Representations of Blackness in the Comedies of Dave Chappelle and Key & Peele

From Essentialism to Post-Blackness

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016

25 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Historical background

3. Theoretical background

4. Material

5. Analysis

6. Conclusion

7. References

1. Introduction

What defines you as a person? Is it your character traits? Your haircut? Your clothing style? Or is it the complexion of your skin that makes you the person you are? When you think about identity and the definition of identity there are many ways one can define their own identity. For Black people in America identity has always been a big issue. The complexion of their skin has, no matter if they wanted it or not, contributed to the construction of their identity. Skin color is what defined their social status in the United States in the first place: If you were born with black skin you were a slave or at least treated like a second - class person. The incorporation of the complexion of the skin into the definition of the identity of Black Americans was imposed to them by the social structure of the United States of the last few hundred years. Being designated rather as chattle and work force than as a human being the discrimination and racism against people of Black color led to a physical and psychological division between ''the whites'' and ''the blacks''. As a consequence, the identity of African Americans was shaped and constructed by these conditions leading to the construction of Black identity. The color of your skin became the basis of your identity.

Although there were hundreds of thousands of Black people in the United States a collective identity was constructed and many complex, multifaceted identities were masked. ''The literature on identity highlights two levels of identity construction and the tension - laden ways in which they interact. The first level concerns the defensively situated, collective identities or essentialisms that racialized communities constructed in relation to a dominant culture.''1 The dominant culture being the white supremacy, Blacks established a collective identity to protect and distinguish themselves from the dominant white culture and identity. This way of constructing identity led to ideas like Afrocentrism.2 The identity of African Americans was shaped by the dominant culture, often stigmatizing Black culture and representing it in homogenous terms, but also by Black people themselves leading to essentialist conceptions of what it meant to be ''authentically'' black.

The stigmatized and simplified conceptions of Black identity were also represented in the arts and the media. Therefore the stereotypes emerged and solidified in the psyche of the American culture because they were presented over and over again, from the 19th to the 21st century, in minstrels shows and Blockbuster movies. These developments led to the solidifaction of various stereotypes in the popular medial representation of Blackness and minds of many Americans.

In addition to that, the construction of Black identity by the white as well as the black culture has led to the construction of Blackness. The concepts and representations of Blackness have been dominated by stereotypes and essentialist notions. A phenomenon that is still existing in the 21st century if we think about the representation of Blackness in Blade.3 The concept that has developed from these events was the idea that there is something like authentic Blackness, that there is an essence to Black culture and Black identity. The genesis of the concept of essentialism was the consqequence.

''Essentialism is, as Diana Fuss defines it, ''commonly understood as a belief in the real, true essence of things, the invariable and fixed properties which define the 'whatness' of a given entitiy. […] It assumes that certain characteristics are inherently part of the core being of a group. The idea of authenticity - a notion that implies essence - can derive from the idea that a particular group and individual entities of that group can be recognized by the way in which they are shown with some measure of the ''real'' or authentic or essential qualities of that group.''4

Applying the theory of essentialism to the concept of Blackness would mean that all Black people have specific properties in common. The fact that stigmatized and stereotypical conceptions of authentic Blackness and Essentialism exist (not only in the representation in the media but also in the heads of black people) is what Touré has proven and challenged in his book ''Who's Afraid of Post - Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now''. He recounts an experience where he went sky diving and some Black folks in a bar told him, ''Brother, Black people don't do that''5 what made him question the concept of authentic Blackness. The question he asked himself is what Blackness really is. His conclusions are that ''some Blacks may see the range of Black identity as something obvious but [he] know[s] there are many who are unforgiving and intolerant of Black heterogeneity and still believe in concepts like ''authentic'' or ''legitimate'' Blackness. There is no such thing.''6 His approach is that of Post-Blackness, meaning that there is not the one Black authentic culture, the Blackness and no essence. Instead he claims that ''there is no dogamtically narrow, authentic Blackness because the possibilities for Black identity are infinite. To say something or someone is not Black - or is inauthentically Black - is to sell Blackness short.''7

Touré notices that there has been a development of the conception of Blackness and also a change in the representation of Blackness in art, music and culture. As an example he picks the broadening variety of Black hiphop artists from the seventies to today. His claim is that early hiphop culture has only shown ''New York Black male working - class symbols, tropes, and signifiers''8 and forgotten about the many other Black people and Black identities in New York and America. The same pattern can be observed in the evolution of American theater and film. Specific forms of representations of Blackness were established and strenghened which led to the construction of a conception of Blackness dominated by stereotypes about Black people.

The concepts of Essentialism and Post - Blackness are contrary to each other in their perception and construction of Black identity. This essay deals with the concepts of Essentialism and Post-Blackness in comedy, namely in the comedies of Dave Chappelle and Key & Peele. I will argue that, against the claim of Touré that Dave Chappelle's comedy is the best representative of Post-Blackness, Dave Chappelle's sketches show essentialistic representations of Blackness, whereas the comedy of Key & Peele represents Blackness in the light of Post-Blackness. Thus I will claim that there has been a change in the representation of Blackness in the comedies of Black entertainers from essentialism to Post-Blackness and will integrate Paul Gilroy's, Stuart Hall's, Wahneema Lubiano's, Arthur R. McGee's and Touré's views on essentialism and post-blackness.

First of all the historical background will be outlined where the various stereotypes about black people, their integration in theater and film and the development of the role of African Americans in American popular culture will be illustrated. Second of all the theoretical basis for this paper will be laid in order to locate this topic in current discussions on essentialism, authenticity and post -backness. Afterwards a brief information about Dave Chappelle and Key & Peele will be given. Next, the material will be analyzed and discussed on the basis of the concepts of essentialism and Post-Blackness. As a last point the findings and the discussion will lead to a conclusive discussion.

2. Historical background

In order to analyze the material of this essay the various stereotypes about African Americans and their processing in theater and film throughout but also the role of Blacks in the media American history have to be discussed.

A lot of different stereotypes about Black people have emerged in the last few hundred years. The most prominent historical archetypes were the ''Sambo'', black men who are happy, laughing, lazy irresponsible and carefree, the ''pickaninny'', Black children who were depicted as savages and animal - like creatures, the ''Mammy'', a fat household woman who raises children, is ugly, sexless, religious and supersticious (which was subscribed to her because of the fact that she was black)9, the ''Mandingo'', a male African slave epitomizing black bestiality and primitivism, ''Sapphire'', a woman who consumes men and usurps their role, either being strong and masculine or as an aggressive woman who drives her children and partners away with her overbearing nature and ''Jezebel'', the lustful black woman, who is promiscious and immoral.

Modern stereotypes about Black people are the Drug Lord, Crack Victims, depicting a criminal nature of Black people, the watermelon and fried chicken stereotype, meaning that all Black people love to eat watermelon and fried chicken, the welfare queen, a woman who finances her life only by receiving welfare, the magical negro, who posseses special, mystical powers, the angry black woman (a term which was used for Michelle Obama by some journalists and the ''black bitch'', depicting a modern variant of Jezebel.

These stereotypes about Black people were created over the last few hundred years and became prominent not least because they were represented in theater and film. These ''negative attitudes towards blacks were encoded in entertainment of the 18th Century. In 1843, the minstrel show was introduced and emerged as the first form of American national entertainment''10 and the ''nineteenth - century dramatic performances were mostly controlled and contrived, representing white views of African - Americans''.11 W.E.B. DuBois was a critic of minstrel shows as he found ''that such catering to racial stereotypes demeaned efforts by blacks to improve their image.''12 The modern form of minstrel theater were films, which kept up with the tradition of representing Black people in a negative, stereotypical way. One of the most striking example of the negative representation of Black people and Blackness was D.W. Griffith's ''The Birth of a Nation'' from 1915 which depicted African - American males as ''big, bad, and oversexed, a menace to European American women.''13 Other examples of negative stereotypical representations of Blackness can be found in the television series ''Belulah'', ''Gone with the Wind'' or ''Step 'n' Fetch It''.14 So the Blacks who got roles in plays or films played mostly stereotypical roles which continued after the Depression when ''conservative elements of society reinforced racism and blacks continued to play mostly stereotypical roles.15

The African - American actors who appeared on stage or in movies ''have symbolized black experience in the United States. Plays, television and film have featured blacks in starring or supporting roles and explored racial themes. These media have had a powerful influence on Americans' perceptions of blacks''16 George Packer captured the actuality of this phenomenon in his essay ''Race, Art, and Essentialism'' when he wrote about Ryan Speedo Green, a Black opera singer, who faces racism even in the ''sopthisticated'' world of classical music.17

These stereotypes still haven't faded completely in the United States and ''almost two decades later, African-Americans criticized the television and movie industries for consistently excluding minority actors and actresses from primetime shows and blockbuster films.''18 The list of the predecessors of Dave Chappelle and Key & Peele is long, reaching from Billy Kersands (1842 - 1915), Bert Williams (1876 - 1922), Amos 'n' Andy (who were white (!) and paved the way for later African American comedians to become popular), to Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and the Wayans Family.19


1 Gosine, Kevin: '' Essentialism Versus Complexity: Conceptions of Racial Identity Construction in Educational Scholarship. '', In: Canadian Journal of Education 27, 1 (2002): 81 - 100. p.82.

2 See Ibid.

3 See Gayles, Jonathan: '' Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman Redux: Maculinity and Misogyny in Blade. '', In: Journal of Popular Culture April 2012, Vol. 45 Issue 2.

4 Lubiano, Wahneema: '' But Compared to what?: Reading Realism, Representation, and Essentialism in School Daze, do the Right Thing, and the Spike Lee Discourse. '', In: Black American Literature Forum, 7/1/1991, Vol. 25, Issue 2. p.267.

5 Touré: ''Who's Afraid of Post - Blackness? What it Means to be Black Now.'' New York: Free Press., p.1.

6 Ibid, p.4.

7 Ibid, p.5.

8 Ibid, p.6.

9 Famous depiction of the ''Mammy'' in mordern day America was ''Aunt Jemima'', serving as the face of various product like syrup or buttermilk.

10 Owsowitz, Genevieve Odette: '' In living Color, Chappelle's Show and Bamboozled: Decoding Representations of Blackness. '', California Polytechnic State University 2009. p.3.

11 Encyclopedia of American Studies, ed. Simon J. Bronner (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), s.v. "African Americans in Film and Theater" (by Elizabeth Schafer), (accessed September 12, 2016).

12 Encyclopedia of American Studies, ed. Simon J. Bronner (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), s.v. "African American Folklore and Humor" (by Frank A. Salamone), (accessed September 12, 2016).

13 Encyclopedia of American Studies, ed. Simon J. Bronner (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), s.v. "Stereotypes and Stereotyping" (by Carl Bryan Holmberg), (accessed September 12, 2016).

14 See Encyclopedia of American Studies, ed. Simon J. Bronner (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), s.v. "African Americans in Film and Theater" (by Elizabeth Schafer), (accessed September 12, 2016).

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17, accessed September 20, 2016.

18 See Encyclopedia of American Studies, ed. Simon J. Bronner (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), s.v. "African Americans in Film and Theater" (by Elizabeth Schafer), (accessed September 12, 2016).

19 Encyclopedia of American Studies, ed. Simon J. Bronner (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), s.v. "African American Folklore and Humor" (by Frank A. Salamone), (accessed September 12, 2016).

Excerpt out of 25 pages


Representations of Blackness in the Comedies of Dave Chappelle and Key & Peele
From Essentialism to Post-Blackness
University of Freiburg  (Englisches Seminar)
Black Power
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
565 KB
Englisch, Literature, Blackness, Essentialism, Post-Blackness, Dave Chappelle, Key&Peele
Quote paper
Marc Läpple (Author), 2016, Representations of Blackness in the Comedies of Dave Chappelle and Key & Peele, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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