This Monday, President Obama joined Twitter. That, clearly, was his first mistake. In short order, a barrage of racist tweets greeted our first African American president.
The whole contretemps called to mind the premise of the popular “Obama’s Anger Translator” skits, which is that since the most visible and powerful black man in public life can never for a moment risk being perceived as an angry black man, well, then someone else has to take on all the unresolved rage percolating around the presidential id. Obama himself masterfully exploited this conceit during his speech before this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner. But while Obama’s flirtation with his own inner angry black man was an indulgent whim of the powerful, there was nothing fanciful or amusing about the torrent of Twitter abuse Obama endured simply on the basis of his skin color.
Still, one can’t help but imagine a moment of comic release. Fans of the Key and Peele show, which originated the sketch on Comedy Central, can readily picture how this variation on the theme would play out. The president would eagerly start getting interactive with the American public at the Oval Office, over a din of expectant studio-audience laughter: President: “Hello, Twitter! It’s Barack.” Trolls: “Get cancer nigger.” Cut to Obama stifling rage, and sending the following message: “I’m sorry you feel that way. Did you know that if I did have cancer, it wouldn’t be treated as a pre-existing condition under the Affordable Care Act?” A few more exchanges like this would coax out his anger translator Luther, played by Keegan-Michael Key, who’d let loose with a disbelieving and profane tirade.
This, indeed, is the genius of “Obama’s Anger Translator;” the running gag doesn’t merely translate the president’s anger for us, or help, in some ill-defined zeitgeisty way, to process the uglier views of Obama’s vocal white opposition; it offers a chance to glimpse an alternate reality, one in which the president articulates more than intelligent ideas and well-formed diction. And that, in turn, permits us safely, if still queasily, to laugh at the absurdity of twenty-first century race-baiting.
Indeed, since his election, racist public attacks in the media aimed at President Obama have always been tinged with a bit of dark comedy. In the lead-up to the election, Lou Dobbs’s on-air flub of the phrase “cotton-picking” in a segment about Condoleezza Rice’s comment that America is afraid to talk about race was a hilariously tame harbinger of what was to come. Witnessing the erstwhile CNN host’s painfully clumsy effort to rectify the Freudian slip was like watching your racist great-uncle’s animadversions about the stereotyped behavior of other ethnic groups at the holiday dinner table—until he realizes your newborn baby is biracial and embarks on a fit of choke-coughing in order to change the subject. The loud, awkward evocation of “cotton picking” on the Dobbs segment was just the first in a long line of far more deliberately provocative exercises in white racist coding before the cable cameras, from the frequent Fox News caricatures of Obama as a “food-stamp president” to the repeated call to confirm the veracity of his birth certificate. Indeed, to return to the tradition of black comedic outrage, much of the Fox pundit playbook could easily read like they were notes from an early draft of The Richard Pryor Show’s “First Black President” sketch—only such ideas would never have made it on air because the show’s producers would have deemed them too crudely implausible.
Of course, the comedy writers in Pryor’s day couldn’t have reckoned with the Internet, or its notorious powers of racist sabotage. The day after Obama’s Twitter debut, it was disclosed that anyone typing the phrases “nigger house” and “nigger king” into Google Maps would be directed to the address of the White House. (This prank was a sick play on the cutesy Pokémon Challenge on the Google Maps app and website, in which users were encouraged to identify all the anime creatures embedded on the app. But those search terms seem to reference a hunt of another kind, one that involves stalking and lynching.)
Here once again, however, Key and Peele have given us a cathartic analogue from the entertainment world—namely, the show’s “Negrotown” sketch, which premiered two weeks ago. In the first installment of the skit, a victim of police brutality is knocked unconscious, and then transported to a magical black utopia. Negrotown is in the same ugly linguistic neighborhood as those infamous Google Maps search terms, while it also evokes the way that racists think D.C., and the United States by extension, is a gigantic Negrotown because Obama’s in office.
Indeed, one could easily view Negrotown as a casually racist version of D.C.’s “Chocolate City,” or Atlanta, as the skit’s protagonist guesses when he first hears the name. But the phrase has a canny double meaning: it’s both a utopia and a sly reference to the fucked-up predations, and precariousness, that have long afflicted America’s all-black urban zones. When Key’s character snaps out of his blissed-out “Cabin in the Sky”-style fantasy, it becomes clear from the arresting officer’s snarky response that the real Negrotown is prison—i.e., the very place where the innocent, harassed dude can expect to go next.
Of course, in the digital scheme of things, the week’s Twitter and Google Maps snafus were all-too vivid reminders that the utopias envisioned by our caste of start-up gurus can easily regress to, uh, crackertown mode. The white-racist interlocutors having at the president on Twitter were just as apt to send him nooses and death threats as they were to question his patriotism and citizenship. In this sense, the non-existence of Negrotown, as Key and Peele envisioned it in utopian-reverie mode, is just one more cotton-picking American shame.