I’ve been under a lot of stress lately, I don’t know about y’all, but perhaps you can relate.
I’m stressed out by the world. The oil spill at Huntington Beach in our hood of the country is depressing, to say the least. And early this week we learned of a travesty that unfolded September 30 in Dayton, OH.
Over last weekend, paraplegic Clifford Owensby, 39, in Dayton, filed a complaint via the NAACP with the police department over the arrest on suspicion of a drugs crime. Police camera footage had finally been released weeks later. It’s despicable what the Dayton Police Dept did, ordering a disabled man to step out of his car, when clearly he could not. They dragged him out of his car when he did not comply with their inane demand.
“They dragged me like a dog, like trash,” Owensby said at a news conference last Sunday, calling the treatment inhumane and saying he had done nothing wrong. “It was total humiliation, it was hatred at its purest fashion.”
One of my best friends is a paraplegic, known him 30 years – he just visited me for my birthday last month. I can’t imagine how demeaning and traumatizing this situation would be for him. But it will never happen to him because he’s white. Owensby is black. I cried when I heard this story. I am so, so tired of the way police treat black people in our country. THIS HAS GOT TO STOP.
I also found all that was revealed about Facebook last week quite disturbing, how they knowingly kept algorithms in place on Instagram that cause anxiety and depression in young women and teens, for one. Misogyny is on the rise. A few weeks ago I was responsible for connecting the Women’s March in Pasadena which was a Caravan for Reproductive Rights sponsored by Planned Parenthood, with the outfit that would livestream the public speakers on Facebook so the people in their cars could hear what they have to say. It’s the same outfit I podcast out of. But get this! In the middle of all the wonderful speakers, Manuel, the techy, came up to me and said, “Hannah, Facebook just sent me a message. They booted us off of the livestream because we’re talking about abortion.” We were all pretty angry about this, and there was a lot of booing. Apparently “cancelling” can work both ways.
And then, of course, we’re not sure what’s going to be happening this winter with the pandemic. Will there be another variant because not enough people are vaccinated? And, we’ve all noticed the devastation of more severe fires, floods, and extreme weather, due to accelerating climate change. Does anyone remember that commercial for bath salts from the 1970’s and 80’s . . . a woman sinks into her bath, exclaiming, “Calgon, take me away!”
So this week, I wanted to talk about the things that help me survive in this day and age, and also talk a bit about comedian Dave Chappelle because he’s also been in the news quite a lot. I’ve been turning it over and over in my mind if his comedy specials, and especially the one that came out ten days ago, called The Closer, should be taken down from Netflix. What some people call being “cancelled.”
Because you see, beyond participating in my community and civic life, beyond spending time with friends and loved ones, one of the things I do to survive this day and age is, to, take in comedy. I’ve decided to make a hobby of it, informally study the craft of making people laugh and release tension. Just in case the ministry doesn’t work out for me someday, I could maybe go join the circus and become a comic. Ha ha, probably not, but preaching and stand-up have a lot in common – it’s about timing, connecting, and knowing your audience. It’s about having the courage to bring up things that can be hard to talk about. I love Tiffany Haddish, Chris Rock, Margaret Cho, and yes, Dave Chappelle. Funny, there are no white people in that list. Back in the day, I loved Lilly Tomlin, Joan Rivers, and Carol Burnett too. And let’s not forget Sara Silverman. These performers inspire me, because they do their best to articulate the truth of what people are thinking, and make us laugh at the same time, which often represents an opportunity for healing and understanding, and comfort, a sense of us all belonging to this human experiment we find ourselves in.
Now, I hadn’t actually watched any Dave Chappelle since his days at Comedy Central. I just knew that the man was outrageous and brilliant back then, in the 90’s, then he disappeared for 8 years in Africa, walking away from a $50 million dollar deal. I always thought that was badass and notable. Plus his mom is trained and ordained a Unitarian Universalist minister – she was one of the first black women to be so. She ended up teaching as a professor, and Chappelle has since converted to Islam. His father was a talented and effective community organizer, doing all kinds of things for human rights in Yellow Springs, OH, where Dave Chappelle grew up. I knew this stuff, but I didn’t know he had a series of specials on Netflix in the last how many years. I have a busy life; the only TV I watch tends to be sit-coms with my kids.
When I learned he would have a show at the Hollywood Bowl last week, I thought, ooh, that’s gonna be special. I’ve never heard of a comedian performing at the Hollywood Bowl. I thought, I better not miss that – I managed to get a pretty cheap ticket in the total nosebleeds, and went by myself. Now, believe it or not, I was not aware of all the controversy surrounding his work and the trans community until a few days before his show. Why? Probably because as many of you know, I detest social media and only use it for work, generally, or to post my podcasts. As Dave Chappelle said in his last special, he doesn’t care about Twitter “because Twitter is not a real place.” I would take it a step further, and describe my sentiment toward social media as Conor Oberst, one of my favorite musicians of all time did about a dozen years ago. He said, “social media represents . . . the downfall of humanity.”
So, I don’t like to waste my time with that baloney. Anyway, I went to the Hollywood Bowl show two Thursdays ago, which was, predictably, pretty awesome in certain ways, and then some days after that, I watched The Closer, his latest special that Netflix is being pressured to take off their platform. The Closer has some wonderful moments, but also a bunch of hate speech I can’t in good conscience get on board with, because I know it condones and increases hate crimes. Much like Donald Trump’s hate speech has as well.
I have been puzzling over this for days . . . should Netflix, in today’s parlance, cancel Dave Chappelle? I want to share my conclusions. Because, I think part of surviving this day and age, is about knowing what we stand for, knowing what’s important, and acting for what’s actually effective toward building cultural change for groups we care about, such as the black community, such as the transgender community.
First, let me tell you about the Hollywood Bowl show a little bit last week. He showed a full-length documentary about his summer shows in 2020, in his hometown Yellow Springs. They were all outdoor shows and he brought in comedians from all over, people like John Stewart and the like. He also went very deep into all the events surrounding the murder of George Floyd. After the film which I recommend y’all see if possible down the road, Chappelle had a few pretty exciting surprise guest stars, like Snoop Dog and Stevie Wonder.
Wonder didn’t sing or perform, I think he’s done with that, he’s pretty old, he came out with a cane. But he spoke, he said, “Look, back in the day, throughout my career, comedians made fun of me being blind all the time! But – I never tried to cancel them. If anything, they helped boost my career.” Then he said, “we need to cancel hate.”
So, Dave Chappelle, I think, with this Hollywood Bowl Show coinciding with the release of his last special on Netflix, spent a lot of time trying to apologize for himself, but in a way that didn’t absolve him. I get that his main concern is getting the police to stop killing his people. I could not get more on board with that. But his hate speech toward transgender people in particular is harmful.
I was very impressed with an open letter transgender black woman Dahlia Belle of Portland, OR published, and then NPR interviewed her this past week.
The interviewer said, “Some of Chappelle’s jokes seem predicated on the idea that gay people are making progress in America faster than Black people, and therefore it’s acceptable to make jokes at the expense of LGBTQ people. I wonder how you think about that.
Dahlia Belle said: “I think that’s a very fascinating theory. In Portland, I see plenty of Black Lives Matter signs. I see plenty of murals of Black men who have been murdered by police – not one poster, not one mention of any of the numerous Black trans women who have been assaulted, shot, stabbed, literally set on fire. So I am curious as to how, quote, unquote, “our movement” – so the broader LGBTQ efforts for liberation, legal protection – I’m not sure of how we’ve advanced beyond the rights of my other community, Black people. And especially since if I, as a Black trans woman – I am facing oppression due to being a woman, I face oppression due to being Black, I face oppression due to being trans, I face oppression due to being queer, what benefit am I receiving for any of that?”
I find all of that very hard to argue with.
I enjoy a lot of Chappelle’s humor and art. But since there is so much anti-trans sentiment in the black community already, I feel he is playing with fire by reinforcing stereotypes and kind of brushing off what the trans community, especially the black trans community, is dealing with. It’s not just that they get brutally murdered at the rate of 2 or 3 per month in our country. They struggle to get employment, housing, their families often abandon them, their suicide rate is tragic. Like I said about black people getting mowed down by police in our country earlier in the sermon, THIS HAS GOT TO STOP.
Chappelle is not helpful here; he’s – if not hateful – then quite callous. BUT. Here’s the thing.
Cancelling doesn’t work. When you have someone with such wide appeal as Chappelle has – I mean, I’ve never seen the Hollywood Bowl so packed – cancelling only entices and broadens this appeal. Plus, if Netflix took him down, he’d just end up on some other online platform. It’s like Wack-a-mole. We just don’t live in that kind of a world anymore.
So perhaps it’s a matter of tactics. It’s necessary to call out hate speech, but we also have to do direct service; work with the trans women in our communities who are struggling to survive. Volunteer at the LA Gay and Lesbian Center; advocate for better laws that protect a transgender woman’s right to exist. They exist. It’s not a new thing. Transgender folks have existed since the dawn of man. It’s not an affliction, it’s a state of being. They’re high pitched right now because, after millennia of oppression, they have had enough. They’re not even asking for people’s respect and appreciation, they just want to be able to live without getting murdered and discriminated against. They want to be able to get jobs and housing.
I recommend watching The Closer so you can form your own opinions. At the end of the act, Chappelle tells a heart-breaking story about a white transgender woman comic he took under his wing, obviously trying to demonstrate and apologize that he’s not really a hater. During a show in San Francisco, while he was bantering back and forth with her, he kind of brushed her off by saying, “okay Daphne, but I still don’t understand what the hell you’re talking about.” And what was funny got serious real fast. Daphne looked at Chappelle like he wasn’t her friend anymore and yelled, “I don’t NEED you to understand me. What I need you to understand is that I AM HAVING A HUMAN EXPERIENCE!” And the audience that was laughing so hard got real quiet.
And then, there was a moment of recognition and enlightenment, for everyone in that theater. Now, quite tragically, after this, Daphne defended Dave Chappelle on Twitter, and got so beat up by the trans community for sticking up for him, that something like 6 days after the show, she killed herself. She jumped off a building.
So, even more than whether Dave Chappelle should be cancelled from Netflix, I’ve been asking myself, who’s fault was that? Who’s fault was that? What caused poor Daphne to not be able to survive in this day and age?
There’s no cut and dry answer, sorry to disappoint you there. But like Chappelle said in The Closer, it’s takes major guts to depart from your tribe and offer an alternative view. The transgender community that takes to Twitter didn’t agree with Daphne, and condemned her. Sadly, words can murder us too. I wonder how all those folks felt, after saying such nasty things to her on Twitter, in that place that doesn’t really exist. I wonder how Dave Chappelle feels, knowing his brush with her led to her death.
So, it’s complicated folks. There are shades of gray. This I know, though . . .
Comedy helps me survive this day and age. My community of friends help me survive. My kids help me survive. Fighting for justice, liberation, and an end to oppression helps me survive.
Comedy allows us to look at the world as it is, as people are really thinking about it. No, it ain’t pretty, a lot of what Dave Chappelle talks about is heart-breaking and I don’t agree with. He apologizes again toward the end of his special when he says, “look I have nothing against the LGBTQ community. Because everyone knows my number one problem has always been with white people.” What he cares about most is heart-breaking, too. Ending a sanctioned institution known as the US police, a dehumanizing and at worst killing machine of black men, people of color, even when they are paraplegic. How do black men survive in this day and age? Yes, trans women are being brutally murdered, but so are black men – who is more oppressed? Trans women or people of color in general, trans women or cis-women who have no access to abortion anymore? Each of us cares about something the most.
Look, it’s hard for all of us to survive in this day and age. Shouldn’t a liberal faith, such as ours, be the ones to point out we’re all human beings, we all have to have a basic right to our own human experience? Some are far more traumatic than others, but I’ve never met a human being who hasn’t suffered or struggled in some way.
In a world that is getting increasingly dangerous and precarious, we need to have compassion for one another – give each other the benefit of the doubt, have faith in each others’ human experiences, and be curious about them. Comedy is important for getting by in today’s world, but what is even more important is grace, dignity, and kindness.
It was an honest crowd at the Dave Chappelle show. He had us put all our phones on lock-down, so no social media could occur during the show. All our phones were in these magnetically locked pouches. Since I was there by myself, I kept roving around the nosebleed sections, looking for the most comfortable and socially distanced place to sit. At one point, I realized I lost my phone – it popped out of my purse. I went back to where I thought it might be, and said to the packed section in a stage whisper, hey, anyone find a phone? It was back in my hands in 20 seconds.
We have to accept that good people can have bad ideas. The question is, how can we challenge these ideas most effectively?
Let us all be allies in the effort to help each other survive in this day and age. Let us speak out for truth and compassion, and the right . . . to the human experience.
Rev. Hannah Petrie,
sermon delivered October 17, 2021, in Studio City, CA