On Black Men, And Why We’re Not “Allowed” To Be Human

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I first became a fan of Louie CK four or five years ago. I’d heard of him before—and had even watched an episode or two of Lucky Louie—but I didn’t really pay him much attention until I started to notice that more and more writers and comedians I respected considered Louie to be a comedic genius. This sparked my interest, and after watching a couple of his stand-up routines, I realized they were right.

Perhaps the thing I enjoy most about Louie’s humor is his tendency to speak about taboo subjects and use taboo words. This in itself isn’t noteworthy. There are dozens of popular comics whose acts revolve around them touching on untouchables. But, while most of those comics incorporate this tactic for shock value, when Louie does it it seems to be to prove how absurd it is that anything would be deemed untouchable in the first place.

For instance, in one of his shows, he has a bit where he spends a few minutes talking about fellatio. I forgot exactly how it starts, but by the end of it he jokes that he’d suck an audience member’s d*ck. It was classic Louie—absurd, inappropriate, self-deprecating, and subversive—and the audience loved every minute of it. I did too, but I couldn’t help but to make a somewhat sobering observation: a Black comedian could never tell this joke. 

Actually, let me rephrase that. A Black comedian, a popular straight Black male comedian could in fact tell that joke. But, if he did—if a Chris Rock or a Kevin Hart told a man in the audience that he (paraphrasing) “probably has a beautiful d*ck and would like it in my mouth”—the hundreds of trillions of tweets, articles, posts, studies, and stories it would prompt would likely shut down the entire internet. There’d also be never-ending rumors about his sexuality, his HIV status, and his sanity.

The dynamic allowing Louie CK to go places that a Black comedian wouldn’t be able to go extends past comedy. In fact, that dynamic is a direct result of the (mostly true) idea that straight Black men aren’t expected or even “allowed” to be multi-faceted, to be fully free, to be, well, human without having their sexuality and even their Blackness questioned. If we don’t fit a certain hyper-hetero ideal, we’re not really men and not even really Black.

This is not a new observation. For years people have written, spoke, and even created art about the fact that African-American men are burdened with a suffocatingly rigid definition of who and what a man is supposed be. It’s also common to blame this on a combination of history, socialization, and sexual expectation. Basically, Black men are the way we are because society in general—and Black women specifically—expect us to be that way.

But, to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how valid this is today. Yes, it’s true that there have been some very major historical influences on the way we’re supposed to be, and yes it’s still somewhat true that Black men who fall outside of the hyper-hetero ideal might be sexually shunned in a way that other races/cultures of American men may not have to deal with, but I wonder how much of this is self-induced. I think we (Black men) do it to ourselves more than anyone else does it to us. I think we’ve grown comfortable inside the shell. I think many of our problems in regards to being hyper-hetero are completely psychosomatic. I think we have a bit more leeway to be human than we want to believe, and I think there’s a bit of a mental and emotional safety net with not fighting against this expectation, as any crude, sexist, homophobic, racist, and just generally unprogressive act could be blamed on socialization. It may not quite be learned helplessness, but it isn’t far from it.

Also, I think some of us need to truly ask ourselves if we’re ready for that type of freedom. While an increased leeway to be who and what you want to be—as exhibited in Louie CK’s ability to tell a joke that a Black comedian couldn’t say—is one positive aspect of it, with more freedom comes more responsibility, with more responsibility comes more expectation, and with more expectation comes less leeway to make excuses. Basically, “You wanna be free? Fine. Now grow the f*ck up.”

I’d say be careful what you wish for, cause you just might get it, but I think we already got it. I just don’t know if we really want it.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)