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SNL's Cringe-worthy Slavery Sketch Was Shoddy—But Important

Leslie Jones' bad joke actually raised the important topic of black women's desirability.
 
 
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Unfortunately, having more black women writers and comedians on “Saturday Night Live” does not seem to be leading to more complex portraits of African-American women. And given “SNL’s” dubious history with regard to both racial inclusion and racial representation, perhaps this is too much to ask anyway. 

Still, Leslie Jones’ skit on last weekend’s episode, in which she indicated that her large size and stature would have made her a number-one slave “draft pick” to be bred with enslaved men in the plantation South is deeply troubling. As Jamilah Lemieux  points out at Ebony.com, what enslaved women and men experienced was not love or desire but rape.  

Jones took to Twitter to defend her position and asserted that essentially the skit was driven by her own attempt to work out her experience of not being desirable to black men. While I agree that her inherent political analysis was shoddy and dangerous, I think that her honing in on this issue of desirability is incredibly important. 

First, the “SNL” bit discusses how, because of her big dark-skinned body, she would have been chosen to be a kind of “superbreeder” who could reproduce exceptionally athletic black people to do the hard physical labor of running plantations. The reality is that black women’s desirability or lack of desirability within the American body politic has been and remains deeply tied to perceptions of their reproductive capacity and choices. It is the deeply rooted perception of poor black women — “welfare queens” — having too many babies that they are unable to support without public assistance that influences faulty policy on the right to cut needed social programs like welfare and food stamps. Those very terms conjure images of black and brown women’s bodies, and alongside those images, deeply held disdain among American taxpayers, who see these women as a blight on the system. 

At the same time, the recent broad cultural embrace of Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o has sparked a range of internal conversations among African-American women about how the embrace of this dark-skinned beauty seems disingenuous. As Dr. Yaba Blay, an expert on skin-color politics in black communities,  wrote, “I see Lupita every day. I see her as often on the streets of Philadelphia as I do on the streets of Accra. I see her in my classroom. I see her at the corner store. I see her at the mall. I see her everywhere. And so do you. Only you don’t know it. If it took the media’s fixation on Lupita’s Otherness to introduce you to the beauty of dark skin, then you don’t know what you’re seeing when you look at dark-skinned women. Or maybe you don’t even see us.”

In light of what Blay argues, it is clear that Leslie Jones’ comments index ongoing struggles within black communities about the general desirability of black women with dark skin, especially if those women are not petite-sized. Lemieux reads Jones’ comments about “The Lupita Moment” as a “dismissal,” but I read her comments as an absolutely justified distrust of what the Lupita Moment means.  For instance, actress Gabourey Sidibe, a dark-skinned plus-sized woman, has had  a very different experience of beauty politics than Lupita has had. And what I take Jones to be saying is that just because folks are now checking for Nyong’o, this does not mean that dark-skinned black women’s cultural stock has gone up.

It would therefore be incredibly easy to write off Leslie Jones’ larger premise, but I think that the convenient truth about shoddy execution of the joke and its facile analysis exempts us from having to deal with more inconvenient truths about the persistence of colorism and sizism within African-American communities. Lemieux further argues that “even if there was some shred of humor in this routine… ‘SNL’ is the wrong venue for it.” This comment gets to the larger question of what exactly it does mean to have black women representing black female experiences in a mainstream venue.