By now, most of us have heard accounts of Dave Chappelle's ill-fated performance in Hartford, Connecticut last week.
On Thursday at Hartford’s Comcast Theater, the comedian was clearly
stupefied during his performance at the “Funny or Die Oddball Comedy
& Curiosity Tour” to a mostly White audience. Heckling reportedly
prompted a pause in his comedy sketch, during which he nonchalantly sat
on stage, smoked a cigarette and read a book until his allotted 25-minutes ended.
Several attendees claimed that racial animus was at the root of the
disruption—something Chappelle himself obviously felt, choosing to walk
off the stage to Kanye West’s “New Slaves”: “F*ck you and your corporation/Y’all n* s can’t control me/I know that we the new slaves...”
Those who cling to post-racial fantasies might see him as
“unprofessional,” wishing he had eschewed a rowdy crowd littered with
White drunkards. He should have suffered in silence with a minstrel-like
grin. Apparently, their failed imagination didn’t grasp an alternative
reality of a man who, like Richard Pryor before him, once traveled to
the continent of Africa, had a profound experience and realized he was
not a “n* ” there, reaffirming the notion that race shapes the
cultural eye and stains social interactions. And place matters.
In short, Chappelle just didn’t feel like tap dancing for master Charlie in Connecticut, even if he paid $50 for a ticket.
Location is a crucial unit of analysis for Chappelle’s
supposed “meltdown.” It’s especially apt because many people perceive
Connecticut as a liberal state, the cradle of the abolitionist movement
and a respite from Jim Crow segregation. And it touts the story of a
17-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., who mingled freely with Whites
there before his ascendancy in the civil rights movement.
But many Black locals once dubbed Connecticut as 'the Mississippi of the North.'
When Blacks migrated from the South to “the land of steady habits,”
they were surprised to find racial animus and segregation not by law,
but by custom. In the 1940s, Southern Blacks and West Indians poured
into what was then the richest city of its size to fill jobs on tobacco
farms, in households and factories. They lived primarily in Hartford,
cordoned off in the North End with the oldest housing stock. Today, most
Blacks still live in the North End. But many weren’t in the Comcast
Shows at that theater usually attract suburban Whites, who may compare Chappelle’s response to that of Andy Kaufman—who famously read The Great Gatsby on stage when booed.
Chappelle was once booed at the Apollo Theater's famed "Amateur Night,"
an incident that he credits with giving him the courage to make it in
the business. However, the subtext of the White, drunk hecklers faced
by the former Comedy Central star last week was markedly different.
That courage, which fueled his meteoric success, morphed into defiance.
Dave Chappelle knows he doesn't have to debase himself before a White
audience and so, he won't.
To better understand why Chappelle walked off stage on
that now-infamous night in Hartford, consider this: Connecticut has a
long history of demotivating Black and brown people, especially
students. Consequently, Connecticut has the highest academic achievement
gap and one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation.
Additionally, it has one of the highest suspension rates for
kindergarteners. The 'Nutmeg State' also wrestled with slavery and
servitude well into the early 20th century, a history erased
from the public’s consciousness until 2002. Moreover, the state
required the only school desegregation case in New England and maintains
both one of the highest unemployment rates for Blacks and a high
premature birth rate for Black women.
In addition, claims of job discrimination and racial bullying abound. The most prominent was of a Hartford Distributor employee Omar Thornton, who claimed racial harassment
for years before he shot and killed several White co-workers in 2010 in
a town that has been dubbed "Klanchester." Since the 1980s, the Ku Klux
Klan has taken a firm root in Connecticut’s soil. And like Mississippi in the 20th century, the state just may be ground zero for the century's civil rights' efforts.
Incidentally, Connecticut perfected the idea of 'post racialism' long
before it enveloped the country. New Englanders don’t talk about race
openly. In fact, silence is a political strategy. But this imposed
silence is also a form of oppression.
The Chappelle incident in Hartford masterfully shattered that silence.
More importantly, it revealed the oppressive burden of race and racism
in the land of steady habits.
Ann-Marie Adams is the founder of The Hartford Guardian. Follow her on twitter @annmarieadams.