Donald Glover and Richard Pryor, or the Chokehold of the Minstrel Show

(Part I — the Chokehold)

T o me, there is something almost embarrassing about watching a YouTube clip of Richard Pryor on the Merv Griffin show in 1966 . He comes out on stage with no sense of cool at all, dancing, mugging, pantomiming, juggling imaginary objects in black and white. He seems so eager to please the debonair white men around him who are smoking cigarettes in their shiny 1960s, pencil-leg suits. He looks like a little boy — “Our own little Richie Pryor” — among men. Worst of all, he panders to Jerry Lewis, who dominates the set as the embodiment of his true self, not the zany man-child bullied by his former sidekick Dean Martin, but the suave, Buddy Love of his film, The Nutty Professor (1963). As the condescending men sit around looking at him and slickly eyeing each other, Pryor makes a pathetic speech about how Lewis’ first solo film inspired him to become a comedian. “I love you tremendously,” Pryor says to Lewis, “and you are the God of comedy.” It’s impossible to see in this nervous, fawning, pathetic figure the comedian that according to his New York Times obituary later “prowled the stage like a restless cat, dispensing what critics regarded as the most poignant and penetrating comedic view of African-American life ever afforded the American public. He left Jerry Lewis in insignificant dust, coolly transforming comedy; his ghost seizing the imagination and possessing the performances of nearly all — if not all — of the African American comedians in his wake. Eddie Murphy said he was “better than anyone who ever picked up a microphone” and white comics described him as “the most brilliant comic in America.”

So, I’ve always wondered, “What happened?” How did he find his way and learn to “keep it real”? This question haunts all African American performance. And, it has haunted actor and comedian Donald Glover and his creation, Paper Boi, the rapping main character of his award winning FX Networks television series Atlanta, who stands at the cusp of popular success. In fact, one of the most poignant scenes of the second season of Atlanta, "Robbin' Season," underscores his struggle and sets the tone for the entire season through an early episode called "Sportin' Waves." As Al and Earn meet in the offices of a preternaturally white-bread internet platform that promises to garner Paper Boi more exposure, they find themselves locked behind a glass partition, witnessing an African American cutting the fool, dancing on a platform for the enjoyment of a small white audience. Will this be them? Is it possible to be anything other than a dancing black fool, selling out, selling himself, selling his culture, selling his "realness" to the titillated, paying, owning, semiconscious oppressor? Is this it? Is there any escape? I watch them watching the crowd watching him. I thought of Pryor. What eventually liberated him from the gaze of whiteness, the staring eyes of Merv Griffin, Jerry Lewis and paying white audiences that induced the double consciousness of Black entertainers relentlessly seeing themselves through eyes of the oppressor while simultaneously performing for them, affirming them, nurturing their whiteness and sense of superiority?

Since slavery, this controlling gaze has fixed Black entertainers, locking them into performing and becoming the serviceable and expandable commodity necessary to the production of white identity and privilege. It seemed that on stage and screen, Black performers, no matter how hard they tried, stepped into and inhabited the same cast of limited Black characters, who existed merely to serve the needs of white desire. Over a period of nearly 200 years, the American entertainment industry crafted this black mask of entertainment and provided roles that effortlessly nurtured slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, segregation and ongoing racial oppression. These characters tirelessly worked to produced in the audiences’ imagination the mental structures of black guilt (expendability) and white innocence (exceptionalism) that relieved the anxieties of the oppressors, enabling a deeply racist and oppressive society to smoothly and nobly function — the greatest Democracy in the world. No matter how hard the entertainer tried, the blackness of the “black character” always and forever worked like a mask that covered the face of the submerged human and taught audiences to naturally expect a performance that would instantly stir familiar emotions, making them cry or laugh with abandon at these formally pathetic figures. The Black entertainer seemed unable escape the codes of black performance that preceded him. Resistance was futile.

Through the glass, Al and Earn witnessed a on old, rigid, formal, ritualized performance. For the African American performer, American theater and film behave like the rigid rituals of Japanese, Kabuki theater. To audiences, their black otherness always seems to take on the specter of an elaborately decorated mask, signaling the structures of codified, and ritualistic performance with predictable outcomes that evoke the familiar and comforting emotions that validate a racial caste system. No matter how artful, transgressive, witty, or brilliant the performance, the audience only sees the made-up character of a pathetic, expendable, not-quite human creature cavorting around on the stage and destined to make them feel good about themselves, comfortable in their sense of superiority, and at peace with a hypocritical society that preaches love but practices hate.

This Kabuki of America originates in and owes its unyielding structure to the original minstrel show, the first popular form of American entertainment that still defines the same limited cast of characters— Jim Crow, Zip Coon, Mammy, Uncle Tom, Buck, the Wench or Jezebel, the Mammy, the Tragic Mulatto, Rastus, Sambo, and the Pickaninny — confining African Americans on both stage and screen. Through the ritualized performances of these stock characters, minstrel shows worked like an elaborate, performative pressure cooker at once presenting the tensions of volatile blackness while mechanically using it, controlling it, maintaining the "contents under pressure," shielding audiences from the its terrifying dangers while reassuring them and surrounding them in a weighted blanket of superior and secure white identity. So, whenever an African American stepped (or steps) onto the stage, he or she instantly transformed into a minstrel figure. Again, resistance was futile. Any and all attempts to perform, stage or vent racial anxieties and the abject pain of racial oppression merely cue or tap into the predictable and comforting emotions that the audience has come to expect from these masked figures of blackness.

I have witnessed this phenomena again and again. For instance, several years ago, I stepped outside of a movie theater, feeling there was almost something important going on in the film Precious (2009) and the eponymous figure of that lone abused child and mother, struggling to live and raise her own child despite what was then a death sentence of HIV infection in the 80s. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, the large, blond, aging real-estate agent, who sold me my condo, sprung upon me, tearfully grabbed my daughter, and gave her a big, white cathartic, 19th century hug of comfort, protection and solidarity. In my mind, that hug instantly morphed the character of Precious into the immemorial figure of Topsy, from that archetype of American sentimental novels Uncle Toms’ Cabin (1853), by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Topsy structurally exists in the novel only to evoke the pity of white readers. The novel captures, holds hostage and victimizes Topsy, submitting her to relentless beating and abuse at the hands of sadistic masters that forever warps her benighted character. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the most wildly popular novel in history (only the Bible has sold more copies), and dramatic adaptations of it provided many of the lasting cast of characters of minstrel show performance. Topsy was the first important pickaninny and with that hug, I realized that despite all efforts of contemporary cinema to the contrary, Precious was her child. Characters from those minstrel performances have as many children as their beloved mammies. It’s not hard to see. For instance, that the Uncle gave birth to Morgan Freeman in his signature role of Hoke Colburn in Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Lucius Fox of The Dark Night (2008) and the Dark Night Rises (2012) and almost all of his other roles. The Mamie produced the sentimental love that America feels for Oprah.

Minstrel show characters even found a way to contain the threat of Black Power in the late 1960s. In his unsettling, short film, Reckless Eyeballing (2004), experimental filmmaker Christopher Harris brilliantly presents the transformation of Angela Davis, a real, black, armed-and-dangerous outlaw woman on the run in 1970, into the sexy and sexualized Jezebel-like figure of a minstrel performance. In flickering black and white, Harris' lens unmasks how the techniques of Hollywood cinema and early 1970s black exploitation films morphed the iconic and menacing style of Davis and the Black Panthers into her more palatable, domesticated, reassuring, titillating, and contained doppelganger, Pam Grier, through vehicles such as the eponymous Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). Even Rastas and Sambo and the Coon taught audiences, newspaper readers, and Fox News viewers how to place Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Fred Hampton and the pathetic victims of police executions into a narrative that made them ridiculous, expendable or both.

On stage and screen, blackness thus nurses and produces the delicate egos of involuntary or soft white supremacists, relieving them of anxiety, and ushering them towards a predictable and structured sentimental catharsis that places them in touch with their emotions, that enables them to feel themselves feeling. They nod with joyful or tearful affirmation. They aren’t that bad, they say to themselves. They really are human after all. This is the pathos haunting all Black performance, which unavoidably transforms suffering and victimization into sources of obscene pleasure. The chokehold of the minstrel show relentlessly resists any and all efforts at escape: to “keep it real” or "100."

Yet, such escape is the bar Donald Glover seems to have set for himself in the television series, Atlanta and which confronted Richard Pryor in 1967.

Similar to Pryor, Glover had a brilliantly smiling, lovable, non-threatening “little Richie” persona in the first years of his insanely successful career. At 23, he became the coddled protégé of Tina Fey, writing award winning scripts for her hugely successful TV show 30 Rock. Then, for four years, he played the goofy character of Troy Barnes, the harmless and protective sidekick of his socially inept friend, Abed Nadir, of the NBC comedy Community. He topped this as a successful comedian and standup comic and also as a musician, who performed under the stage name of Childish Gambino. Yet, each time, at the nadir of his success, he stepped away. And in October 2013, his fans began to speculate whether he had suffered a breakdown as he posted to his Instagram account a series of messages perhaps conveying a deep sense of depression and sending out a desperate plea for help. Glover later denied that he suffered from depression. “If I’m depressed, everybody’s depressed,” he told People magazine later that month. “I don’t think those feelings are that different from what everybody’s feeling. Most people just don’t tell everybody.” Still, he admitted that he “had this moment of feeling like, ‘What’s the point? Why am I even here?’” Then he said: “I just wanted to write down my feelings.” But his messages convey a feeling of being trapped by the self-consciousness of the gaze, double consciousness, and predictable, predefined artistic roles. He writes:

I’m afraid people hate who I really am […]
I’m afraid I’m here for nothing […]
I feel that this will feel pretentious[…]
I’m afraid people think I hate my race[…]
I’m afraid people think I hate women[…]
I hate caring what people think[…]
I don’t wanna rap
I wanted to be on my own
I’ve been sick this year
I’ve seen a bunch of people die this year
This is the first time I’ve felt helpless
But I’m not on that
Kept looking for something to be in with
Follow someone’s blueprint. But you have to be on your own

Such a desire to escape the minstrel show blueprint, subtly links Glover to Pryor, who seemed to suffer similar feeling about his work, and publicly fell apart not long after his 1966 appearance on the Merv Griffin Show.

It happened in Las Vegas. Pryor described the moment of his 1967 “Las Vegas meltdown, dying horribly on stage” to his friend Cecil Brown, who wrote about it in his biography, Pryor Lives: How Richard Pryor Became Richard Pryor (2013). This time, Dean Martin, the man who condescended to and bullied Jerry Lewis, sat in the audience, making and unmaking Pryor with his relentless, boozing, cigarette smoking, condescending white gaze.

Then he [Pryor] noticed something else: the whole audience was staring at him, too.
They were waiting for that first joke. He began to imagine what he looked like to them. What they saw was a freak, a pervert. A silly nigger jokester, the ridiculous fool!
“They were lookin’ at me, like. Fuck this nigger.”
He had been acting the part of a fool, but for some reason, he didn’t want to be their fool any longer. He became so disgusted with seeing himself through the eyes of these whites, fat, rich entertainers that he walked off the stage … Inspired by his own self-disgust, he realized that he was locked in their image of him … He didn’t say to me that he took of his pants and walked naked across the stage, shouting “Black jack!” as some rumors have it.

So, Pryor escaped, his lithe, fragile (and sometimes naked and screaming) figure fleeing the stage through the wrong exit. But in his biography, Brown laments that Pryor said little in his own autobiography about this escape and what happened from 1967 to around 1973. Pryor neglected to describe how he went to the creation of revolutionary art from following the “blueprint” and conventional expectations of non-threatening and reassuring black minstrel performance. “He Zonked it!” says Brown. “How could he leave out the core of his art, the moments when he went from being a 'white bread' comedian molded on Bill Cosby to being the inimical word artist?”

When I read Brown’s book, I was hoping he could confirm a theory that I had about Pryor’s resurrection, the exciting (though often discredited) intellectual context of the late 1960s and early 1970s and its ability to nurture Pryor in stark contrast to the contemporary context of the unbearably long Reagan era, which has isolated and failed African American public figures such as Glover, Dave Chapelle, or Martin Lawrence, who had all suffered from similar meltdowns or anxieties. Personally, I was hoping he would develop Pryor’s relationship with the African American literary genius, Ishmael Reed, as part of a saving ethic. And at one point, Brown lightly describes Pryor’s “communitas” and “jive parties” in Berkeley where he hung out with intellectuals and revolutionary thinkers such as Reed, Richard Brautigan, Victor Hernández Cruz, Barbara Christian, Leonard Michaels, Al Young, David Henderson, and Claude Brown. Like Glover, I thought, he “[k]ept looking for something to be in with,” and he found it. Pryor immersed himself in the Berkeley counter culture, snorted coke with Black Panther Huey P. Newton, and, according to Brown, “became a revolutionary, reading Black Panther books and listening to their speeches on his radio.” In six years, he went from fawning over Jerry Lewis to nearly brawling with Newton. Brown records Pryor’s description of his infamous fight with Newton. “It could’ve been messy. Both of us were high, we had guns, and we were out of our minds. Fortunately, I decided my best move was to watch as Huey grabbed his woman and marched out of my room. I knew that I could stir up more shit on stage than in a revolution.”

The challenge is Herculean, and few African American performers figure out how to surmount it. The sentimentalist structures of the original minstrel show and its relentless denigration of black suffering has a chokehold on the American imagination and American entertainment. This structure depends on something fundamental to Western thinking which emphasizes light over darkness, whiteness over blackness, image over concept, imitation over reality, brands over product, fronting over keeping it real. Western philosophers have invoked this dead end of mirror-hall reflections with theories such as postmodernism or post-structuralism, which uses the structure of language and writing to understand thought and human life. We live in a society of the spectacle, they have said. It’s impossible to “keep it real” because nothing is real. The "real" itself is an affectation, a structural principle of a certain kind of narrative.

Nothing reproduces and revels this idea as much as the minstrel show. The minstrel show incites raucous, side-splitting laughter as it produces an endless spectacle of reflections, projections, stagings, imitations, and representations of the black body, lost in translation. It begins with a white cackling, cavorting, strutting, stammering, "delineator" in black face makeup, standing in for the Black person in the American imagination, alleviating the anxiety over the pain and suffering produced by the violence of racial oppression. It produces and molds itself to that which the gaze desires: watching Black people ritualistically suffer and satisfying the needs of sentimentalist plots that still resonate in in films such as Precious or 12 Years A Slave. This structure enables audiences to pleasurably ingest atrocity and sustained racial trauma without guilt or suspicion. The minstrel show is the ultimate spectacle of a society addicted to spectacles. It is reality TV. It is the strangling, endlessly reflecting performance that I watched Al and Earn watch the internet platform employees watch.

All art that sets out to recognizably imitate nature or the natural reaffirms this dead-end structure and anxiety. This problem haunted late 19th century European artists, says Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset in his essay, “The Dehumanization of Art.” Like Pryor and Glover, some of the most creative artists of the period struggled to find a way out and produce something that railed against the “blueprint” of conventional expectations that dogged the paintings of Romantic art, which relentlessly aroused pat, sentimental reactions in viewers. One of my favorite passages in this essay makes me think of the way many people listen to a piece of music because it reminds them of something familiar and easily stirs up the feelings of pleasure and nostalgia that they associate with a particular moment, with something they already know. Ortega said people had such feelings when they looked at the sublime, stormy images of romantic paintings depicting nature, or famous scenes and stories they had all heard about but had never seen. These works had the same effects on spectators as alcohol had on a drunkard, who simply laughed with pleasure from the high, Ortega says. I think the the black faces of the minstrel show had the same effect as alcohol or some good weed. They produced instant, recognizable, pleasurable and easily accessible feelings. They did not “stir up” any revolutionary shit. Meanwhile, the spectators were as caught up in the spectacle as the performer. The pain inflicted on Black bodies serves to please and make them laugh because the familiar figures on stage and screen exist only for them and obediently do what they are told.

How do you break the chokehold of this narrative, of such structural sentimentality, of pathos and its unyielding characters, who relentlessly engender a sense of condescending ownership in audiences?

Maybe the key is in the literal chokehold itself. In his 1979 concert film, Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, Pryor brilliantly stages the chilling drama of the police chokehold, a move re-instituted by the infamous Los Angeles Police Chief, Daryl Gates, in the 1980s and horrifically responsible for the death of Eric Garner on the streets of New York in 2014 . Says Pryor:

Police got a choke hold they use out here [San Diego], though. Man, they choke niggers to death. That mean you be dead when they through. Did you know that? Wait a minute. Niggers going: “Yeah we know that.” White folk: “No, I had no idea.” Yeah, two grab your legs, one grab your head. It goes, snap! “Ah, shit! He broke! Can you break a nigger? Is it ok?” “Let’s check the manual. Yep! Page eight, you can break a nigger. Right there! See?”

What is missing here is the ritualized, pathetic victim of minstrel performance, who according to cultural historian and minstrelsy expert Eric Lott, aroused such uproarious laughter as the minstrel figure was “roasted, fished for, smoked like tobacco, peeled like potatoes, planted in the soil, or dried and hung up as advertisements” reaffirming the laughable banality of the atrocities committed against African Americans. Through the grain of his constantly transforming and transformative voice, Pryor ventriloquizes the vicious, cold, banal attitudes of the perpetrator (the complicit audience), not the victim. He takes the typical, violent, insensate gaze of the American spectators, which had always found hidden pleasure in African American suffering, and gives it the voice of the cops, citing the chapter and verse of the dramatic code — the pathos — that allows them to “break a nigger.” He unmasks the bizarre sociopathology of white supremacy and the gaze of minstrel performance, spitting it back out in the faces of people such Dean Martin and the rest of the sleep-walking gazers. Meanwhile, returning the gaze through his voice, he presents a vigilant, knowing, uncontrolled and uncontrollable Black consciousness that slices through the masked performance. He communicates directly with African Americans about what they know and with the white audience about what they unendingly deny. “Did you know that?” he asks. “Wait a minute. Niggers going: ‘Yeah we know that.’ White folk: ‘No, I had no idea.’ Pryor reveals that an unexpected consciousness — a Black consciousness –, that lies outside, beyond, or beneath the staged mirror-hall of reflections stirs beneath the mask. It has always been there, taking note, witnessing. He thus breaks the incessant code of minstrel performance, surgically finding a way through sound and voice into that space of “dead air" — of black juncture and communication — that lies between the chokehold of words and the superficial reflections of Western thought. He connects with an incipient, uncontained Black consciousness as he simultaneously reverses the gaze, turning it back onto the white audiences, unsettling and perhaps awaking them from their slumber, now forcing them into their own state of double consciousness. Rather than feel reassured, they become aware of the chilling voice of white supremacy that structures their own spectral thoughts. They see themselves being seen as some weird, cold-hearted, dangerous motherfuckers.

(Link to Part II — Atlanta)

For a related story, check out Kitanya Harrison’s: