Key, Peele, & the Divergence of Blacknicity

get-outThere has been a great deal of discussion on social media this week regarding Jordan Peele, writer, comedian, founder of Monkeypaw Productions, and the writer/director of the surprise hit movie, Get Out. Now admittedly, I haven’t seen the movie, nor am I likely to since horror films generally irritate me without providing either scares or interest. Because of that, I won’t attempt to take any position on the film at all other than to mention it reportedly earned $30.5M in its opening weekend against a budget of $4.5M (that’s good), and as of this writing, it holds a Rotten Tomatoes score of 100%, with an audience score of 89%, meaning that fans loved it and it earned 140 favorable reviews and 0 bad reviews from critics. That’s 0 as in zero, nil, none … for a horror flick.

Even assuming that score will slip somewhat, it’s in the realm of other recent releases like the critical darlings and Oscar winners La La Land and Hidden Figures, as well as commercial loves John Wick: Chapter 2 and The Lego Batman Movie. Time will tell where it goes from here, or where Jordan Peele’s career goes, but if it has legs, the movie is in that rare, glorious place where box-office success meets critical success: Oscarville, on the corner of Next Movie Avenue and Baller Boulevard.

To say this film has moved Peele into a new stratosphere is an understatement. Probably the closest analogy I can think of off the top of my head was M. Night Shamalamadingdong’s 1999 release of the surprise mega-hit The Sixth Sense. You can probably tell from the previous sentence that I’m no longer a fan of Night’s work, so here’s sincerely hoping that Peele takes a better path from here on. Given he’s proven his comedy and horror chops, as well as an ability to mix social satire in genre work, I’d say the sky is the metaphorical limit.

Given all of this prelude, you might think that the social muddia buzz regarding Peele and his flick are all good. Mostly, you’d be right. Here’s a quick survey of Twitter:

I’m not going to front. I’m on social muddia, but I’m not of it. I have no idea who any of those people are. I picked their tweets simply because they’ve been the most popular, which is usually a good gauge of how the trend is going. For his part, Peele has remained humble and quiet on social muddia–well, humble-braggadocious is more like it, with an embarrassed-emoji-laden retweet of this tweet:

It’s okay, you get to brag a little, Jordan. That’s especially true given some of the less-than-glowing commentary I’ve seen with the Twitter and Facebook mud. A typical post goes something like this. “Oh, now y’all think Jordan Peele is a genius, but before he (or Key and Peele) was a cornball.” I won’t show actual posts or tweets because I’m not trying to put anyone on blast. I’m simply finally gettting to the point of this post, which is the implicit definition of the word “corny.” The dictionary definition is pretty simple:

screen-shot-2017-02-27-at-3-29-55-pmIn other words, not really funny, like your uncle’s stupid jokes that he tells at every single 4th of July cookout your family has. Key and Peele had that rep among certain factions in the black community (and no, you won’t ever get me to say African American, because I know way too much about African culture to lie that way). To those of us who are melanin-enriched due to our roots in the African sun, corny is a deeper cut that just not too funny. Urban Dictionary says it best:

screen-shot-2017-02-27-at-3-35-22-pmYou can see the ratio is almost 3:1 in favor of this definition, which in Urban Dictionary terms is almost unanimous consent. Corny, to the black community, means, “You tryin to act black, but you ain’t black.” Hell, by that standard of behind-the-back, whispered insult, I’m not black either. Rather than go into a long, convoluted discussion of what it means to be black, let’s focus here on its comic connotations. Aries Spears, comedian and former SNL cast member, probably spoke best of this subject in an interview if you can get past all the ‘real nigga’ bullshit. I’ll get to that in a bit. For now, let’s assume there is such a thing, because there is, it’s just not what you might think. You don’t need to listen to all of it, just enough of a taste to get the drift. (I’m assuming if you’re still with me at this point, you didn’t stop here just to be polite or find out whether it’s worth seeing Get Out. If you did, congratulations and yes, it is. If you’re still here because you’re interested in the subject, thank you.)

Keep in mind this is Raw, Naked Art, so-called because Maria and I intend to keep it real up in this bitch, so to speak, while trying to maintain a bit more decorum than either her South London or my D.C. roots might suggest. Here’s Aries.

Not being chosen, by the way, is the 21st-century way of implying someone might be an Uncle Tom. Let’s investigate that a bit further, shall we? (Can you feel my evil smile?) Now, I was a bit taken aback by Russell Simmons’s speaking of what black culture is, given he speaks it in what to my southern ears sounds like a New York, Jewish accent. Is that black or just the coincident linguistic pairing of the black urban and Jewish urban ghettos in the early 20th century? Hmm.

A modicum of background on Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele is probably needed right now. Key was born in Detroit, Michigan a biracial kid who was adopted  by interracial parents with the same ethnicity as his biological parents. He grew up middle class, reared by two social workers, and eventually went on to earn a Master’s in Fine Arts from Penn State. Jordan Peele was born in New York City, also of interracial parents, and is also biracial. Like Key, he grew up in a middle-class household and eventually graduated from Sarah Lawrence College. In other words, Key and Peele are both real niggas. Not.

Now, the implications here are clear. One can’t be real if one isn’t from the actual culture one is representing. I’m sure some think it’s because the duo are both biracial, but if you know anything about race, you know that’s silly bullshit. Let’s take me as an example of a typical middle-class-real black American kid. I was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up mostly in southern Virginia, with stints in both D.C. and Oakland, California along the way. The only time I ever went to an integrated school was in low-income neighborhoods in Oakland and eventually in Hampton, Virginia after a begrudging emergence from its segregated roots when I hit Jr. High. Ethnically, I was always considered black, even though recent DNA analysis has determined I have only 58% African DNA with 39% European and the rest Asian. Yeah, I’m a real nigga, except I’m actually biracial, as it turns out, even though I’ve had no “white” ancestors for at least 195 years. But what is the black culture that Key and Peele’s middle-class upbringing denies them? Is it the southern black experience? I had that, and yet culturally, I’m much more like either of them than I am Russ Simmons or Ice Cube or Flava Flav or Dolomite. Is it the urban experience? My mom got us the hell out of Oakland after a couple of years, and I’m certain to this day that I’d have ended up dead or on the streets if she hadn’t, so yeah, I can agree that is a big part of it.

But being real is more than just that. See, we operate under the illusion that there’s something special in the black community that stamps us–some magic dust you find in the hood that sticks under your fingernails like root dust for the remainder of your life. And to an extent, that’s true, but it isn’t about blackness and it damned sure isn’t about Africa. You see, in the years since I left school, I became something of an amateur historian in Black American History, African History, the history of genocide, and the history of racial and ethnic discrimination. Why? Hell, somebody had to. What I’ve learned is that what we paint as black culture, the real niggas, is mostly just the normal hierarchical culture that emerges in urban societies. They are especially prevalent in lower-income or working-class societies. Yes, you are all fam, and you pull for one another, but try growing up on the schoolyard without finding your place in the hierarchy. If you don’t know your rank, then you are remarkably lucky or dead. What we see as “real” is little more than urban youth imitating the alpha of the group. When you live in the city, you know who the alphas are, guaranteed. Your survival requires they test to see where you fit and your being strong and cool enough to take your place in the hierarchy. Being “real” means that either you are the alpha, or you’ve learned how to convince those of lesser social status that you might be, but you damned sure ain’t no omega (or bitch, or whatever derogatory term you choose).

In the video above, Aries Spear talks about Key and Peele and Dave Chappelle, Steve Harvey, etc. and speaks of “authenticity.” And, frankly, I agree with him in that regard. The authenticity, however, isn’t about being a “street nigga” who pronounces words in a certain way. That doesn’t make you street. Nor is it about whether or not you’re educated, per se, or learned in the street. It’s about whether you’ve lived the culture, had to fight through the hierarchy, learned the dialect, and emerged intact. I had to fight, as a kid, for pronouncing words the “wrong way” or giving someone the finger in the east coast way I learned rather than the west coast way they did it. I fought everyone in the hierarchy until I kicked the alpha’s ass and took over my 4th-grade class. That didn’t make me “street.” It did, however, teach me enough about the culture that I’m just as comfortable with my camera in the suburbs as in a D.C. or London ghetto, not because I’m a badass, but precisely because I know when the surrounding hierarchy says “be tough” or “be cool.” I know when to pull them out and when to get the hell out. If you don’t know the difference, you will stick out and it won’t be pretty.

Now, having said all of this, let me say, I don’t like Key and Peele’s comedy. It never felt real to me and I’m not ghetto. I have a master’s degree, I spent over 30 years working in America’s high-tech sector, most of my friends are from all over the world in every ethnicity, my wife is a half-English, half-Spanish Londoner who’d be called “white” in America but was never once white at home. I have 34% British DNA, same as her, and I’m sure people would call me corny, if they never met me. However, none of Key or Peele’s “black” characters feel black to me. They aren’t like the people in the street I’ve met who stay “cool” rather than hot.

“To be black / is / to be / very-hot,” wrote Don L. Lee, back when he was Don and not Haki. He was lying. It’s always been about being cool.

With the emergence of the black middle class, many youth have grown up apart from the southern culture and worlds away from the urban hierarchy, enough so that it’s no long “real.” It’s urban, and street, and hierarchical, and outdated, is what it is. Are Key and Peele “real niggas?” Not if you accept the old definition, nor if you think that’s a good thing to be. I don’t. But I also realize their “ghetto black” characters lack even the authenticity of the ethic characters I write or portray for my wife, in private. You can’t fake what you’ve never seen. I couldn’t write a gay character if I’d not had gay roommates, and family, and friends. I couldn’t write a drug-user character if I’d never known one. And I couldn’t be a “real nigga” if I were actually trying to embarrass them with an insincere caricature that I based on movies and TV and not on first-hand experience.

I think Peele’s new movie has emerged at a higher level than previous work precisely because he isn’t trying to be a real nigga anymore. Instead, he’s being real. Leave ghetto characters to that black, urban comic hierarchy. If you’ve not had the life experiences of Cedric the Entertainer, of Bernie Mac, or some of their predecessors like Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, or even deep in the roots folk like Moms Mabley and Rudy Ray Moore, then your work will reek of the tinge of falsehood. There is a place for the relatively squeaky clean of Trevor Noah’s (South African) or the Kevin Hart’s of the comic world, but I wonder if we need the likes of Eddie Murphy’s or Chris Rock’s or Key & Peele’s imitation blackness. In the end, being hood is about whether or not you lived in the hood; it’s about whether the hood lives in you.

There is a simple reason we’ve always called black culture a diaspora; it’s because our culture has dispersed, adapted, and changed. It’s time everyone stopped saying “real nigga” like that’s a good thing. It never was, not when I was one and not now. Let that stupid shit go, and let talented, brilliant folk like Key and Peele, with their white wives and white lives, just keep being themselves. They are black enough to write about life when they’re not doing caricatures, and they’ve proved that. At some point, all of the definitions will change. I think Peele’s new movie is an important step along the way.


4 thoughts on “Key, Peele, & the Divergence of Blacknicity

  1. Great post, honey. I agree, the identity labels are different across the pond, but it is most certainly an urban hierarchical phenomenon. Urban black Americans don’t own that cultural concept. We’ve spoken about the parallels between urban white Londoners and the urban black American community at length. I do agree with you however, in that authenticity rests in having had direct experience. Performers who imitate East End Londoners who never had direct experience of the East End, long enough that is for it to become ingrained, just don’t manage to pull it off, and will likely be criticised for not being authentic. Same thing. Cockney Zombies, now most of the actors in that film were the real deal, but you have to be from there to recognise it. Otherwise, actually nobody would be able to discern the difference between a Bermondsey accent and an East or Southeast London accent.
    Hypocrisy will always rule, as long as it is allowed to.

    Liked by 1 person

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