By Matthew Gozzip Athletics Editor
During the heat of the 1960’s American civil rights movement, comedian and social activist Dick Gregory wrote an autobiography retelling his life as a black man in a segregated society during the twentieth century.
The title of the book was all lower case, a single cursive word.
Immediate backlash ensued because of the use of the term, a lot of the heat coming from the Black community. Gregory knew the title was controversial and addressed immediately on the opening page of the novel.
The dedication message reads:
“Dear Momma -- Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word “n*gger” again, remember they are advertising my book.”
Despite the outcry, the book has sold seven million copies since its release. “N*gger” received praise for its honest storytelling of a difficult subject. Everything from Gregory’s experience growing up without a supportive father in a household on welfare to being a black person in a country that held ill contempt for them was detailed without restriction. Gregory found power in his words and his innate ability to use comedy to combat the cruel realities around him. His jokes about racism deconstructed the fallacy of the injustice that was directed towards him and others like him.
Many people wouldn’t have known the book’s cultural impact if they had taken it at face value and avoided it because of the provocative racial slur emblazoned across the front cover.
The controversy surrounding Gregory’s choice of the words is not an isolated incident. Books and art performances with racially charged material have been ridiculed ever since minorities began voicing their concerns about race through their art.
The challenging thing is that criticism has come from all angles of ethnicity. Achieving social equality remains the mutual goal for minorities but there are varying opinions on how to go about opening dialogue. Many push political correctness as the stabilizing force, an aggressive “be considerate or else you are the problem” approach.
Comedy is the antithesis of this. Social commentary in comedy channels itself by recognizing injustice and systematically dunking it. Jokes that initially seem self-deprecating are realized as devalue the power of historically offensive racial epithets.
The culture of political correctness clashes with comedians who use underlying meaning that often gets lost under the initial shock of the things they say.
Modern day social activists that use comedy to make a change are having as much trouble being censored as their counterparts of yesteryear.
“N*gger, Wetb*ck, Ch*nk,” a contemporary “race play”, directly references the racial stereotypes that Blacks, Latinx(s) and Asians face daily. NWC pulls no punches or, in this case, fighting words. There are three characters, “the Ch*nk”, “the Wetb*ck” and “the N*gger”, who represent the utmost extreme clichés surrounding their respective ethnicities. Though the performance is arranged as a three party play, NWC has a fluid form of prose, slam poetry, sketch and stand up among other things to make a point. Passing the initial discomfort of seeing the historically damaging words in the title is a difficult challenge for the audience but to the performers, it is their reality.
“The show is an opportunity to open up about the racism [me and my co-stars] face,” says Rafael Agustin, one of the co-creators of NWC. “We want to make sure we work in coalitions together to get basic human rights for all. NWC we want to create dialogue through our experiences.”
NWC is an alternative to the censoring of uncomfortable racial issues. The show directly attacks the most demeaning racial perceptions of people in a comedic and enlightening manner. Comedy and sincerity in commentary are not mutually exclusive.
The performance became a national success by touring 150 different cities and 44 states during a 10-year span. College campuses are the most popular destinations and wherever the show went, positive reviews usually followed. Cal State Long Beach recognized the show as a potential tool to teach students about healthy discussion about race. The show was included on the curriculum for ethnic studies in the fall 2015 semester under a two-day residency at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center.
A year later, President Jane Conoley pulled the show from the curriculum due to negative feedback from the ethnic studies faculty. Conoley explained that it wasn’t the name of the show that dictated the decision rather faculty deeming it not a worthy “conversation starter”.
This is where the details start to blur. A Daily 49er article on September 7th, 2016, revealed that Conoley had not seen the performance. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter in Long Beach objected to the use of the n-word in the play. It is unclear if any of them have seen the performance. Professor Craig Stone, a member of the ethnic studies faculty on campus, noted that the title was one of the issues with the performance and that hearing students reading the sign was uncomfortable. Other critiques of the show have been directed towards the vulgar nature of several dirty jokes regarding male genitalia size.
It’s understandable why Conoley made the decision to remove the show from curriculum. There is no denying the offensive nature of the show’s title nor the potential misinterpretation of the show’s material. Also, the faculty should have considerable amount of influence on what it suitable material to study. That’s where there is a breakdown in understanding.
Agustin and co. are attempting to defy conventions in presenting their dialogue. Several people having the power to control what was generally a positively reviewed form of dialogue is censorship.
NWC, as a comedic art piece, has complex rhetoric embedded in between all the references to hyper racist remarks and crude humor. The performers portray caricatures of ethnicity they represent with the intention to not mock their own race. Outlandish jokes push the audience to realize the hypocrisy of their laughter as well as realize how silly it is to assume someone will act to their racial archetype.
“We don’t do books or dissertations; we do theater,” says Agustin. “[NWC] is catharsis for us to explain how racial attitudes affect us. This is our art and how we describe our thoughts on race.”
Problems with comedy won’t be solved with content censorship. Recognizing the context and intent in the way certain language is used is arguably just as important as the words used. Judging a show or joke by the raw text disregards the art of comedy. Seeing how an audience may react to a joke other than laughter drives a show, especially a comedy show regarding race relations.
Art is fluid, as is racial discussion. Sanctioning such a performing art show like NWC as having to be politically responsible would negate some of the more intense details that academia doesn’t touch upon. The clash between social commentary and strict reading to the book is a frustrating battle. Sometimes it helps to step back from the conventional form of discussion and embrace a comedic performance such as NWC for what it is: a performing art piece that is aware of its offensiveness and still wants to address reality.
This brings the investigation to a bigger question: is it necessary to use the title?
Yes. Hearing someone yell n*gger and being seen as a pimp (as depicted in the show) is a perception that people internalize as reality. Referring a person of Latinx descent as a wetb*ck who is subject to crime (as depicted in the show) is another unjust reality. Being called ch*nk that has inherently small genitalia size and a natural craving for rice is actually a reality I face.
The important discussions that are hard to here are usually silenced altogether when they are censored. Wit and intelligent humor with nuance is lost if not explored past the surface. NWC’s title is effective because it reintroduces the words to the audience and then systematically ridicules the use of it. The history of malice behind them is redirected, just as Gregory did so many years ago when he decided to title his book in a such manner.
When you hear these phrases heard again, just know that the person is making fun of themselves.