Black trans communities are full of joy, possibility, magic and….yes….laughter. We laugh together, deep belly laughs. We laugh fiercely in the face of transphobia, sure, but sometimes we just laugh at funny things- non-trans-related things- too! Imagine.
I have sat with my other Black trans kin and have felt laughter so deeply. We laugh- when things are funny.
Everyone craned their necks towards our communities after the Dave Chappelle special to see our response to the “comedy” special. It was of course a double bind- no one is interested in a nuanced observation, rather they want to be able to either use our commentary to attack a Black comic or write off our commentary, telling us we are all “too sensitive”.
But here's the nuanced tea if you want to hear it- we didn't laugh because… it just wasn't funny. Yes, it created the dangerous and life-threatening conditions that contributed to the erasure of Black trans identity by suggesting all queer and trans people were white and that all Black people were not trans or queer. Yes, it did all of that- spectacularly. But it also made clumsy jokes that aligned Chappelle with of all people JK Rowling, and that considered Caitlin Jenner as representative of trans experiences. It was cringe-worthy and quite frankly embarrassing. Dangerously embarrassing.
I spent much of the late 90s and early 2000s laughing along with Dave Chappelle as he lambasted white supremacy and had us laughing at the structure of racial supremacy that was affecting us all. I remember the joke about the white family whose last name was the n-word and the running joke about musical superstar and super freak Rick James. And these jokes- they were funny, clever even, as they had us question power and supremacy.
The Closer is a decidedly large departure from this original method of telling jokes that speak back to power and that support those most marginalized. In its place is something that at best is a boring and unfunny special, and at worst is fuel for a transphobic world that insists that trans people don't exist despite our very presence in this world.
If I may humbly speak back to this TV special- I think it's time to get better at reading the room. A lot of us are looking for levity to lighten our mood and to elevate our consciousness in the process. In our current pandemic reality, we are looking for some deep belly laughs and smart comedy that gets us thinking bigger. In the Closer, Dave Chappelle encourages us not to “punch down on his people” the very thing that he himself is guilty of doing.
But I've been fascinated by this phrasing- particularly the use of “his people” after telling a story about a trans comic he alleges died after being bullied for supporting him. Now the fact that his allegations seem contrary to every story I've heard in the community about his actual relationship to this trans comic, but for now I'll put that aside. I’m curious about him using “his people” to describe us- trans people. If we are your people, I hate to tell you, Dave, but you ain't treating your people right.
The reality is, this kind of “comedy” emboldens transphobes and has a direct correlation to the increase in violence directed at trans people, particularly trans women of colour and Black trans women. These “jokes” participate in shouting the transphobic imperative that trans people should not exist. This message- don’t exist- contributes to trans erasure and makes the conditions dangerous for trans people in public space. These “jokes” aren't just not funny, they are dangerous and they lead to transphobic violence, again and again.
In this moment of a system in chaos and power structures crumbling and shifting- we need smart comedy that will help us think bigger and also share deep belly laughter that helps us survive for another day. We need opportunities that support the resilience of communities that were never meant to survive. I am not saying that we can't make jokes about social issues- in fact I'm saying we need clever jokes that speak back to power now more than ever. We deserve better comedy.
Of course, what specials like The Closer do is take attention (and production funds, hello!) away from comics who are doing good work and making us laugh- hard. There are some incredible Black trans and queer comics out there. They can tell you jokes about living in a world full of transphobia and surviving anyways, and they do it with grace and humour and they will literally have you crying in your seat with laughter. That's the comedy special I'd like to see. So Netflix, reach out to Mx Dahlia Belle, to Jaye McBride, to performers like Ravyn Wngz- reach out to them and offer them support to put out some truly funny work in this world.
For now, I'll save my laughter for time with my trans kin in community- where we are surviving despite these attempts to erase us.