans community is or what our experience is, then we are effectively being silenced. The only people being canceled are transgender people.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dahlia, I want to play you a couple of classic moments in Black comedy.
Geraldine: The devil made me buy this dress. I did not want to buy no dress. The devil kept following me. I've gone down the street [sings] and the devil kept following me and he kept telling me how good I look.
Sheneneh: Oh my God. If it isn't a little Miss Attitude. Why are you always over here? I mean, don't you have a bag?
[end of audio playback]
Melissa Harris-Perry: There we're hearing Flip Wilson as Geraldine, Martin Lawrence as Sheneneh. I grew up, Dahlia, in this house where my father would say about moments like that is that these are Black male comedians who are being emasculated by having to wear a dress in order to be considered funny. As I got older and really started to reflect on this, I thought, "Maybe that's what's going on, but maybe the bigger issue here is that this is a comedy that's making Black trans women invisible".
Mx. Dahlia Belle: Yes, and that is absolutely true. Applause to you for noticing. Yes, I was very aware of that growing up and I don't even want to say it's limited to cisgender heterosexual Black men. It's really across the board. You can look at movies like Tootsie, there are any number of titles an actor appears in a dress eventually. I knew from early childhood that that was funny, or if you had a character who is understood to be a woman but it turns out they're a man, it's hilarious instantly. Yes, it very much beats this narrative into young Queer people's heads that we are a punchline.
I guess to be honest, in my opinion, that is why we're so good at telling jokes about ourselves because we've literally heard every single one. When a trans comic writes a trans joke, we are thinking, "Okay, what's the punchline? Why is my existence a joke, but how can I enjoy the joke too?"
Melissa Harris-Perry: MX. Dahlia Belle, writer and comedian, thank you for joining us on The Takeaway.
Mx. Dahlia Belle: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.
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