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The Situation Room: Larry Wilmore

A roundtable from your MTV faves on Wilmore's White House Correspondents' Dinner language

When events warrant, MTV staffers gather together in our virtual secure bunker to discuss the political news of the day. Tuesday's topic: Larry Wilmore’s controversial (?) jokes at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. Here today: Ira Madison III, Doreen St. Félix, Ezekiel Kweku, and Ashley Schwartz-Lavares.

Madison III: You know when you unexpectedly hear the horns from Outkast's "SpottieOttieDopaliscious"? Like when Beyoncé dropped them on Lemonade in the song "All Night" (for the second time, after "Flawless")? That's what hearing Larry Wilmore call Barack "my nigga" at the goddamn White House Correspondents' Dinner was like. It was transcendent. It was a beautiful time to be black in America.

St. Félix: For me, Wilmore’s set and the ludicrous backlash nicely completed the circle begun by President Obama with Dreams From My Father. At the beginning of Obama's presidency, people went nuts over one moment in the audio recording, when Obama quotes his friend Ray: “You ain’t my bitch, nigga! Buy your own damn fries!” And Obama loved it, he dapped him up.

Kweku: In retrospect, we should have seen the ending coming when Wilmore’s opening line was “Welcome to Negro Night ... or, as Fox News would put it, ‘Two Thugs Disrupt Elegant Dinner in D.C.,’” immediately followed by a knowing nod and conspiratorial look at President Obama. He was inviting us in, he was letting us know that he was planning to be, you know, black in public, and saying things black people only ever say to other black people. His audience wasn’t really the people actually sitting in the room, but us, sitting at home. It’s a bold move for a comedian to be indifferent to the temperature and taste of a room, but that’s what Wilmore seemed to be doing. Bold and brilliant.

Madison III: I loved his indifference. From the outset, the conversation had nothing to do with the people there. There's a reason Don Lemon gave Wilmore the finger when he said, "America's finest black journalists are here tonight. Don Lemon's here too." Because not only was he addressing black people, he was also reminding Don that he ain't shit. That he parades his respectability politics around more than Drake cries about his exes. That he seriously engaged in a debate on whether the word "nigger" was better than the word "cracker."

People are more offended by a word Wilmore said than by what he referenced in his speech. My man literally talked about how black people are getting punched in the face at Trump rallies, and you're mad about a word? We can't use a word that's off-limits to white people and remind you that it's a bond between black people that white people will never be a part of, but you can sit idly by as a presidential candidate incites racial violence at his rallies? Fuck that.

Schwartz-Lavares: I personally don’t like the n-word, or use it, but that was the very rare moment it was truly in context for me. Wilmore really gave President Obama that special vote of confidence and love that has rippled through a lot of the black community since the moment he became “our” president.

To be honest, though I found Wilmore's set largely unfunny, it was a real "speak truth to power" moment. I loved that moment at the end when Wilmore asked the audience to let the fact that Obama is leaving office “soak in.” It’s not just Obama as a person that we need to hold on to, it’s the idea of us never knowing when a black man will be sitting in his seat again.

St. Félix: I just want to put Larry Wilmore and his comedy in context, for people who may not understand what a boss this man is. Wilmore was a writer on nearly every successful black sitcom during the golden age of black television. In Living Color, The Jamie Foxx Show, Sister, Sister, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Wilmore also created The Bernie Mac Show, which is an undersung antecedent for the fourth-wall-breaking we see on family sitcoms today (note: Wilmore is also a producer on Black-ish, probably the first true post-Obama show). Wilmore and the president are the same age, and in their obviously very different arenas, both deftly handle professional code-switching in public space. Wilmore pushed code-switching to its upper limit with that sign-off, broke the fourth wall, and exposed the fakeness at the WHCD more effectively than the president’s set did, in my opinion.

Schwartz-Lavares: I agree so hard, Doreen! To Ezekiel’s point, he invited blacks into an intimate conversation between us and himself and left the non-black spectators to kind of scratch their heads and figure out what the hell was going on (i.e., the Andrew Jackson jigaboo comment had me rolling). The strained laughs and groans echoing throughout the room kind of mirrored the state of cultural relations we are in right now. There’s still a hesitancy for some blacks to air their true thoughts out loud in a mixed room, and there’s also still hesitancy from those who aren’t black to respond in a way that’s sensitive and appropriate.

This threw me back to Richard Pryor’s "Word Association" skit on SNL back in the mid-‘70s. It was as if Wilmore’s set was picking up the baton of race relations Pryor tackled, but instead of those issues being posed to people at home in their living rooms, Wilmore was up in everyone’s face, staring them dead-on.

Madison III: I totally get that hesitancy to address these things in a mixed room, but that space has no problem excluding us any other time. This was the last opportunity with a black president to go all the way in and remind people that Barack Obama was very black. White people have no problem taking our slang, using it, then deciding it's outdated. They have no problem making Lemonade and our political pop culture about themselves.

But they love policing black language when it's something they can't take. The word "nigger" didn't even used to be a slur. It was a perfectly acceptable word to use in newspapers. Obama resides in a home where Thomas Jefferson, a slave-raping president, once lived. We get our word. And white people get to watch. Just as black people watch the 90 percent of America that is decidedly not for them.

Kweku: It kinda brought me full circle to the 2008 presidential campaign, where people willfully or ignorantly misinterpreted Obama's black cultural references. Like during the primary, when some Clinton supporters got mad at Obama for "brushing the dirt off his shoulders," or when Obama dapped up Michelle after a rally and Fox News speculated that it was a "terrorist fist jab." It was as if Wilmore was saying: This is who we are, and I don't particularly care if you disapprove.

And let's be real: It was a canny marketing move as well. And the resulting controversy is just more free advertising. The success of a new crop of shows like Black-ish and The Carmichael Show are showing how it's no longer necessary to adjust shows that aim at black audiences to avoid being consigned to a niche. It's not so much trying to be exclusive as it is aiming to please your audience and letting others listen in if they want to. Which is another way of proclaiming that "mainstream" doesn't have to mean "white."

Madison III: Absolutely. And speaking of Obama and Michelle's dap at the rally, Obama dapped Wilmore after his set. If the president liked it, then how do you even fix yourself to get on television the next day and call it disrespectful? And if you're black, and you're uncomfortable with the word, your argument should begin and end with, "It's not for me, but do you."

Jonathan Capehart went on this lengthy-ass diatribe dripping with respectability politics, and it's like, people called Malia Obama a nigger for getting into Harvard. How is policing our own language ever gonna make us respectable enough for white people who don't like us? We're creating our own mainstream and not allowing people to keep us on UPN or BET. We're in public spaces, we're on prime-time TV, and we're at the White House — black as hell.

St. Félix: Thanks for bringing up Capehart’s piece, Ira. Responses like his tend to expose a discomfort with public blackness — you can summarize it by talking about respectability politics — among middle-aged and older black people. Obviously, I think he’s wrong as hell, but I do want to acknowledge the black people who were uncomfortable with the entire tenor of Wilmore’s performance. And I care, or am interested, in their discomfort a lot more than I am the Piers Morganettes.

Of course, there are many exceptions to that generalization, but I think the point still stands that younger, liberal black people identify more with the Pryor school of being in white spaces than the example Cosby set forth. That Wilmore essentially appropriated the WHCD to make a speech for the young black liberals who would watch it later on the Internet seemed such a perfect encapsulation of the real exclusivity black millennials subscribe to when it comes to communicating with each other.

Schwartz-Lavares: In a strange sense, this WHCD was not just a sending-off for the president, but a litmus test for being black in public from here on out. Obama has always had to do this fine dance of being “black enough” but not being too much of a “brother,” and he’s finally at that stage to just let himself be. Obama’s dap with Larry Wilmore at the end of his set yet again proves that Obama has always identified as a “brother,” and it really speaks to Ira’s point that we’re here, we’ve been here, and we’re more present than ever before. People who don’t like it are going to have to deal with it, because we’re letting our natural hair down and our filters loose, and it’s an exciting thing.