I bet you didn’t see Showtime’s one-hour special with comedian Lavell Crawford. Which is weird because the media is delirious with racial parity these days and they scarcely mentioned it. Crawford is a unique voice in American comedy and routinely sells out black audiences across the country. So where’s his New Yorker profile or New York Times essay? Why didn’t anyone hear about Crawford calling Trump our ‘first nigger president’ — back in 2017, no less?
I discovered Crawford through an NSFW Breitbart comments thread, reading, as I like to, across the divide. The video, ‘Lavell Crawford — Trump Obama’, is an excerpt from Crawford’s Home for the Holidays tour, which Showtime premiered in late 2017.
Showtime won’t publish video, but the audio is available in sequence on YouTube. It’s great. Lavell sounds like bourbon-soaked gravel. Black and unapologetic. Don’t think Obama, think Chef from South Park. As the comedian says of our much-beloved former President, ‘I wish he was a little brown-er.’
Now I want to call him Lavell, not Crawford (and I mean no disrespect by it, but Crawford sounds white and what’s great about Lavell is that he’s not).
If you had to ask, you would probably know Lavell from his Breaking Bad character, Huell Babineaux. Breaking Bad makes use of Lavell’s size and blackness so he plays a bodyguard. A black man not to fuck with. IRL he’s goofier. Significantly, the last mainstream publication to feature Lavell was a punishingly brief Rolling Stone interview back in 2013. Lavell is delighted by the opportunity: ‘Rolling Stone? It’s an honor!’
And gets on to answering questions about the honor of working with his white cast mates. Rolling Stone was less interested in Lavell’s own work. I may be wrong, but I’m assuming that the readership for all major news organs is still majority-white, which begs the question: are we less interested in the day-to-day experiences of black people just living their lives? The kind of people Lavell talks to about his?
There’s certainly an audience for stories of black victimization and black crime. Social justice. But we seem less interested in what black people find funny.
Lavell is from a racially segregated America, and his material does not skirt the fact. Thank God! He talks about not seeing a lot of white people; they not really seeing him. He talks about bills due, long hours of being fat on a hot day, and the exotic crisis of seeing a white girl tuck her hair behind her ears. He talks about shutting down a little black girl who couldn’t do the same. He talks about what it’s like to feel like a ‘nigger’ in America after having had a black President. He says ‘nigger’ a lot.
Obviously, there’s the problem of the word I’m not supposed to use, as well as the context it refers to: black poverty, black crime, gangster culture and its ludicrous brutality. It’s not the most sanguine material, but you can’t say it’s not funny. People are laughing — a lot.
Lavell starts back in with Obama: ‘At least his wife is colored.’ Whoa! Do we even use use that word anymore? It seems some of us do, though I’m certain I’m not supposed to. But sure! Why not? There are nuances of color, class, privilege and education among minority communities, as in every community, in every household. (Apparently, Ariana Grande is white?!?) It’s complicated even for black people, which is probably why it feels so wrong when white people try to set the rules of speech.
Either way, I’m glad I get to hear Lavell talk about what I don’t know enough to say. His routines make stark contrast with those people who think it’s impressive to say they ‘don’t see color’. Lavell gets on with conflating terms, using ‘nigger’ for ‘black’, while objecting to people calling Obama ‘the first nigger president’. I’m thinking, who ever said that?
You can tell that Lavell’s audience is mostly black because the response is uproarious and self-knowing. The comic pauses. He is championing them by insulting their hero. It’s a beautiful and sophisticated move, a tightrope walk across Niagara. People ruin their careers on this kind of move. Lavell, like Richard Pryor before him, lands it.
‘God heard our prayers.’ The audience knows where he’s going, and they love watching him get there. ‘Thank you, Jesus,’ he says, ‘cuz now we have a real nigger in the office!’ A woman squeals, hands are clapped, feet are stomped.
‘Donald Trump is the realest nigger I ever seen in my motherfucking life. You can get mad if you want to. He don’t look black! Yeah, he the new kind of nigger: we got burnt almond, we got light-skinned, we got dark-skinned, we got purple up in this motherfucker. Now…we got a new kind of nigger: a tangerine nigger.’
The audience lose their minds. It makes sense. Obama vs. Trump: Where’s the difference? The racial stereotypes are inverted! Classic. It’s such a pretty picture, I wonder again why I haven’t heard of this guy? I check the date. I’m always the last to catch on, but seriously?
Reading reviews, it’s easy to see why. Whether people like him or not, they don’t dare say what he said: Too risky. That tells you something about the politics of liberal censorship these days, and how it inadvertently excludes marginal voices. The very same voices they may by ideology profess to want to keep.
Timid editors are as detrimental to public discourse as drug dealers. They push a fake fix, pablum for the baby. It’s imbecilic, it deepens the political divide, and it makes us stop reading. When we do read, we’re likely to get a blatantly obvious inoffensive editorial that lectures our very own choir on the song we’ve all just sung. I almost always feel dumber except for when I’m bored, tearing out my hair.
The one format protected from that sacred P.C. bias? The folksy confessional: ‘Once I was poor, now I am not. Once I was blind, now I can see.’ Or as Tulsi Gabbard now says, ‘Once I was against gay marriage, now I’m not. Once I was a friend of Bashar Assad’s, now not so much.’
‘I would be careful there, sweetie,’ my mother said when I played her Lavell’s set. ‘People don’t like that sort of thing.’ And that’s exactly what I’m talking about: whatever scares your mother. Which is why it’s great that Lavell has his mom introduce him on stage. He may call himself a ‘nigger’, contrasting Obama’s eminence with his own failings, but he does it so well that we love him like his mama’s own baby boy. He’s letting us laugh at the sentiments only a mother could forgive. He’s letting his black audience love Obama, and giggle at themselves.
So why did no major publication mention Lavell Crawford, back in November 2017, characterizing Trump as our ‘nigger president’? Our greatest cultural bugaboo, the worst of the worst, a role traditionally reserved by white people for black people, now inhabited by a white man. We should thank Lavell Crawford for showing us that tangerine is the newest blackface.
Jesse Longman is a mother and writer from Connecticut.