Two men, using no more than fists and feet, pummel another man’s legs. The man who’s receiving the beatdown is on a couch partially covered in dirt from the heels of his platform shoes, which he thrust into the expensive, milk-colored cushions. When the two men are finished, their victim falls off of the couch and crawls away, screaming, “They should have never gave you niggas money!”
The skit is from Dave Chappelle’s popular and controversial TV show, Chappelle’s Show, which, while garnering praise and condemnation alike, is one of the most concrete examples of how Black artists rely on comedy in order to convey heavier themes that would otherwise be less palatable to mainstream – ie white – audiences, blurring the lines in a way that can be both harmful to creators and consumers.
As a teenager, I’d watch Chappelle’s Show, crying with tears of laughter at the seemingly absurd scenarios Chappelle would portray. I say “seemingly” because – no matter if it was a skit about an addict doing anything to get a fix, or a remake of The Real World – there was always a kernel of truth at their centre.
But, walking into school the day after an episode aired, and hearing white classmates repeat the jokes, like “I should have never gave you niggas money,” made my stomach wrench in a way I could only articulate years later: the danger in humour employed by Black artists is that some people will be laughing with you, and others will be laughing at you.
This idea – the fine line between being in on the joke and being the joke itself – was at the forefront of my mind as I wrote my debut novel, Black Buck, which is described as “a hilarious, razor-sharp skewering of America’s workforce; a … crackling debut that explores ambition and race”. Race. America. Work. These are concepts that come with necessary seriousness, and also serious absurdity.
Black people are not my only readers, and I welcome others to engage with the work
It was because of this that I didn’t want to write 400 pages of doom and gloom or tragedy and trauma – to write a novel that would be authentic to my experience, as well as the experience of so many other Black people, I needed to include levity, triumph, and humour. But therein lay the dangerous difficulty: what if the humour I used would only be seen as entertainment instead of a vehicle to underscore the horror of what so many people endure?
The solution, I found, was having a specific audience in mind. I can’t tell you who Chappelle pictured while developing skits, but I can tell you that in order to write the book that I needed to write, I had to think only of Black people – specifically, those who have been the only one, or one of a few, in white-majority workplaces and spaces – so that I didn’t hesitate when it came to injecting humour into it. I knew that the comedic elements would serve as balm for those who are all too familiar with the more painful parts of the narrative.
BLACK BUCK is officially out in the UK! Excited as hell to see how readers receive it there.
— Mateo Askaripour (@AskMateo) May 27, 2021
Still, Black people are not my only readers, and I welcome others to engage with the work. But it’s important for me to be honest when speaking about it. So when people ask me, “What do you want your white readers to take away from your book?” I say that while I didn’t write Black Buck for them, I do want them to ruthlessly examine their role in this narrative, and the larger narrative of the fight for progress. And when it comes to the book’s humour, if someone turns the last page and says, “Wow, that was so hilarious!” without realising the subtext of the jokes, I hope that, at some point in their lives, they question whether that part they laughed at was as funny as they thought. Therein lies the risk, though, for if they do not eventually do the work, they will only fall deeper into ignorance, potentially leading to more harm.
Perhaps Black Buck wouldn’t have been published without all of the humour. During these times, it can feel like reality itself is too real, requiring novels, especially if they take place in a contemporary setting and are written from Black perspectives, to either include pages and pages of trauma, so that readers can sigh with relief that their lives aren’t that bad, or some humorous elements to laugh at, no matter how much truth they contain. Chappelle himself expressed this sentiment in his 2020 Saturday Night Live monologue, when he said, “I can’t even tell something true unless it has a punchline behind it.”
The burden of the punchline that Chappelle speaks of is real, and can be damaging to Black creators and all who consume their art, but I choose to circumvent it, as much as possible, by writing to and for the people who I believe my work will resonate with.
It is not foolproof – in some ways, it could be foolhardy, because no people form a homogenous block of thoughts, feelings, and experience – but it is how I choose to create, while always making space for revision.
Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour is out now (John Murray, £14.99)