Did you see Larry Wilmore at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner Saturday night? The comedian and host of Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show” roasted President Obama at the annual gathering of journalists. And in typical fashion, Wilmore kept it real. Even better, he kept it 100. And it was an authentic moment between two black men when Wilmore ended his remarks by saying: “Words alone do me no justice. So, Mr. President, if I’m going to keep it 100: Yo, Barry, you did it, my n—-. You did it.”
The president visibly and approvingly acknowledged Wilmore, and the two men embraced.
But Wilmore caught some hell for what he said, especially from segments of the African-American community who took issue with his use of that variation of the N-word at the event. And in all honesty, the criticism is understood and duly noted, give the long history of that word, the negative, hateful and hurtful connotation, and the impact it has had on black people. To be sure, that word has been a tool to uphold racism, and a weapon to kill our aspirations and our dignity.
Some black folks say Wilmore was disrespectful to the president, disrespectful to authority, and that his comment was inappropriate. They thought the comic showed poor judgment, that he was over the top, and that his use of the dreaded word was embarrassing and cringeworthy. Moreover, they say, Larry created discomfort. After all, how will the white people in the room react to a black man using the N-word? Will it give them license to do the same? And certainly if they tried that, they would be the recipients of our full-fledged and unmitigated condemnation, right?
And yet, we need to look at this from a different perspective. First of all, the Correspondents’ Dinner was a roast, a form of comedy and satire where far worse has been said in the past. Larry was the hired entertainment, and people knew what they were getting. You’d better believe the brother and his speech was vetted, and Obama, Michelle and them knew what the man was going to say.
Comedians have license to say that which others will not or cannot utter. And Larry Wilmore is a truth teller in a long line of black truth tellers, from Richard Pryor to Dick Gregory. In that regard, Wilmore did not disappoint.
For example, on the realities of having the first black president, he said: “All I’m saying is that in less than eight years, Mr. President, you’ve busted two time-honored stereotypes. Black does crack, and apparently once you go black, it looks like we are going back. Thanks, Ben Carson.”
“When I was a kid, I lived in a country where people couldn’t accept a black quarterback. Now think about that,” Wilmore said. “A black man was thought by his mere color not good enough to lead a football team — and now, to live in your time, Mr. President, when a black man can lead the entire free world.”
He covered the issue of white attitudes towards black protest: “Oh, by the way, you guys, Black Lives Matter is here tonight. I’m just kidding. Relax, white people, they’re not here. It’s just a joke. Just relax, just relax,” Wilmore told the crowd. Wilmore managed to discuss Donald Trump’s racism, jokingly telling President Obama: “You look terrible, Mr. President. No, you do man! I mean look at you! Your hair is so white, it tried to punch me at a Trump rally.”
Most importantly, Wilmore broached the subject of race in the media. “Well, welcome to ‘Negro Night’ here at the Washington Hilton, or as Fox News will report, ‘Two thugs disrupt elegant dinner in D.C.’ That’s how they do us, right?” n addition, the talk show host called out one network for their elimination of black journalists from their roster:
MSNBC — MSNBC here tonight? No? Which actually now stands for “Missing a Significant Number of Black Correspondents.” Am I wrong? They like fired Melissa Harris-Perry, they canceled Joy Reid, they booted Touré. I heard they put Chris Hayes on probation because they thought he was related to Isaac Hayes. That’s wrong.
MSNBC got rid of so many black people I thought Boko Haram was running that network. What was going on…?
Meanwhile, Wilmore also called out a program on the same network for coddling Trump:
Have you seen “Morning Joe”? C’mon, guys, seriously. No, you know it’s true. Guys, “Morning Joe” has their head so far up Trump’s ass they bumped into Chris Christie. You know that’s true. You know I’m not lying. You know that’s true.
So, Larry Wilmore has outraged some over his n*gga moment. But were people as outraged over the past eight years, when the Tea Party and racist whites in the GOP called the president all kinds of names and portrayed him and the First Lady as apes and monkeys? You can’t blame Michelle for being ready to leave.
Once again, the so-called N-word is a hateful thing, but there is also a context to what happened at the Correspondents’ Dinner. The message Wilmore conveyed was done with love and admiration. And he took a word of oppression, flipped it around and owned it, as black men have been known to do. Disagree as you might, but that is the reality.
Larry Wilmore made some people feel uncomfortable, but that’s his job. His words angered many, but the racism and the racists he called out that night should anger you even more.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove