In recent months, there has been a focus on the antics of Adrian Peterson and the legal proceedings of his indictment for child abuse, to which he pled no contest to a lesser charge of reckless assault. A couple of months ago, Brittney Cooper offered an excellent analysis of the situation and why parenting styles mattered, and not just for Black parents. She highlights the existence of violence in how Black folks discipline their children, and I have no intention of disputing that. What I find to be interesting is how that culture of violence is reproduced. In the Adrian Peterson case, he speaks of how he was disciplined, and how that shapes the way he disciplines his children, specifically sons. One way culture is reproduced is through our interactions with one another, passed down through generations. Additionally culture is also perpetuated through the messages we receive about what makes up that culture. Adrian Peterson spoke of experiencing the culture of his parents through discipline. I also experienced Black culture through my parents, but it was full of laughter.
My father is Black and my mother is White. I grew up in rural Indiana, far removed from the urban culture that colored my father’s upbringing. My parents firmly believed in the “time-out chair” and “grounding”, promising never to put their hands on me. Of course, me being the child I was, the one time my mother gently swatted my behind to get my attention, I threw a fit. I spent the better part of an hour screaming about how she “broke her promise” and she put me in time-out. Due to my parents’ philosophy, I never received a “whooping” with a belt, switch, or paddle growing up. Whenever my father really wanted to get his point across, he used words, phrases with which I came to love.
My father loves quotes more than anything else. He communicates through snippets of movies, TV shows, and standup comedy. I don’t think a day went by without him quoting Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor or Sinbad. “Roll your eyes at me, I’ll roll your head on the floor,” my father used to say to me, every time I copped an attitude with him. I remember the first time I watched Bill Cosby himself, and felt like my father was on the stage. With each word my father said, he ushered me into his culture and shaped my Black identity. To this day, I communicate to other Black people through this common understanding of language and experiences. Black stand-up comedy represents a point of salience in how I connect with my Black identity, and also how I communicate that to others. In that way, Black comedians are artifacts of Black culture, and help craft how that culture is reproduced. Through laughing (and sometimes cringing) at their jokes, we internalize messages about what the “Black experience” is.
I recognize that there is no universal Black experience. When I use those words, I am referring to the construction of Blackness, often perpetuated through media imagery, such as biased news coverage, movies, commercialized rap and hip-hop, and yes, standup comedy. What makes a joke funny is that it pulls on a perceived near universal, or universal experience of the audience. When Bill Cosby said “I brought you into this world, I can take you out”, the audience laughed because of a connection. Perhaps they saw their parents saying something similar to them as children, or perhaps as parents they have had similar moments with their children. Bill Cosby himself (pun intended), was actually quoting his father in his bit, actively modeling and participating in cultural reproduction.
Bill Cosby, Sinbad, Chris Rock, and Kevin Hart all have one thing in common: the thread of violence woven through their routines about relationships and child rearing. The implication of Bill Cosby’s jokes are the death of his children. Kevin Hart jokes about punching his daughter in the throat. Of course, Bill Cosby and Kevin Hart are not actually advocating for violence against children, but their words still send implicit messages of what is culturally acceptable and appropriate. It is also worth noting that this form of discipline is not relegated to “man’s work”; Cosby and Sinbad both discuss female participation. For Cosby it was his wife that actually performed “the beatings” (his words), while Sinbad spoke of his mother giving him a whooping for his attitude, her arm extending 8 blocks to drag him back to the house.
The messages of violence also extend beyond the realm of child rearing and into relationships, particularly regarding how men interact with women. Kevin Hart, and Chris Rock describe relationships between men and women that function at a high decibel level. Kevin Hart speaks at length about what it means to be a man, saying that men needed to be real men and argue because “that’s what they’re in a relationship for.” He even goes so far as to equate being a “yes man” with being a “fag”. It is my personal belief that just because no one is being hit, does not mean that violence is not being perpetuated. Violence is also strength of emotion and force, which too can be unleashed on individuals. In this way, Kevin Harts imploring of men to embrace their masculinity through argumentative behavior is a direct call to violence, as I define it. Moreover, Kevin Hart highlights violence amongst women as well, regularly quipping about women hitting him while doling out advice about when and how men should and should not pick fights with “their women.” For his part, Chris Rock does much of the same, portraying relationships between men and women as being full of tension, yelling, and the threat of physicality. What is particularly poignant is that though there is plenty of evidence of hegemonic masculinity and sexism in many bits done by Kevin Hart and Chris Rock, the existence of violence is not bound by gender. Men yell at and try not to hit women; women scream and slap men; and both parents scold, and in some cases “beat” their children. From standup comedy routines, one gets the sense that violence characterizes the Black family experience at every level.
I’m not suggesting that we should all turn off our TVs and never listen to Black comedians again; rather I wish to place Adrian Peterson into the context of larger cultural systems that perpetuate violence, physical and emotional. Comedy is important; laughing is necessary. Comedy is also social commentary, and though the argument can be made that the examples I’ve given are exaggerated and meant to poke fun at our discomfort, the reality is that the words still hang in the air reinforcing truth, meant to make us chuckle because we remember the time our parents screamed at us and we didn’t know if we would live until morning. With each laugh, we are complicit in perpetuating violence as a point of comedy, allowing it to further burrow its acceptance underneath our skin and within our consciousness. My father never beat my ass, and yet I still became indoctrinated into this facet of Black culture. I laugh at the jokes, and I think that’s important.