The editors of Anthropoliteia are happy to continue an ongoing series The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatterSyllabus Project, which will mobilize anthropological work as a pedagogical exercise addressing the confluence of race, policing and justice. You can see a growing bibliography of resources via our Mendeley feed. In this post, Savannah Shange uses comedy sketches by Key and Peele to enrich classroom discussion around race, masculinity, racism, anti-blackness, and affect.
In my undergraduate courses on race and racism at a PWI, my students were largely a self-selected, social justice-minded group who sought sanctuary from their apolitical, deracialized college campus. This was a rare blessing because they valued the space deeply, and I did not have to waste time convincing anyone that Black lives mattered: the white students who enrolled in my classes identified as “allies,” while their few Black classmates and classmates of color were “woke.” At the same time, the sincerity of their convictions led to an air of seriousness that left little room for joy, much less wit.
As an antidote that provides equal parts levity and accountability for discussions of race & gender in the Americas, I look to the sketch television show Key & Peele. Airing for five seasons on Comedy Central, Keegan Michal Key and Jordan Peele co-star in a long-form roast of racial, gender, and class politics in the US. The show’s archive is a pedagogical treasure trove because of the show’s structure: the sketches are short, modular, and deeply accessible. I like to pair them with canonical or theoretically dense texts so that students have multiple entry points into the topic at hand. Further, the masculinist bent of Key & Peele’s work also makes them ripe for critical readings: when, where, and how do bodies marked female or feminine show up in this show’s worldview? Do their depictions of queer people challenge heterosexism, perpetuate it, or both? In this post, I share a bit of my experience teaching with Key & Peele, and then include a mixtape of sorts that compiles my favorite sketches and potential academic pairings.
“Can a Brotha get on Lot A?:” Internalized Racism & the Afterlife of Slavery
The first time I played this clip, cackling ensued. Doubled over, say-it-don’t-spray-it, breathless cackling from my three Black students, while the rest of my Race & Urban Education class chuckled or watched in silence. Before opening a discussion about the content of the clip, I took two yes/no straw polls: did you laugh? Is this funny? The polls led to confessions of white students trying not to laugh because they thought they were not supposed to, and Black students laughing out of pain, rather than delight. By focusing on how the skit landed in our bodies, and the difference between humor and satire, the “Auction Block” clip helped illuminate the affective dimensions of thinking with the history of race in the US.
Of course, the content of the skit is also rich – this is Saturday Night Live meets Black Skin, White Masks. “Auction Block” illustrates the concepts of internalized racism and the commodification of the Black body in a three minute sketch. Set a slave auction in 1848 Georgia, the same captive who at the beginning of the skit pledges ““I don’t care what plantation I end up on, I am straight up staging a revolt in this motherfucker!” ultimately begs to be bought – “Can a brotha get on Lot A?!”
Rather than a conflict between rabid, angry white racists and noble Negroes, “Auction Block” stages antiblackness as a process internal to Black life. I paired it with two academic texts: WEB Du Bois’ introduction to The Souls of Black Folk and John L. Jackson. Jr.’s “What Dave Chappelle Can Teach Us About American History.” Taken together, the three texts allowed us to work through double consciousness, the archetype of the Black buck, and the problematic of “agency” in the context of chattel slavery.
“Black Men Really Know How to Please White Women!”: Objectification & the Libidinal Economy of Antiblackness
(Nota bene: This clip contains profanity and explicit sexual references).
At its best, Key & Peele dispels the notion of racism as a spectacular evil, and instead illuminates its banality. In “Sex with Black Guys,” the comedic pair points to the contiguities between “positive” and “negative” racial biases, and the futility of parsing between the two. Keegan and Jordan are silent for most of the sketch, eavesdropping on two white women chat about their desire to bed a Black man (played by Janet Harney and Natasha Leggaro). Among the virtues of nigrescence in a partner is that “they are with you in the here and now, because they basically have no future!” Harney and Leggaro’s exotification enrages Keegan and Jordan, but when the potential of having sex surfaces, they can suddenly stomach the insults and capitulate to their own objectification.
The dyadic structure of the sketch is a perfect illustration of the co-imbrication of desire and disgust, hypervisibility and invisibility that structure the libidinal economy of antiblack racism. In my Blackness, Sexuality, and Youth class, we used “Sex With Black Guys” to tease out the relationship between compulsory heterosexuality, casual sex and race, once again making the personal political. Unlike “Auction Block,” the giggles that erupted when I played this clip were equally distributed across race. This time, laughter ebbed and flowed with the rhythm of the sketch, bursting out when Jordan pretends to hit his penis on the table, but shifting to a collective groan when Leggaro dismisses his advances with “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t have any money.”
I paired the sketch with Damien Sojoyner’s “Masculinity Lockdown” and Devin Carbado’s “Privilege,” and the combination helped students understand how heteropatriarchy is not a unidirectional force working against women and queer folks, but that it is instead a complex process that we navigate, subvert, and sometimes perpetuate in order to survive. In the years since the show ended, both of the Key & Peele duo have gone on to make culturally and politically relevant work, including Jordan’s stellar film Get Out. Still, I will keep digging in the crates of sketches from the original series for material to screen in my classroom. We live in a nation structured by material and social death. As has been true for the last eight generations of Black folks in the Americas, we gotta laugh to keep from crying.
The Teaching Mixtape
|Hoodie||Police Violence, Racial Profiling, Trayvon Martin|
|Phone Call||Code Switching, Black Class Diversity, Toxic Masculinity|
|Dueling Hats||Conspicuous Consumption, Global Commodity chains, Hip Hop Aesthetics|
|Soul Food||Racial Authenticity|
|Black Ice||Microaggressions, Raciolinguistics|
|Office Homophobe||Homonormativity, Respectability Politics, Hypervisibility|
|Pirate Chantey||Rape Culture, Counternarratives, Male Feminism|
|Sex with Black Guys||Hypersexualization, White Femininity & Racial Violence|
|Auction Block||Internalized Racism, the Afterlife of Slavery|
Carbado, Devon. 2005. “Privilege.” In Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology, edited by E. Patrick Johnson & Mae G. Henderson. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Du Bois, WEB. 1903. The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: AC McClurg & Co.
Fanon, Frantz. 1967. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.
Jackson, John. 2008. “What Dave Chappelle Can Teach Us About American History.” In Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness, pp. 23-52. New York: Basic Books.
Sojoyner, Damien. 2012. Masculinity Lockdown: The Formation of Black Masculinity in a California Public High School. Transforming Anthropology 20(1): 5-16.
Savannah Shange is an urban anthropologist who works at the intersections of race, place, sexuality, and the state. She is currently a joint doctoral candidate in Africana Studies and Education, Culture and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, and is the recipient of research fellowships from the Ford, Jack Kent Cooke, and Point Foundations. Her research interests include ethnographic ethics, queer of color critique, and the afterlife of slavery.