The above video, which aired on Saturday Night Live this past weekend, is the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long while. And because it features Louis C.K., one of the smartest, most provocative comedians working today, it’s not your average, sophomoric SNL fare.
Take, for instance, the fact that it portrays a down-on-himself, decidedly C.K.-esque Abraham Lincoln seeking validation from a black man for all his work freeing the slaves. The man gets up and declares to the whole bar:
Hey, everybody. I just wanna thank President Lincoln here for everything he’s done for me. I mean, especially my new job—of shoveling horses*** into a wagon!
White folks do love to take their credit. And part of what’s so funny is how the black man in the sketch—actually there are two—refuses to play the expected role of someone who is both helpless and grateful. The Great Emancipator is the one who comes off looking like a jerk!
Of course, I’m not explaining the joke because I don’t think you’ll get it; I’m explaining it because this argument—over the roles blacks and whites played and still play in relation to one another—continues to be waged. Look only as far as the recent controversy over Master of the Mountain, Henry Wiencek‘s book on Thomas Jefferson and his slaves. Toward the end, Wiencek notes that recent scholarship has attempted to compensate for this idea that slaves were helpless by giving them more “agency.” “But as slaves gain ‘agency’ in historical analyses,” Wiencek writes, “the masters seem to lose it. As the slaves become heroic figures, triumphing over their condition, slave owners recede as historical actors and are replaced by a faceless system of “context” and “forces.”
To make his point, Wiencek quotes Annette Gordon-Reed from her book The Hemingses of Monticello: “There is every indication that they [the slaves at Monticello] grasped the baleful position they had been born into, and knew that forces were actively working to keep them down.”
Such writing, Wiencek says, leaves us a vision of “slavery somehow afloat in a world in which nobody is responsible.”
Gordon-Reed, in her review of Wiencek’s book, responds by suggesting that Wiencek plays a role similar to Louis C.K.’s Lincoln:
As he seeks to destroy Jefferson, Wiencek seeks to put himself in the place of the “Master of the Mountain” and become the true protector of the enslaved people of Monticello. He injects himself into the narrative, touring Monticello, walking the grounds that Jefferson walked, cataloging the injustices to the enslaved people as if they had finally, after all these years, found a champion.
I’m not sure why that’s such a bad thing—the slaves need all the champions they can get these days. Still, the argument between Wiencek and Gordon-Reed revolves around power and rhetoric, and honestly I don’t know who’s right. Either way, it’s amazing that Saturday Night Live of all shows is able to tap into some of the angst that comes from even considering it.