Leslie Jones: The happy slave narrative and modern day minstrels

Leslie Jones on SNL

WASHINGTON, May 19, 2014 —  Saturday Night Live has come under fire regarding their lack of black representation, and in particular that of women of color.

Social Media was abuzz about the new actor and then, the new writer that SNL would be bringing aboard; but lately, there has been a backlash for Leslie Jones’ joke about dating in relation to black slavery. Some people brush it off as entertainment humor. Others have berated her for taking something so tragic within American History and making light of it.

Our country, as beautiful and bold as it can be, has a dark history. There is the genocide of whole nations of Indigenous people, the enslavement of stolen Africans, and the continued forms of systematic oppression that attempt to both erase narratives of people of color and decimate us.

America has never truly owned up to its part in slavery. Many Americans brush it off as a thing of the past. Very few acknowledge that many people Americans today know a person that slavery affected directly. We, as a nation, look at slavery as if we have overcome it, choosing not to acknowledge the repercussions that are deeply ingrained in our legislations, systems of class/privilege and entertainment industry. All of which has a history of exploiting/celebrating black pain for profit.

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The Slave Narrative is nothing new to theatrical stages or television, and along with that we have an American mythos which attempts the erasure of the horrors of slavery.

We call this mythos “The Happy Slave Narrative.” This narrative was given to black Americans by white Americans to ignore the atrocities committed during slavery.

The Happy Slave Narrative is one that finds the dutiful slave dancing, singing and working for their white masters and enjoying it. It finds said slave beginning to view their masters as surrogate parents and benefactors. The Happy Slave Narrative is a way to silence the truth and allows for a negating of any responsibility that this nation had/ has for its citizens. It divests black people of their humanity and reduces our representations, bodies, and minds to instruments happy to be of service to white masters.

For ages, the black artist has fought a battle against trying to make a living and also trying to have an integrity sustained through truthful work. Not always has this battle been won in the favor of the actor’s dignity even if it works brilliantly for their pockets.

For ages the black artist has had to struggle with being told by anyone with money who we can be, how we can be, and who we must be it for. The black artist has had to shoulder both the weight of being the best at our craft and being culturally responsible to represent our community well.

Tied to the history of black artistry is minstrelsy; which often saw black artist playing what white people thought we were as opposed to who we truly are. Black Minstrels often, through things like black face, morphed into caricatures of supposed blackness for the benefit of a white audience. The Black Artist was not in control of their own bodies let alone representations.

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Now, to Leslie Jone’s “joke.”

Her SNL skit did not represent an empowered black woman saying what she wants because she could; it was not a black woman challenging standards of beauty set up by white colonization. Instead, she displayed herself as another black artist attempting to make privileged America feel comfortable with black pain.

Her statement invoked the image of the old minstrel who danced to the tune of washboards and bones, not for their own enjoyment, but for the entertainment of white people. It was reminiscent of the Happy Slave Narrative in which there is a celebration of white men’s ownership of black bodies.

The joke wasn’t funny because it is rooted in such trauma America would rather laugh away and forget it as oppose to truly confront it’s hand in it.

The same audience of people who praised Lupita for her Oscar win and cheered at 12 Years A Slaves’ “daring” and truthful take on slavery, all the while weeping at the tragedies depicted, now mock the horrors and pain that a woman like Lupita’s character would have had to endure.

Most of all it reflects a Nation unable to truly deal with the lasting effects of slavery that sees black bodies as commodities and black culture as something good enough to steal and yet not good enough to love the people who create it.

This is a sickness that has yet to be cured, and some of those most affected, in their desire to seem “American enough,” willing to disregard the tragedy that was American Slavery.

It represents the systematic oppression that wishes to dismantle any progress people of color have made in crafting beneficial lives for ourselves in a land many of our ancestors lived on before colonization and our other ancestors were forced to work after they were forced here.

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