Barack Obama has taken something of a beating from the satirical community (a crucial voting bloc) for his camp’s ninnyish overreaction to last week’s New Yorker cover. But he’s actually more of a comedy aficionado than he lets on.
I’m still surprised that no one–apart from those lefties at Mother Jones–has picked up on this, but his infamous June speech about black dads and personal responsibility, the one that so rankled Jesse Jackson , owed a huge rhetorical debt to one of Chris Rock’s most incendiary and brilliant routines, “Niggas vs. Black People.”
I profiled Rock for Vanity Fair in 1998, back when his middling career had finally taken off, largely on the strength of that one routine. Rock told me then that he had actually retired the bit in 1996, delivering it for the last time on the night it was recorded for his Bring the Pain HBO special at the Takoma Theatre in Washington, D.C. But the routine took a while to filter out to the masses in the non-HBO-subscribing world, and it took on new life when it was included in his 1997 album Roll with the New.
The use of the word “nigga” caused much hand-wringing among black Americans, and the late Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes, who profiled Rock a few months before I did, all but asked the comic to apologize for his language. But younger African-Americans, like Rock’s friends Nelson George and Mario Joyner–and, evidently, Obama–seemed to get that Rock wasn’t using the word lightly, but, if I can quote from my article, as a tag for “African-Americans with a romanticized notion of black degeneracy, who think that the only genuine black experience is the gangsta, impoverished, poorly educated, federally dependent, on-the-pipe one.”
Anyway, I sensed a whiff of “Niggas vs. Black People” in Obama’s June speech when he asserted that “Any fool can have a child. That doesn’t make you a father.” But I recognized the speech’s Rockian DNA for sure when he said:
Don’t just sit in the house and watch Sports Center all weekend long... Don’t get carried away with that eighth-grade graduation. You’re supposed to graduate from eighth grade!
Here’s how Rock made the same point in “Niggas vs. Black People”:
You know what the worst thing about niggas is? Niggas always want some credit for some shit they supposed to do... A nigga will brag about some shit a normal man just... does. A nigga will say some shit like “I take care of my kids!” You’re supposed to, you dumb muthafucka!... What kind of ignorant shit is that? “I ain’t never been to jail.” What do you want, a cookie? You’re not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-havin’ muthafucka!
Needless to say, I can see why Obama chose to paraphrase rather than quote verbatim.