Chris Rock's 'Independence Day' tweet controversy reveals American racial divide

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Chris Rock’s recent “Independence Day” tweet  — and especially the reactionary responses to it — reminds us once again of how the racial divide actually applies to our every day lives.  For many white people, the tweet — “Happy white peoples independence day the slaves weren’t free but I’m sure they enjoyed fireworks” – solicits deep-rooted defense mechanisms about historical racism and the real tyranny of white privilege that still remains repressed and/or invisible to so many today.  It generates a desperate need (for some of them) to distance themselves from their imagined slave-owning ancestors and to protect themselves with today’s talking points for post-racial America.  Having our first black president can be a compelling racial relief mechanism.

For many black people, this is just a funny tweet.  It’s actually part of the reason why African-Americans are disproportionately represented on Twitter; the 140 character limit produces pithy concentrated discursive gems — like Rock’s ‘controversial’ tweet.  Twitter’s structural limitations favor the kind of inventive vernacular linguistics that have become the transcendent trademark of black subversive strategies since — well, since the institution of slavery itself.  One of the signal ways that black folk work through the legacy of slavery and racism is through black humor.  Rock is an accomplished veteran, his “Pookie” days are far behind him now.  And classic satirical narratives like the prescient Head of State, his black people/ni**ers bit, and the cult phenomenon — Pootie Tang, all point to a seasoned, culturally-nuance comical mind.

In less than 140 characters, Rock captured the ethos of one of the most commonly emailed historical narratives in the black community – Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”  In order to fully appreciate the humor, irony and the pain of Independence Day for those of us descended from slaves, I do suggest you read Douglass’ classic speech.  As many of my colleagues have pointed out, the speech puts into to bold relief the ignorance of Americans who expect America’s second and third class citizens to celebrate ideals to which they have been systematically denied.  For those that think that life is all good for black folk in the 21st century please check – life expectancy,  wealth, infant mortality, chronic disease, access to health care, violent death, incarceration, lending practices, police brutality, and/or capitol punishment – see how these things vary by race.

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But Rock’s point (or Douglass’ for that matter) is not to harp on the negative realities for black folk in America — past or present.  The point is to honor the struggle and the transcendence of those who are oppressed — those who are denied access to the ‘American Dream’ even though their ancestors literally built this country.  What no one on Twitter who hated this tweet even mentioned is that the real joke — the punch line — is that slaves endured a particularly violent form of “fireworks” — they were raped, branded, and whipped regularly and whipped, beaten, and sometimes burned when they aspired to be free.

Much like Big KRIT’s sensational song, “Prayin’ Man” – featuring B.B. King, historical independence for black folk centers on Middle Passage, the Underground Railroad, lynching — the lived experiences of black folk and their uncanny ability to survive.  Only through acknowledging and commemorating our people’s capacity to survive American racism can we genuinely, and yes ironically, embrace America’s celebration of freedom. And that’s no joke.

James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University. He is also the founder of Hip Hop Scholars LLC, an association of hip-hop generation scholars dedicated to researching and developing the cultural and educational potential of hip-hop, urban and youth cultures. You can follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson