Last night there was an episode of Iconoclasts on the Sundance Channel with Dave Chappell and Maya Angelou. If you've never seen Iconoclasts they film a visit of one famous person with another. Usually the two people have something in common but they are typically from different areas of the entertainment industry or public eye. What I love about the show is that the two people are taped in a comfortable location, usually one of their homes, and they get real, discussing current events, their respective careers, the whole idea of fame and celebrity.
Not every episode is enlightening or fascinating, but last night Chappell visited with Angelou at her home, which was laden with African American art and photos of famous people she has known from the Civil Rights Era. It was amazing to see Chappell, who is quoted on a daily basis by my high school students pitted up Angelou, whom I admire immensely. And the truth is, I admire Dave Chappell, also, in a different way. Not only is he funny but his comedy is smart. I'm always amazed at people who are not only making witty commentary on our society but also tap into to the tastes of a larger, more fickle public's sense of longevity and are subsequently made in to icons. Chappell's comedy about race was sometimes criticized for being racist and afro-centric, but the truth is that black comedians can say things that Whites can't get away with and that rubs some people wrong. Frankly, I'm glad that all things can be said, even if not by me. Chappell made no qualms about saying these things. Saying them infused him and phrases like, "I'm rich, bitch!" and "I'm Rick James!" into our cultural lexicon. That, of course, is enough of a feat, but to do so and then walk away from it all takes a different sort of resolve. Dave Chappell isn't crazy or depressed or on a quest or anything one might think of someone who walked away from 50 million dollars. He simply didn't like what mega-ultra-uber-fame was doing to his act. That's it. He said that he left his show on Comedy Central because he couldn't perform at his stand up shows the way he had before. Every time he walked out on stage some dufus in the back was yelling out "I'm Rick James, bitch!" and oohing and awing at his celebrity. He didn't say as much, but I expect that he would say that his shows used to feel like a conversation. He had a repoir with his audience and he connected with them as individuals. Maya Angelou, as they were discussing this matter talked of the dangers of youth looking up to celebrities as anything other than ordinary people. She said something so profound: she said that when we look at celebrities and their accomplishments as super-human, as we are prone to do, young people especially start thinking that level of excellence is unattainable. When we worship celebrity and riches and people in general, how can we ourselves ever aspire to greatness. There has to be that little thing inside us that always says, "I could do better."
Obviously, Angelou is the more broad character to study. She is classic, intelligent, loving, and so gifted. And giving. That is what struck me most about their conversation. While my interests lie with Chappell, it is through Angelou that we are able to see his vulnerabilities and openness. Not that Dave Chappell isn't open in his act or in his comedy. I think most talented comedians are only funnier than the next guy because they are honest. But, with Angelou's questions and advise and strength of character, Dave opens up on a very real level and you see that he is learning, right before our eyes, what he was really doing when he walked away from the money and the show. He knew what was going on but through Angelou he had a respected mother figure affirming his decision and reassuring his goals. You could really tell that Dave was just enamored to be in Maya Angelou's home and experiencing her knowledge. One could see him just soaking it in at times.
During one of the most fascinating parts we see where their two generations clash the most. The older black lady from the civil rights era and the young, wealthy black comedian, raised as the outset of the hip-hop age. The big issue that Angelou took was with the N-word. She wouldn't even say it. Unlike many of my students, who throw the word around like "buddy," or "like," Maya Angelou sees the word as poison. She gave the example of a bottle of poison, marked poison. If the poison is taken out of the bottle, the poison still exists, and is still represented by the marking on the bottle. The N-word is similar, having had the harmful history. The history still exists even though the word is now owned by those who used to be hurt by the word. Chappell explained his usage of the word as this: it used to be a word used to exclude blacks from white society. Now, blacks use it as an exclusive word, too, but to bring people closer together. It's a word that only the chosen can say. It's probably the only word that I literally hate hearing come from the mouth of a white person, but it doesn't bother me to hear a black person say it. Most white people don't understand this. I wrote a kid up earlier this year for saying it, when he protested that blacks say it all the time, I thought, "This isn't a isolated complaint with white people." We feel a sense of entitlement. "Whites say, if they can do it, so can I." This runs in steep contrast to the way I hear black kids talk. From them I hear, "That's something white kids do." Of course, as a teacher my job is to teach against this mindset. It is also to teach the white kids humility and respect. Respect people's history and assume that you can't assume anything about the person you are speaking to. A very good friend of mine, who is black,always made me very comfortable about speaking on racial issues. It was a topic of conversation that we had, often, probably because he was the best black friend I'd ever had, and I was curious. One day, in jest, I uttered the n-word to him, and he got dead serious. I can't say that word. Regardless of the context or relationship to the person hearing. It's not my word. It never was. It was created by my ancestors to bring down his ancestors and now that is the pittance I'm paying. I'll accept it.
So, I've gotten off track. Anyway, the episode of Iconoclast was very enlightening. I encourage you to watch it if you have the Sundance Channel. It will probably replay, again.
**Alternate title "I'll Rise, Bitch!" foregone to draw in our more conservative readers.