Inverting Black Masculinity: Key and Peele, and Trayvon
In Part 1, we examined the connection between Comedy Central’s Key & Peele and the tension that Black men feel between being accepted by society and being true to one’s self.
Here in Part 2, we’re going to take a look at several Key & Peele sketches, get at some of the underlying issues behind the comedy, and see what biblical truths can be applied to them, particularly as they relate to the lives of young men like Trayvon Martin.
(Before I go any further, a DISCLAIMER: Key & Peele is rated TV-14, and while there are very few sexual references, there is a fair amount of profanity, albeit mostly bleeped out. As always, use discretion when viewing clips. You don’t want your 5-year-old repeating this stuff — or your 45-year-old boss, for that matter.)
(Also, let me say this for the record — despite the adult content, I think each of these sketches is absolutely hilarious. No, they’re not for children. But they’re funny nonetheless. In the following paragraphs I do a lot of cultural exegesis, breaking down the principles behind the humor. But never let it be said I don’t think it’s funny.)
Yo Mama Has Health Problems
“Yo Mama Has Health Problems,” is a depiction of a doctor with an Indian accent, trying to give a consultation to a younger Black guy with his posse standing behind. Every time the doctor tries to engage the guy in conversation about his mother’s failing health, dude has some juvenile comeback with which to delight his friends. Riffing on the classic pastime of playing the dozens, this sketch demonstrates the communication breakdown that happens to people with misplaced expectations and different cultural traditions.
The brilliance of the sketch is in its metaphysics — that it’s one long joke about people joking with another. The twist at the end is when the doctor figures out how to play along, and does so — with shockingly inappropriate results.
This sketch makes you laugh and cringe — often at the same time — because few things are more destructive to a relationship than a failed attempt at humor. This is not to say that we shouldn’t joke around with one another, but rather, we should understand how and when to do it. Gilbert Arenas had to learn this the hard way — there are times when jokes are not an appropriate way to make a point. After all, there’s a reason why, in Proverbs 26:18-19, careless jokesters are compared to arsonists.
What’s especially poignant is, a few minutes in when Jordan Peele’s wisecracking character lets down his guard, his acknowledgement rings true. Many people, Black White or otherwise, use humor as a coping mechanism. And this is not necessarily a bad thing, but the problem is in context. When others around us take their cues from our sketchy behavior, that creates misunderstandings of epic proportions. If those misunderstandings are propagated long enough, you end up with people resorting to smartphone apps to see if they’re allowed to say the n-word.
If we as Black folks want to help edify and build up others outside of our culture, it’s going to require, at times, that we rein in our sense of humor. Not mortally cripple it, just put some good boundaries around it. Otherwise we’ll continue to have tragic episodes of miscommunication, and the net result will be fewer people willing to take the risk of a potential offense for the sake of gaining greater clarity and perspective from someone outside their cultural context.
Given our nation’s overall racial divide, it’s clear that we as Christians need to share as much perspective and gain as much clarity as possible. It’s just one way to help our nation avoid more Trayvon-like incidents.
In the book of Acts, there is a profound story regarding Peter, a leader in the early church, and a vision he has regarding a blanket of food that the Lord told him was no longer considered to be unclean. Space constraints don’t permit me to fully break this down, but that vision leads Peter down a path of greater love and acceptance for outsiders.
This sketch reminds me of that story, except that the cultural model is inverted. Instead of ethnic-specific foods being outlawed, they’re actually preferred. And rather than exclude each other, we see Jordan and Keegan trying to outdo one another, proving their in-group status by ordering more and more “authentic” soul food, which comically regresses into more bizarre and less-edible fare.
There are many underlying truths in this sketch. The obvious one is that men are often hypercompetitive, and African American men are no exception. Another is that soul food, while an important component of African American culture, sometimes lacks in nutritional value.
This makes sense if you factor in the role slavery had in restricting the culinary habits of Black people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Blacks rarely had access to choice cuts of meat, so had to adapt by eating the parts of animals that their White masters found undesirable.
Indeed, it seems as though ingenuity as a survival instinct has become a defining characteristic for African Americans; the history of hip-hop, for example, is full of people who took undesirable, marginal or forgotten elements of music and turned them into something original and innovative (graffiti, turntable scratching, sampling, etc.).
The downside, though, is that just because something is culturally authentic doesn’t make it good. It’s no wonder that a people who were subjugated and dehumanized for centuries might internalize behavioral ways of coping that are less than truly healthy. This dynamic is what is satirized by K&P by the pursuit of food that sounds less than edible.
My favorite moment of the “Soul Food” sketch is at the end, where Keegan says, in response to the server’s offer of gravy: “What’s a cellar door without gravy? It’s not food.”
Isaiah 55:1-2 calls out to people in this situation, who find themselves grabbing plate after plate of stuff that isn’t really food. Isaiah proclaims the compassion of the Lord, who wants His people to be satisfied with goodness and settle for nothing less.
Rather than chasing only what is culturally authentic, as Christians we should chase after what is anointed and Godly. Rather than competing for cultural acceptance, we should be spurring each other on toward love and good behavior, worrying less of what others think than of what the Lord thinks. That’s true for Black men, yes, but it’s true for everybody.
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So now, in two of these K&P sketches, we’ve seen several aspects of Black masculinity on display, and identified a few solutions that can help our young Black men continue to develop and make the world a better place for all the other Trayvons out there.
But what about our relationships with women? There seems to be issues at play that affect our interactions with each other and with the opposite sex. Whether male or female, this is something worth paying attention to.
So make sure to check out Part 3 of this series, where we delve into the final sketch of our sample.