Key and Peele, and Trayvon
Fans of racially themed sketch comedy had been relegated to watching reruns of Chappelle’s Show and In Living Color until last February when Comedy Central unveiled their latest breakout hit, Key & Peele.
Featuring biracial comedians (and Mad TV alumni) Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele, Key & Peele‘s thematic M.O. is to dive deep into the racial ambiguity and complexity of modern pop culture, mine for nuggets of truth, and then exaggerate them into overdrive. The result is a peculiar kind of inspired silliness that is not quite as crass as Chappelle’s Show or as mean spirited as The Boondocks, but that still works as effective satire.
The show maintains a broad enough appeal to hit on other topics (like this bit on reality chef competitions), but the core of the show is still in racial issues. Because their biracial identities form the basis of the comedy, many of the vignette premises involve the convergence of Black and White stereotypes and cultural mannerisms (like this short bit with mic checks). And the funniest and most effective sketches are those where Keegan and Jordan find themselves temporarily ditching their mainstream, respectable personas in order to demonstrate how authentically Black they are — which usually means subtly, gradually, and outrageously outdoing each other. Whether they’re in a dramatic stage production, in a restaurant ordering soul food, or even just walking down the street, the results are usually hilarious.
What sketches like these tend to illustrate, though, is the dichotomous tension that a lot of African American men tend to feel, one that’s heightened for those of mixed-race heritage like Key and Peele. People use different words to express it, but it’s essentially still the same struggle — the meek, acceptable, responsible Black man versus the militant, flamboyant, outspoken Black man. Sellout versus Soldier. Punk versus Player.
(Back in the day, it might have been Martin vs. Malcolm, but now it’s just as much Barack versus Luther, the presidential anger translator. Apparently K&P nailed this dynamic so well that even President Obama himself thinks it good.)
But whether spoken or unspoken, as Black men we tend to feel trapped between those two extremes. We want to handle our business and rise to the highest echelons of success, but we don’t want to forget where we came from. We want to have nice things and inhabit nice spaces, but we don’t want to abandon our cultural identity, one that has roots in turmoil and struggle.
And this tension is a major component of the outrage over the Trayvon Martin case. After all, Trayvon died in an upscale neighborhood in Sanford, Florida. And he died wearing a hoodie. Obviously, the hoodie is nowhere near an exclusively Black piece of apparel. These days, everyone wears them, from high school students to upscale retirees. You can buy suit jackets with hoodies, for crying out loud. So the underlying question that the Trayvon Martin case brings up (after the obvious one of “why did it take so long to arrest Zimmerman?”) is why is an African American teenager in a hoodie automatically considered a threat?
Out of this tumble a Pandora’s Box of troubling questions that Black parents have been wrestling with for decades, all connected to young Black men and the presumption of class based on public appearance. There are the philosophical/theoretical questions like, is it best to be as conservative as possible or should we keep it as “real” as possible? Were Geraldo Rivera’s comments those of an out-of-touch bigot, or a compassionate pragmatist? And then there are the more practical, nuts-and-bolts types of questions. How can we tell what gang members are dressing like nowadays? Should we watch The Wire? Which trends are just stylish and which are thuggish? Does it matter which way a cap is tilted? What about certain colors or team logos? Does jewelry matter? Baggy pants, or saggy pants? What about skinny jeans that sag?
You’ll notice that the above question mainly ignored the obvious answer to the question of why Trayvon was considered a threat — centuries worth of institutionalized and internalized racism. This answer, while obvious, does little to help address the practical struggles of being — or raising — a young Black male today, to the lament of Black mothers everywhere.
As believers in Christ, some of the questions that should matter most are, “what does the Word say about this issue?” and “how can I apply it to my cultural context?” These are often hard questions to answer, and even harder to have healthy dialogue over, because of the seriousness and tension surrounding these issues. Sometimes, you just need to laugh a little bit before you can really engage.
Enter Key and Peele.
These two talented comedians have provided an ample supply of case studies into postmodern African American male culture. So let’s laugh, and let’s learn. Let’s look at the issues, and see what the Bible may have to say about it.
Stay tuned for Part 2, where we look in-depth at several hilarious Key and Peele sketches, examine the underlying cultural issues at play, and then apply some biblical understanding.