The Comedic Express: Comedy and Ebonics, A Love and Hate Relationship

Ebonics

Introduction

Making people laugh is an eloquent art-form that dates back centuries to many possible origins. Many movies and comedians attempt and fail to provide comedic relief in their entertainment strategies and fall from grace. Others are successful in this attempt and flourish because they know how to connect to what people want to hear.  Often, this fail or success rate is determined by the comedic performance’s ability to connect with an audience. And connecting with an audience is most often based on being able to “speak the audience’s language”.  But when it comes to language, there has never been a comedic outlet that supports the use of Ebonics in a way that validates its significance. (I will revert back and forth through the terms Black English and Ebonics, as they generally denote the same meaning.)  The use of Ebonics in comedy is becoming a trend for comedic puns and “hip” vocabulary.  Unfortunately, this use of Ebonics can often be misused to denote ignorance or provide assumptions of the black culture’s inability to “learn”. Comedians and Comedic movies abuse the language of Black vernacular in an attempt to reach a society that is ignorant of Black English as a rule-based systematic language. Instead of promoting the validity of Black English, the primary purpose of Ebonics in comedy is either as a strategy to connect with an audience or as a tool for mockery.

Expression

Comedians will often use the power of Nommo to connect with their audience. Many preachers, musicians, and even teachers will use our language as a means to affirm themselves with their community.  This use of Ebonics to engage the audience and bridge a relationship is an old tool used by many comedians.  Darryl Littleton, author and comedian know as Lil’ Darryl, writes that “the use of Black speech is essential to the relationship between the Black comedian and his or her Black audience” (Black Comedians, 2006).  Some comedians switch in and out of Ebonics throughout their daily lives, depending on the situation.  Comedians like Chris Tucker, Chris Rock, and Monique are notorious for their language during their stand-up acts.  These comedians are also very well known outside of their careers as intelligent intellectuals who are able to understand and be understood by English speakers.  But the double standard of these two languages asks these comedians to speak English in order to validate their intelligence instead of being accepted with the language they grew up with.

A comedian and television personality by the name of Arsenio Hall has expressed his own personal views on the use of Ebonics. In an interview responding to the Oakland School board’s decision to use Ebonics in school, Hall stated, “Be no fan of Ebonics. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t need it. Malcolm X didn’t need it. It’s absurd.”  Unfortunately, Arsenio Hall didn’t read up well enough on Malcolm X before making his statement.  In one of Malcolm X’s speeches, X drops knowledge on his audience using Ebonics methods such as “Stop singin’ and Start swingin’”, “If you black, you were born in jail”, and “That don’t happen even in Hollywood.”  Now of course, X could have said “singing” and “swinging” instead of “singin” and “swingin”, “you’re” instead of “you”, and “doesn’t” instead of “don’t”, but the intelligent brotha knew that it was okay to revert back and forth between languages. Brotha Malcolm understood that the use of this language did not lessen his intelligence by any means. And if Arsenio Hall were to have known this, he may certainly have re-evaluated his ideas before they left his mouth.

Without an understanding that Ebonics can often be useful when connecting to an audience, as well as understanding that it does not connote any lack of intelligence, many comedians and television show producers fell into the same ignorant mind frame that Arsenio Hall held.  And with this ignorant thinking, a ground-breaking comedy television show emerged about Black people. The Cosby Show, which ran from 1984 to 1992, depicted a successful and intelligent Black family.  The problem with this show as it relates to the Black language is that it never used the true vernacular in which the majority of Blacks used and still use. And though this show was a huge stepping stone for Black America, it is problematic for one reason. When a black person watches this show to see Black success, it implies that it wouldn’t be possible to be successful when speaking Ebonics. Through this subtle message, a stigma about Black language cultivates as degradation on the way Black people communicate.

Fortunately, Bill Cosby came to his senses three years later (although he lost his mind again in the 21st century) and created a new show that expanded off of The Cosby Show.  This show, A Different World (1987-1993), was about young Black men and women in their lives as college students. This show was as inspiring to Black America as the Cosby Show and, because it was more realistic, held a bit more “street cred”.  The most realistic attribute to this show was the use of language.  Nearly every character in this series spoke in Ebonics, whether they were portrayed as young, old, smart or stupid.  This comedic show helped show how men and women in the Black community, even when speaking Ebonics, are very capable of going to college, engaging in scholarly discussions, and being able to handle real life situations.  In a successful attempt to connect with an audience, A Different World used Ebonics to launch a new brand of Black savvy.

But as years past, there never evolved another show that helped validate the use of Ebonics in the same way that A Different World managed.  Two years after A Different World’s first pilot, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air began its run.  This show was watched my millions, by people of all races, for its comedic puns and hip vocabulary.  In this show, however, America’s affinity for comedy in Black stereotypes became apparent.  In a subtle form of racism and classism, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air examined two spectrums of life: Urban West Philadelphia life and Upscale West Los Angeles life.  The problem that lied in this examination was mainly the use of language.  It was noticed that, in the family that had money and success, everyone spoke “standard” English. Meanwhile, the child born and raised in Philadelphia that needed guidance spoke in Ebonics.  This show’s pilot even depicts the main character, Will Smith, as an immature and unlearned troublemaker.  The message conveyed is that, a child who speaks in the same manner that Will did, could not possibly fit in with a successful and wealthy family.  Again, the connotations that reveal themselves, though subtle, tell a tale that language is a primary indication of wealth, success, and intelligence.

Fast-forwarding to 1999, author Michael Eric Dyson, manages to capture the essence of Black comedic television shows.  Dyson explains that, when captured in shows that use “standard” English, Black actors are very replaceable and almost transport in their roles.  He explains that, when they do use Black English in excess with certain shows, the audience is forced to view these Black people in the narrow light in which they are allowed to express themselves.  In other words, either they are well-spoken and forgettable or they are ghetto and unforgettable (Open Mike).  He calls out television stations such as UPN and WB that offer a surplus of Black shows with Black actors. In these shows, many Black actors use speech to connect with their audiences.  But it is in these shows that the subtle racism against Black English is visible.

A prime example can be seen in UPN’s television series The Parkers.  Comedian Monique plays a single Black mother who attends community college with her daughter.  Monique, whose character is a loud, abrupt, and often obnoxious high school dropout is always speaking in Ebonics.  This may not have proven to be an issue if her professor, a Black male, spoke in that same manner. But the professor often spoke in “standard” English and despised Monique’s character.  The idea that a Black Male professor must speak a different language than the “obnoxious” character helps instill an idea about the boundaries of language that aren’t true.  A Black woman does not have to speak in Ebonics in order to be dumb, rude, or annoying, but somehow the producers managed to slip that in there.

Eventually, Black Vernacular was used less as a tool for connecting with audiences and more as material for jokes.  In stand-up comedy shows and television skits, Ebonics became a point of attack for comedic material.  Countless jokes were made in regards to terms, expressions, and grammar choice of African-American speech patterns and it soon became the laughing stock of the nation. Steve Harvey, a respected comedian and actor, has taken a stand-up comedy special opportunity to speak on Ebonics.  In his stand-up, Harvey speaks on the language used by store robbers as being ignorant. In a clip of Harvey, he is heard and seen proclaiming that a group of robbers “always manage to elect the dumbest fool wit ‘em to do da talkin’” and that it’s  “always the ignint(ignorant) that boy do da talkin, boy his ignint ass start talkin; no education, most uneducated…”  The laughter heard in the audience assumed that people either agree with his statements or at least find them relatable and humorous.  But the negative message Harvey is portraying to the audience is that, to speak in Ebonics, one must be ignorant/uneducated/dumb.  This material helped to internalize the oppression of Ebonics and its validity in Black America.  It would be a fair assumption that people in that audience viewed the language that they spoke from a more negative viewpoint than before they came. Whenever Black English is used in America, it seems to be in conjunction with bank robbers, uneducated people, and any other sorts viewed negatively by society standards.  And in its irony, it can be observed that, while Steve Harvey is choosing to belittle and denounce the language in which Black America speaks, he is indeed using the language to connect with his audience. The dropping of the –g sound, the switching of d- for th- sound, as well as the pronunciation of “ignorant”(among other things) proves that there is a love/hate relationship with Black people and their language.  This speech complex can lead to self-hate as well a misunderstanding from the outside (White America) looking in.

Eddie Griffin, a stand-up comedian and actor, had even chimed in back during the Oakland school board controversy with his idea on the subject.  In one of his stand-up specials “Vodoo Child”, Griffin explained that teaching Ebonics as being and African Dialect was “bullshit”.  He went on to explain that Oakland’s decision was “calling kids stupid”.  His belief was, as stated, that “We learned English didn’t we? So why can’t they learn English?”  But when listening to this stand-up bit carefully, it becomes obvious that Griffin is confused on the subject, as many where back then.  Griffin asks his audience, “How we gonna teach kids Ebonics, when they already know it? They got Ph.D’s in the shit”.   What Griffin failed to realize was that he was correct in his misunderstanding of the situation.  Meaning, he was correct that the kids speak perfect Ebonics, but misunderstanding as to what the school board wanted to do.  Had he know that the school board wanted to use the language that the kids already “got Ph.D’s in” to help the kids learn English better, his attitude may have been different. But because his ignorance didn’t allow him to speak correctly on the subject, another large audience had to leave a show feeling that there was something wrong with the way in which they spoke.

With comedians bashing the use of Ebonics in their performances and calling its user’s stupid, as well as the subtle racism toward Black Vernacular in television shows, it was only a matter of time before prejudices about race and speech became obvious on the movie screen. In many movies, we have seen actors and actresses play roles that depicted “idiot” or “thug” characters as they used Black English.  But one of the most recent and most disturbing movies that explicates the negative views on Ebonics is a movie with no Black actors at all.

In 2009, an action packed movie sequel was released to the world.  Transformers II: Revenge of the Fallen hit movie theaters and eventually movie rental stores across the globe.  Grossing over $836 million, the Transformers movie about robot and human interaction in the planet reached hundreds of millions of people from all countries, races, and religions.  Unfortunately however, this movie also possessed two brand new characters that did not appear in the original movie.  These two characters stirred a controversy within themselves.  The producers felt that the movie could use some comedic relief and added two robot characters named “Skids” and “Mudflap”.  These two characters, put in the movie to make people laugh, seemed to exemplify certain characteristics of African-American culture.  One robot sported a gold tooth, they played “the dozens”, and they spoke in Ebonics.  And if it were just these three things, it would be hard to find the wrong in this matter.  Unfortunately, the producers felt the need to add one more bit of information: they were stupid.  To explain, during part of this movie the main character asks Skids and Mudflap to read something in which they reply, “Read? Uh, naw… We don’t really do much readin’!”  There is an obvious implication that Black people, who sport gold teeth, play the dozens, and speak in Ebonics, are somehow illiterate and can’t read.  When it is seen through the producer’s eyes, and probably the eyes of those viewing it, these robots that fought back and forth, spoke in Ebonics, and sported gold teeth were simply dumb and funny.

In an effort to defend these characters against racial profiling, the movie’s backers stated that these characters were just robots and not depicting any type of person.  But the characteristics of these robots were far too narrowed to depict any other race.  The use of Ebonics matched perfectly with our pronunciation and expressions when one robot proclaimed, “Pop a cap in his ass, Na mean?” and the other yelled out, “Witcha Bitch-ass!”  Both the terminology as well as the pronunciation in these sentences point to a race that is well known for both.  To draw a different scenario, adding a different character would help their viewpoint.  If someone were to create a character that spoke in German, sporting a Hitler-style Mustache, stomped in a simultaneous march, and adding a swastika on their forehead, one might assume that the robot is imposing a Nazi.  And to make that assumption wouldn’t be so wrong since the attributes are being thrown in your face.  The question becomes, what are they saying about Black people? To accept their speech and stereotypes as a comedic relief is insensitive to the fabric of our cultural differences.

In its relation to language and comedy, it is hard to understand why there was a need for these robots to be dumb, or to speak in Ebonics. The main problem that surfaces is this question: Why do these characters have to speak in Ebonics in order to be “dumb” or, vice-versa, couldn’t be “dumb” characters that spoke the same language as everyone else in the movie?  If these characters would have been stupid and fighting with each other all the time, the humor could still be seen. And if these characters maneuvered with Black caricatures, but were still as intelligent as the others, it could be a laughable matter.  But the connection the producers made between Ebonics and the lack of intelligence a character should have created a racist overtone too strong to undermine.

Conclusion

With regards to Ebonics, an underlining of racism is evident, not only in movies, but in television shows and stand-up comedy.  The use or absence of Black English is often over looked as a possible racist or prejudiced connotation.  We know now that the use of Black speech is fundamental to the connection between the Black comedian and his or her Black audience. We can also decipher the implications made about television shows that abstain from using Ebonics for characters that are intelligent.  We can even appreciate the value of shows that accept the speech of the Black voice when connecting to their audience.  When viewing certain characters in film and television, language should never help guide an audience to decide whether the character is “learned” or not.  Though using a character speaking Ebonics should never denote a certain level of intelligence, Ebonics is still being used as a tool for mockery.  Some of its uses in comedy are not intentional, while others are obvious and crude. Hopefully, with steps being taken toward the legitimization of Ebonics, the prejudices forced on its speakers can find its way into the past.

References

Campbell, Kermit Ernest. Gettin’ Our Groove On: Rhetoric, Language, and Literacy for the Hip Hop Generation. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State UP, 2005. Print.

Charney, Maurice. Comedy: a Geographic and Historical Guide. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2005. Print.

Dyson, Michael Eric. Open Mike: Reflections on Philosophy, Race, Sex, Culture, and Religion. New York: Basic Civitas, 2002. Print.

Littleton, Darryl. Black Comedians on Black Comedy: How African-Americans Taught Us to Laugh. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema, 2006. Print.

Morgan, Marcyliena H. Language, Discourse, and Power in African American Culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.

Rickford, John R., and Russell John. Rickford. Spoken Soul: the Story of Black English. New York: Wiley, 2000. Print.

Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin and Testifyin: the Language of Black America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977. Print.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s