The title of this post already requires a closer look at the two basic concepts – Black Language and Carnival. I will start with Bakhtin’s concept of Carnival. Bakhtin develops his idea of “carnivalization” in his Problem’s of Dostoevsky’s Poetics and it becomes a key concept in his analysis of Rabelais and His World.
The Carnival Bakhtin transposes into a literary concept does not have much in common with the carnival of our days. The Bakhtinian Carnival is a festivity enrooted in medieval times. Key carnivalesque topoi closely connected and constantly referred to are banquet imagery, marketplace speeches, the lower bodily stratum, the grotesque body and gay relativity or to put it more blatant: “carnival involves the ‘material bodily stratum’, those ‘organic’ aspects of human life that involve fucking, gorging, pissing, shitting, puking, menstruating and all the other ways in which the body can act in what [white] high cultural norms define as ‘disgusting’ fashions”. By deploying these disgusting fashions in narrative forms “social hierarchies and power structures oriented around positions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ are temporarily inverted, often through forms of parody, in order to destabilise and to make comic that which is taken seriously in social orders”.
In order to explain where exactly the concept of the carnivalesque provides Chappelle’s black language with equating powers and at what points these powers leak into the white hegemonic use of English, it is necessary to (re-)consider the American language (i.e. white and black) from Bakhtin’s point of view.
Black language has been a mode of resistance throughout the history of African-America. Once Blacks learned how to speak English they would wield the language against its white supremacist source. Bakhtin’s remark about the very same move (observed in a Marxist context), holds equally true for the African-American history of the English language: “[…] the oppressed, especially when they are conscious of their oppression, strive to deploy language for their own liberation” (Bakhtin, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language). “White people taught African slaves how to speak English; then Africans helped teach everyone how to speak American”.
Language to Whites is more than just a means of communication. It was and still is the one pillar that supports the “race dichotomy”: “White Americans practice the purification or the mortification of the body by ejecting the body imaginatively into black persons, who become associated with the physical per se: sport, sex, violence, and dance, for instance” (Sartwell 11). So, while Blacks become connected with instinctive behaviour and nature, whiteness denies its instincts and associates itself with civilization and culture. The “race dichotomy” therefore consists of the two mutually exclusive parts: (1) Black = Nature / (2) White = Mind.
White supremacist society tries to shield English from shady influences (especially African-American culture and broadcasts are censored by the FCC) and by doing so upholds the race dichotomy. “Nothing else determines our social and individual identity as our use of language; it is also a way to signal how you identify yourself”. Thus, preserving a white purified English is a means to keep white hegemony in place.
The proper use of language is an important strategy to exercise authority. From a different point of view I want to look at the nature/culture dichotomy again. When thinking about language it becomes obvious that while nature does not need to be explained, as it can be consumed transcendentally, culture has to be taught, transmitted and passed on by language. So, the abstract term of culture becomes conceivable by the power of word. Thus, for Whites keeping the language, and the knowledge connected to it, to themselves was the easiest way to shield their culture against unwanted intruders; which is why Whites only half-heartedly gave away their language to African-Americans. What Chappelle can do to, or with language can be explored by listening to what he says after the first sketch of the series “A moment in the life of Lil John” was aired. Chappelle expresses his irritation about the lyrics in one of the Lil John’s songs he has heard on the radio.
“Skeet, skeet, skeet, skeet, skeet… you can’t say that aloud on the radio! Now, you can’t say “skeet” on the radio. Well, what the fuck? If they can say “skeet” on the radio, then I say it on my show. Do you know why white people don’t ban “skeet” from the radio? Because they don’t know what it means yet. When they figure it out; they’ll be like: ‘My God, what have we done?’” (S2 E6)
In this skit Chappelle not only hijacks white language, but with it the key to white culture and the medium through which culture is transferred into reality. Assuming power over white English is assuming a creational, divine power; “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (Authorized King James Version John 1: 1-3). Or to put it in Bakhtin’s words: “Power is exercised in the right to speak, the right to interrupt, the right to remain silent. Politics and language intersect in the form of attitudes of talking down to or looking up to, of patronizing, respecting, ignoring, supporting, misinterpreting”.
Thus, Chappelle, with the key to culture in his hands he is free to design his own culture, a culture that resists white restriction. Before the face of its former owner, Chappelle bends, stretches, abuses and enhances a language that was used to signify white superiority.
The “Skeet” bit is a perfect example how blacks cipher the white language and throw it back at them (“They don’t know what it means yet!”). It’s a game played at the cost of Whites. By expanding the language it is alienated from its owner. The words that once obeyed and executed white commands now have found a different master. And moreover, from Chappelle’s gesturing (he is doing some awkward movements with the hands in his crotch) the spectator can almost be certain that the word “skeet” has a sexual connotation. The Urban dictionary offers the following definitions (among many others) for the word “skeet”:
„Skeet“ is actually a form of birth control practiced by the African-American tribes of North America near the beginning of the 21st Century. Visionaries of the time (such as Lil Jon and Nelly) recognized the inevitable and ever-present danger of overpopulation in their land and decided to take action. They discovered an ancient form of birth control used by their ancestors that involved „pulling out and shooting“ (much like skeet shooting) during sexual intercourse, as to not impregnate the female, or „biatch“. The visionaries spread the word the only way they knew how: rap music. People would listen to the songs of the visionaries during ritual smoking ceremonies and chant „skeet, skeet, skeet!“
Dave Chappelle does not stop at estranging whites from their own language he also reintroduces the body to the language, i.e. sex and the physical per se essential component of Bakhtin’s Carnival. By estranging whites from their own communication Chappelle reintroduces the carnivalesque, in form of the body, to the white mind that had so thoroughly ejected it decades ago. What seems like a game of mockery is a serious form of “Bakhtinian resistance”.
Chappelle’s treating the “skeet-subject” with jocularity should not be mistaken for his own resistance lacking seriousness. “A life without play is a disaster; thus, play is serious”. Chappelle’s carnivalesque humor is deriving its pleasure from bringing back to mind that which white culture has sought to hide from sight; “namely the ‘material bodily stratum’, those ‘organic’ aspects of human life that involve fucking, pissing, shitting, puking, menstruating and all the other ways in which the body can act in what [white] high cultural norms define as ‘disgusting’ fashions”. Apart from the ‘material bodily stratum” profanity consists also of a verbal violence, that can already threaten its addressee by mere loudness. In Chappelle’s “Samuel Jackson Beer” commercial, profanity is taken to the extreme. The skit features Chappelle as a very profane and extremely loud Samuel L. Jackson advertising his new beer brand in a bar to a group of white businessmen. The skit consists of Jackson/Chappelle yelling famous Samuel L. Jackson catchphrases, like: „IT’LL GET YOU DRUNK!!“, „YOU’LL BE FUCKING FAT GIRLS IN NO TIME! YOU MIGHT EVEN FIGHT A NIGGAR OR TWO! MM-MMM BITCH!!“, „GOOD MUTHA FUCKING CHOICE, MUTHA FUCKA! and „HOW’S IT TASTE MOTHER FUCKA?!“, Jackson/Chappelle ends the skit with „SAMUEL JACKSON! IT’S MY BEER! YES THEY DESERVE TO DIE, AND I HOPE THEY BURN IN HELL!“
Dave Chappelle uses profanity as a means to playfully reintroduce the body to the mind. Standard English as an indicator of “high culture” is most often a subject to self-imposed censorship when used by the “purified” white mind.
The skit – a parody of the Samuel Adams beer commercials – confronts its (white) audience with the bawdy, anti-establishment humor: A “low cultural invasion of bourgeois proprieties…. [That] signifies unruliness and disorder, a ‘profane’ interruption of the staid pieties of middle-class life”. The skit itself – as many others I have described – isn’t just about profanity. Dave Chappelle as an inverted depiction of the famous patriot Samuel Adams suggests a profane body within the ‘purest’ white minds; the black stereotype of the violent beast becomes part of Samuel Adams: One of the founding fathers of the United States, a philosopher, a key architect of American culture is exposed as an unfinished body, a distorted image shaped by American historiography. About the body that is lying behind the kind of humor Chappelle deploys Bakhtin says:
…the grotesque body is not separated from the rest of the world. It is not a closed, completed unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits. The stress is laid on those parts of the body that are open to the outside world. This means that the emphasis is on the apertures or convexities, or on various ramifications and offshoots: the open mouth, the genital organs, the breasts, the phallus, the potbelly, the nose. The body discloses its essence as a principal of growth which exceeds its own limits only in copulation, pregnancy, childbirth, the throes of death, eating, drinking, or defecation. This is the ever unfinished, ever creating body…. (Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World)
Samuel L. Jackson is the grotesque body that, in the white mind has been engraved as being beyond any respectability. In most of his films Jackson reminds his audience of the typical Blaxploitation protagonists (in the “Shaft” sequel from 2000 he actually played Ernest Tydiman’s hero of the same name, the archetype of the Blaxploitation genre). In his movies Jackson beats up and kills people, (even though his favourite are white he doesn’t hesitate to give black people their fair share of ‘ass whupping’), he uses profanity and embodies the (sexual) masculinity usually ascribed to the black buck. By incorporating Jackson into Adams, Chappelle unifies the assumed anticlimaxes of black and white. The result is a creature that looks so pathetic, so grotesque, that once again the audience has to admit that stereotypes are hardly a template to provide sufficient orientation to social, political and cultural reality.