VIII: Searching for the Big Piece of Chicken

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A big-eared Black guy, wearing Muslim robes, fist pumping his hot-looking mama complete with ‘Fro wig and matching designer machine gun. Oh, my. Whole lotta’ shaking’ goin’ on out there; every hue a finger can have being pointed this way and that. Maybe the fingers are pointing the wrong way.

I remember my first exposure to satire back at Fitch High School in Groton, Conn. I was a sophomore then, newly full of hormones and covered with zits, a quaking mass of biological confusion trying to pass for cool. My English teacher that year was Johnny Kelly, a skinny, short guy with a sweet smile who’d won something called the Boston Marathon a couple of years earlier. He taught from a huge “Reader of English Literature” we were all supposed to be reading from. The early stuff from Cotton Mather was as dry as week-old hay; the only thing bearable about Samuel Pepys was his name, which scored him 100 points over Thomas Hardy and those other dead English guys, all of whom wrote like they were on laudanum, whatever that was.

Thank God for Jonathon Swift! I remember turning to his essay “A Modest Proposal,” written at the height of the Irish potato famine, assuming it to be as dreadful as chapters from Hardy’s books about wheat fields. As I still read texts as literal facts strung together, some done terribly (Hardy), some much better (Mickey Spillane), my eyes popped when I got to his recommendation that Irish parents sell their kids to be eaten as tasty, rich morsels for aristocrats. Come again? To be eaten? With a fork? How could anybody mean that…

Mr. Kelly explained the meaning of satire, starting with the Greeks and evolving down to Swift, whose outrage at Irish suffering and English indifference led him to write in extremis
the opposite of what he was bothered by. I got it! One could use the written word (or pictures) to make a point by creating the opposite effect on an issue, whether the Irish famine or Watergate corruption or Eliot Spitzer’s disgrace.

All that said, my literary epiphany occurred as I sat thinking about the people being satirized, the brutal image of Irish people selling squealing babies to fancy English aristocrats, those silver forks in their tiny bellies. Looking back, I see that the oversized images of the particular subjects could also be generalized to the universality of me and them as the same, thus clarifying the satire as necessarily absurd, impossible to literally believe, to see as “true.” Naturally, unconsciously, everyone was as white as me.

Which brings us back to Barack and Michelle and all that finger pointing. It’s clear the cartoonist’s intent was satire: his outrage, like Swift’s toward aristocrats, is at the right-wing rumors circulating about the possible First Black couple in the White House. Yet it doesn’t fully work not because it isn’t spot-on in its righteous contempt; it’s because too many people can’t see the universality of “me and them as us” in it, too. Too few whites can laugh at the inevitable human absurdities that exist within Black America right alongside all our stupid white stuff. Of course, that means we all too often can’t see the brilliance and the greatness that’s there as well, not just in Barack-size but in the everyday give-and-take we take for granted among ourselves. Satire only works when we can see the universality of the human condition in the plight it exposes. Otherwise, the images move from biting satire to blatant stereotype: maybe they’re true.

The presence of the Obamas on our center political stage is a wonderful thing for us all. We white Americans have got to look at ourselves and others and reflect on what we see: can we see ourselves in that Black man with the white Kansas tint as one of us? Maybe a little bit of Chris Rock could help us here when he talks about “all fathers get is that first big piece of chicken.” Everyone laughs at that: Puerto Ricans who think about that big pork chop, whites and that huge medium-rare steak. It’s the universality of his images that connects us all as we laugh, savoring not only the remembered food but the similarities that bind us together. We’re just going to have keep working, multi-hued America, if we wish to laugh at ourselves together more often…as the frail, vulnerable, brilliant, wonderful, stupid people we are.

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This page contains a single entry by Steve Burghardt published on August 13, 2008 9:00 AM.

VII: Fathers & Sons was the previous entry in this blog.

IX: The Privilege of Performance Anxiety is the next entry in this blog.

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