Comedy is the most precarious of arts. One person’s joke is another’s insult. And yet, comedians enjoy wide latitude in our culture because, let’s face it, we’re a screwed-up society, and gifted comedians tap into the humor of our dissonant truths. The best of them reveal actual truth through humor.
A friend sent me the link to The Daily Show with Leslie Jones’ take on the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Boston Common. I clicked play. I listened. I even laughed, uncomfortably, at the disgust Ms. Jones’ displays. Yet before the segment played out, my levity turned sour. I wondered why a comedian granted the huge platform of The Daily Show chose to use it so disparagingly.
Ms. Jones starts with a warning: “Even though I am about to go straight on this statue, I got to talk to the white people for a second. White people. You don’t need to be saying shit about this statue, you understand? Black hands only. You need to sit your ass in the back of the bus for this one, okay? You need to honor this statue. This is our civil rights icon.”
Sometimes I chose to sit in the back of the bus. But the point of the civil rights movement—refusing to sit in the back of the bus—was not to transfer second-class status from Black people to others. The point was to allow each individual to sit on any available seat, wherever they like. And so the moment anyone tells me where I have to sit, is the moment my hackles rise.
I continued to listen as Ms. Jones proceeds to describe how The Embrace, modelled on a photograph of Dr. King and his wife upon learning that he won the Nobel Peace Prize, looks like cunnilingus. “Martin Luther King going down on his wife. I can’t unsee it. I can’t unsee it. It is what it is.” I do not see what Leslie Jones cannot unsee. Then again, we tend to see what we want to see, in life, and particularly in art.
Fellow comedian Dulce Sloan joins in. Dulce sees a different sexual act: a pair of hands on a giant penis. Given my personal proclivities, that might be a more plausible thing for me to see. But I don’t see that either. Ms. Sloan goes on to praise right-wing zealots: “They know how to make a statue. It’s a white dude on a horse. It’s always a white due on a horse. That’s what the liberals need to do. Make a statue of MLK, in his suit, on a horse.” She then concedes that she does not know if MLK ever rode a horse.
By this point I’m wondering how these two Black female comedians, who might mine excellent material from the challenges of creating a more equitable world, choose to reiterate supremacist tropes. Why do they turn a discussion about a memorial to Martin Luther King into an informercial for the Great Replacement Theory?
On a warmish January day, I did something that I doubt either Ms. Jones or Ms. Sloan did: I went to see The Embrace.
First off, it is beautiful. Seamless, glistening, elegant in scale and form. Second, it’s popular. Dozens and dozens of people milling around, photographing the sculpture, photographing each other. Talking among their companions and with the strangers. No one even paused at the statues of white guys on horses. Third, it is not a statue. It is a sculpture; it is a memorial. It is evocative of what Dr. King stood for. It invites you within, it boosts you up, it elicits community, it represents love.
I understand why Leslie Jones chooses to disparage what she could have elevated. Disdain plays for laughs better than honor, and cheap pokes have yielded her millions.
Standing before the sculpture, among dozens of people who looked like a full cross section of our nation, I did not see cunnilingus. I did not see a giant penis. I saw what Dr. Martin Luther King stood for. I saw the human potential to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.
I am saddened that two women who have benefited greatly from Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy are unable to see the same thing.