Coffee Rhetoric: Saturday Night Jive: Leslie Jones’ Story Matters Too

May 07, 2014

Saturday Night Jive: Leslie Jones’ Story Matters Too

I’m a black woman... and racio-misogynist trespasses and general anti-blackness are constant and relentless at times. And since social media has made the gnarled reach of racism and sexism easier and more visible, it comes from all directions and the volume of discontent against black women seems to have been dialed up. Whether it’s from white men constantly finding reasons to further pathologize us; from black men utilizing every opportune moment to publicly belittle us and blame us for the ills of the world; or from white feminists seeming to find solace in disparaging black female audacity and womanhood (when they aren't vulturizing aspects of it to much acclaim and dissecting or using our bodies as rhetorical devices to prop up white womanhood); it's a Möbius strip of bullshit and flailing against constant assaults against black female person-hood is exasperating.  And make no mistake about it, our anger is warranted, but the origin and continued perpetuation of what causes the anger is burdensome.

So when I read about the backlash from comedienne (and one of two new black female staff writers – hired under mounting pressure) Leslie Jones’ recent Saturday Night Live: Weekend Update skit, I wasn't in the mood to be roiled and chose to willfully ignore it; plus I haven’t watched SNL in years. In fact, the last time I watched with any regularity, Sally O’Malley was still yelling about being limber at 50-years-old.  I told myself I wouldn't crank out anything for the think-piece machine, although I feel strongly about issues concerning the well-being of black women and girls, particularly since we have to navigate the intersections of race, gender, rigid beauty standards, and class. But I read this piece by Rippa, over on the Intersection of Madness & Reality, and it prompted me to head on over to Leslie Jones’ Twitter feed to peruse her responses, where I also saw folks in her mentions, going-in on her… then I finally watched the infamous clip. Leslie starts off by congratulating Lupita Nyong’o for snagging the cover of People magazine’s annual 50 Most Beautiful People issue, then things, admittedly, got a bit dark.

Jones referenced slavery (which always tends to be a bad idea if a comedian employs it haphazardly) as a vehicle to joke about an issue that’s all too real for black women who don’t inhabit the right complexion or balletic facial and/or body structure; and I concede that it was awkward to watch, but mostly because I sensed an undercurrent of genuine dismay from Leslie. I wasn't incensed, though.

Jones asked her white male Weekend Update co-host who he’d choose  if he saw she and Lupita standing at a bar; to which Jones quickly determined he'd make a beeline for Lupita, before noting how much black beauty standards have changed and joking that she would have undoubtedly been a viable choice, during slavery.  And I think this is where most black people… namely women… checked out.

A joke about black female subjugation during chattel slavery, told on a sketch comedy show produced by a white man who, for years, hadn't found any value in hiring visibly black women until now, in front of a predominantly white studio audience, on a white-owned network. I get it. I get why black women are not here for it, particularly since we can’t ever be great without being put through the ringer; but I do think the opportunity to further dismantle the issue(s) Leslie broached, is being missed.  As a brown-skinned and full figured black woman whose body is often considered too fleshy to be palatable to those adhering to rigid standards or is objectified under the scrutiny of the white gaze and intra-racial beauty standards, and whose self-acceptance doesn't get heralded the way plus-size white (or even non-black women of color) do lest I straddle the 'Mammy' line … ‘Cause black, dark-skinned AND fat is a no-no… I commiserate with Leslie Jones’ lived experience and think she had the right to use her art-form to tell her story as a dark-skinned black woman, living in a large body not even desirable by the black male standard (the demographic she seems to want to date and partner with). And it’s not unusual for women who're invisible or erased, to use self-deprecation as a way to navigate their experiences and as a way to seemingly apologize for not living up to someone else's personal aesthetic; Leslie's lament was palpable, but she shouldn't have to apologize for the way Euro beauty standards influence how black men see dark-skinned black women, because... colorism.

While I wish Leslie’s skit was more astute (I realize you can only do so much in a short segment), I actually agree with Don Lemon's defense of her and I believe her commentary wasn't without merit, especially since, amid the combative tweets that riled people up even more, she offered insight into the experiences that prompted it, 
"... I'm a comic and it is my job to take things and make them funny, to make you think. Especially the painful things.  This joke was written from the pain that one night I realized that black men don't really fuck with me and why I'm single. ... I wouldn't be able to make a joke like that if I didn't know my history or proud of where I came from and who I am." 

A black woman’s truth is often a jagged pill for most to swallow, even when offered in a distilled way: some of us write, some of us paint, some of us perform poetry or dance... and Leslie used comedy. And I suspect the bulk of the outrage (not discounting the obvious: black female pain, slavery and slave breeding as comedy fodder just isn't generally funny to most people) is because Leslie’s unfiltered joke was performed in front of white people; but alas, the scenario could have been much worse.  Speaking of which, while white folks are chuckling and cheering Leslie on, I find much of the, ‘It’s just a joke, get over it! I’m white, and I thought it was funny!’ commentary problematic and think this is a conversation many of you need to sit out… particularly when a) this isn't about sating white people’s amusement and b) white people benefit the most from the structural inequality and colorism chattel slavery wrought, even when it comes to something as basic as dating and being chosen as desirable partners.

Yes, Leslie Jones’ delivery, timing, and placement may have been too crude for most people's tastes (and I'd be willing to wager that some of the same black folks put-off by Leslie's SNL sketch laughed when Mike Epps quipped that his darker-skinned older daughter was 'half-James Brown'), but I don't think it's fair to completely dismiss her as a 'coon' or to discount her commentary; because in the grand scheme of the painful narratives black women sometimes weave, her experiences matter too.