Ever since I first watched the Thug Notes analysis of “Othello,” I’ve been feeling a bit uneasy. Even while laughing at the thoughtful and Ebonics-laden catechizing, I kept wondering, “Is this racist?”
The series features a cliché black man, Sparky Sweets, Ph.D., simultaneously speaking the dialect associated stereotypically with African Americans, (“Gangsta”-type talk) while performing keen and penetrating literary analysis. The character is brilliantly played by comedian George Edwards. It’s both very funny and very shrewd, so what’s not to love? Why does laughing at it make me feel mildly ill?
Well, firstly, “thug” is a rather charged word, and it’s gained more voltage in the past couple of months as unarmed black men are gunned down and posthumously labeled as “thugs.” Now, the Thug Notes branch of the Wise Crack YouTube channel was started in June, 2013; Trayvon Martin was killed the 26th of February, 2012. I’m not saying the thug stereotype didn’t exist before that dickless, (I tend not to use crude language like that, but how else could I describe him?) wannabe Clint Eastwood-style antihero, Zimmerman, stalked and murdered Martin, but it’s certainly become more prevalent since the general public became aware of the multitudes of extra-judicial killings taking place in this country.
My point is, “thug” is a word with a ton of baggage, and it was dragging around that ugly history well before they decided to call the segment “Thug Notes.” And in simply choosing that name, the problematic question of whether portraying black men as (some) of the white population perceives them—poor grammar and elocution, large gold chains, inscrutable slang—is negatively reinforcing a stereotype that is literally getting people murdered in the streets.
Then there’s the actual content, which is totally hilarious, as well as quite discerning. I guess what makes me uncomfortable is that the humor comes from hearing astute literary analysis from a super “ghetto” black man. The laughs come from the irony, because you don’t expect a person who speaks that way and looks that way to be perceptive.
It reminds me of recordings I once heard in a US History class of some early black-face performers, getting laughs from a crowd, speaking in “plantation dialect” – “Ah’s” and “Massa” and the like. The typical character was a freed slave who was now lazy and aimless without someone to crack the whip, speaking in broken English peppered with malapropisms. And thus, the minstrel show was born, all so that white folk could laugh at the silly black man, trying to sound smart. The sad thing about black-face is that after a while, the popularity of the minstrel shows forced actual blacks to perform in black-face as well. And in a way, that’s what comedian Greg Edwards is doing with the character “Sparky Sweets, Ph.D.” – he’s performing in black-face.
But then it occurred to me that maybe this isn’t racist, maybe it’s just ironic re-appropriation. Maybe in playing this character with such intelligence and insight, he’s, I dunno, subverting the stereotype? I don’t quite buy that, but it’s what I want to believe. I want to believe that we’re beyond the entertainment stagnation that was “The Parkers,” “Barber Shop,” etc. – TV and movies designed to reinforce stereotypes that make black people non-threatening. I desperately want to believe that Greg Edwards isn’t playing Sparky Sweets so that white folk can laugh at the silly black man, trying to sound smart.
But I’m not sure if I do.
Even so, I will continue to chuckle at the antics of Sparky Sweets, but I don’t think I’ll ever rid myself of this uncomfortable, nagging feeling that maybe Thug Notes is just part of the problem.
Having said all that, his take on The Hunger Games is fascinating.