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Why Leslie Jones’ Controversial Slavery Sketch on SNL Was So Important

Why Leslie Jones' Controversial Slavery Sketch on SNL Was So Important

On May 3rd, Leslie Jones made her debut on Saturday Night Live. Jones was one of the three black women that SNL hired in January in response to the criticism over the show’s lack of diversity, and if there was any question as to whether or not Jones’ voice has changed the show, Saturday’s episode answered that with a triumphant “yes!” Now, however, some critics aren’t sure they want the brand of humor that Jones has to offer.

Sitting next to “Update” anchor Colin Jost, Jones, an “image expert,” comments on Lupita Nyong’o’s recent honor of being named People Magazine‘s “Most Beautiful Woman.” Jones points out that, while the 12 Years a Slave actress is, indeed, beautiful, “the way we view black beauty has changed.”

“Let me ask you a question,” she says to Jost. “If you walked in a club, and you saw me and Lupita standing at the bar, who would you pick?” (Jost looks uncomfortable). “Yeah, I know, you’d pick Lupita. But let me ask you this: If you was in the parking lot, and three Crips is about to whoop your ass, who you gonna pick then!” The decision is easy, this time: Jost, relieved, picks Jones.

Then Jones gets deeply personal — and uncomfortable. “Look at me,” Jones says. “See, I’m single right now. But back in the slave days, I would have never been single. I’m 6′ tall and I’m strong, Colin, strong! I mean look at me, I’m a mandingo!”

“I do not want to be a slave,” she clarifies. “I’m just saying that back in the slave days, my love life would have been way better. Master would have hooked me up with the best brother on the plantation, and every nine months I’d be in the corner having a super baby.”

It’s obvious that Jones is talking about the deplorable practice of slave breeding here, where the strongest men and women were paired — usually forcibly — in order to produce strong offspring for slave masters. Jones continued to joke about how in-demand she’d be, producing the strongest babies. (It’s reminiscent of Chris Rock’s famous stand-up bit in which he jokes that the NFL is a beneficiary of slave breeding). But look closer — is it as obvious that Jones is “making light of slave rape,” as Ebony Magazine senior editor Jamilah Lemieux believes?

Though it’s a painful image to stomach, Jones is not talking about being raped here. She is talking about her sad reality: that her sex life is so bad, and that black women are so devalued by society, that her sex life would actually improve under the conditions of slave breeding, where she’d regularly be paired up with a strong, physically fit man (and her eagerness to have such an arrangement implies that, for Jones, it’s consensual sex). In other words: Congrats to Lupita, but good luck to any black woman in America who doesn’t look like her!

In a response to the criticism from Lemieux and others, Jones explained the joke on Twitter, saying, “This joke was written from the pain that one night I realized that black men don’t really fuck with me and why am I single. And that in slave days I would have always had a man cause of breeding.” Jones is speaking about a tough reality for many black women in America, who face the double burden of both sexism and racism (a 2009 analysis from dating site OkCupid concluded that “essentially every race — including other blacks — singles [black women] out for the cold shoulder”).

Jones’ joke is certainly controversial, and it is easy to see why it might offend people. Lemieux continues, “Even if there was some shred of humor in this routine, that SNL is the wrong venue for it. It was White co-star Colin Jost who she asked ‘Who would you pick, me or Lupita?’ (The ‘I don’t want either of y’all!’ was so awkwardly written all over his face, btw.)”
This is true. SNL has been traditionally a show by white comics for white audiences. SNL might always be a white show, and that’s a limitation. Doing black comedy — or basically, anything that speaks beyond the mainstream white American experience — is going to feel weird. But what do we want from SNL if we say we want diversity, but we don’t want “to go there”? 
In a post on Salon, W. Kamau Bell, a comedian who tackles subjects of race and diversity in his own comedy, wrote that the problem wasn’t Jones’ joke. It was the white lens of SNL — and that we need more of Jones:
And I believe if Leslie Jones had done her bit on “Comic View” or “Def Comedy Jam” or at a random Sunday on Hannibal Buress’s night at The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn — where there are a ton of white people, but the lens through which they watch is BLAAAAAACK! — she would have killed! And she may have been heralded as one of our (black people’s) favorite types of comedians, one who goes there! But because of the venue and the audience, it felt weird. Well, here’s hoping that Leslie Jones continues to make it weird at 30 Rock, because I certainly prefer this take on a black woman and all the “ouch” she brings to Kenan Thompson’s take in assorted wigs and dresses. #TeamLeslie.
SNL is also one of the most influential shows on television, and in January, executive producer Lorne Michaels proved that he’s willing to be corrected. That is significant! Now SNL is left with a translation problem, but the solution isn’t to retreat and perform challenging comedy elsewhere. Hopefully, SNL will educate its audience to help them understand an experience that is not their own. (Jones, at least, has said via Twitter that she plans to come back even harder).
This is what diversity on American television looks like: It is uncomfortable, it will not match everyone’s experience, it will cause debates, it will challenge, and it will show us how fragmented and different our experiences are. It’s possible that even if you understood the joke, it wasn’t funny to you. Or worse, it was offensive (it certainly towed a very fine line). But for once, a conversation about race in America wasn’t started by a white man, and that’s something to celebrate.
Watch Leslie Jones’ SNL skit: 

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