Cameron Friend on Dave Chappelle is the Cultural Pastor America Needs

Cameron Friend is a minister, speaker, and writer in Atlanta, where he works for The King Center. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and philosophy from the University of Northern Colorado and a master’s of divinity from Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary.

The weekend after the election, I was exhausted like the rest of the country, and my spirit was in need of a good sermon. Thankfully, all I had to do was tune into Saturday Night Live to hear from the great American preacher himself: Dave Chappelle.

As he stepped onto the iconic SNL stage to bring his long-awaited word, I smiled at his familiar Washington, DC, swagger. I’ve been a fan of Chappelle since he played comic Reggie Warrington in the Eddie Murphy classic The Nutty Professor. He has shaped the voice of comedy over three decades, and as he has evolved, comedy has grown with him.

Standups historically have pushed boundaries, skewered politics, and forced us to see the absurdity in our society. But Chappelle has been willing to do so with moral heft and ethical grounding rather than comedic detachment. He jokes, smokes, curses, and shouts, but like a preacher in the heat of a sermon, there’s a point to it. He is a pastor among comedians, and once again he’s got a message for us.

“Don’t even want to wear your mask because it’s oppressive? Try wearing the mask I been wearing all these years. I can’t even tell something true unless it has a punchline behind it,” Chappelle said during his 16-minute SNL monologue. “You guys aren’t ready. You’re not ready for this. You don’t know how to survive yourselves. Black people, we’re the only ones that know how to survive this. … You need us. You need our eyes to save you from yourselves.”

The best comedians, like the best preachers, give us eyes to see. For black comedians, though they’re after laughs, their perspective stems from trauma and suffering.

“If we really took a closer look at the role of comedy or humor in the black community, it’s always been a way of expressing discontent, of expressing a critical view of the society,” said Mel Watkins, an expert in African American comedy. “In a way, it’s a survival tactic for blacks.”

When Chappelle tells a crowd that “you need our eyes,” he is speaking about the awareness black Americans have to the harsh reality of our country and the experience wading through its unfavorable waters. For centuries, black Americans have navigated the threat of genocide, enslavement, political and economic oppression, and persecution—all the while leaning on a “we shall overcome” faith.

Black comedy, like the black church, is a hub not only for expressing pain and anger but also for turning suffering into an instrument of healing. Chappelle’s career is a pinnacle example of this. His humor and insight have a purpose as they expose the harsh realities that black Americans have had to face.

Chappelle’s newest Netflix special, 8:46, was recorded just a week after George Floyd was killed. The comedian was offering his commentary just as black preachers took to their (mostly virtual) pulpits with messages of anger and grief. And the approaches weren’t as different as you might expect.

A good preacher knows that a sermon is only as good as the setup. The job of the messenger is to capture the audience’s attention and to invite them to be a part of the story. A sermon takes us on a journey that both assesses the reality of the world we live in and offers a path to a better future—the Good News we can put our hope in.

Preaching and comedy can take on a similar cadence and dynamic with the audience. “We still use things like call and response, where we talk to our audience and our audience talks back to us,” said standup Darryl Littleton, author of Black Comedians on Black Comedy. “It gives us that feeling of community.”

Though Chappelle is a Muslim convert speaking on secular stages, he has the black church tradition in his blood, and a hallmark of black preaching and black comedy is acknowledging their ancestral roots.

The comedian opened his SNL monologue by mentioning his great-grandfather, William D. Chappelle, a formerly enslaved South Carolinian who became a historic leader in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. After gaining his emancipation, William D. Chappelle went on to become president of his alma mater, the historically black Allen University, and an AME bishop. (Dave’s father, William David Chappelle III, was a professor and dean at Antioch College.)

Dave Chappelle joked that his great-grandfather would say he’d been “bought and sold” more in his comedy career than his great-grandfather had as a slave. Chappelle famously left Chappelle’s Show because he felt emotionally and spiritually unsettled by the direction of his career. The network reportedly used old clips to make a third season against his wishes.

After that, Chappelle withdrew from the spotlight. He had his own 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness (or rather, his home in small-town Ohio). After the years-long hiatus from comedy, he reemerged with a new message to preach. It sounds like an oxymoron, but he became a more serious comedian, more willing to use his work to unravel the complexities of the American consciousness.

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Source: Christianity Today