Larry Wilmore and the Tragic Heroism of Intelligent Blackness

Why black consciousness will always fail to cross over.


Bill Cosby had it right the whole time. The way to comfortable blackness in America is a carefully plotted, three-tiered vision of assimilation that neither offends the sensibilities, or overtly anoints white power structures. The groundbreaking Cosby Show offered the blueprint:

  • Black Excellence
  • Black Silence
  • Black Fallibility

Heathcliff and Clair were HBCU products trained and excelling in the elite fields of medicine and law; living in racially diverse Brooklyn, NY with five well-mannered, intelligent children. They were fully immersed in the signals of blackness, but masterfully adept at avoiding the struggle of the same.

They listened to jazz, blues and hip-hop, valued black art, wore HBCU t-shirts and shot ball in the backyard. But they never got followed around stores in the mall where Rudy got lost that time, never got pulled over by the police driving to or from Hillman College, and never discussed the role of the parents or grandparents in civil rights or desegregation activities.

Even with the spinoff ‘A Different World,’ which under the direction of Howard University alumna Debbie Allen touched on issues of race and racism, left much unsaid about the political, social and economic business surrounding black people and black institutions, an introduction to which

Cliff couldn’t fix things around the house, Claire was known to snap on people, Sandra opened a outdoor equipment store with her sexist husband, Denise dropped out of college and got married to a naval officer, in a ceremony in African officiated by a man with many goats. Theo rocked Gordon Gartrell shirts and was dyslexic, and Rudy threw shade at Olivia. They were accomplished and imperfectly human at the same time — a standard of black humanity, even while running completely around black reality. It was the crossover evolution of the direct hits on American racism made through Norman Lear by way of ‘All in the Family,’ ‘Good Times,’ and ‘The Jeffersons.’

In the years that followed, the Wayans, Martin Lawrence, Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock challenged institutional racism through views of police violence, poverty, political disparity and class warfare to comedic lenses. Their success never reached the Cosby standard, because they each failed to follow those three tiers of black staying power in popular culture. For them, the natural humor in lampooning ignorance, affluence and everything in between was the way to get laughs, get people talking, and more importantly, to get syndicated.

But over the last two years, we thought we had finally broken beyond the invisible wall of assimilation in our pop culture with shows like Larry Wilmore’s ‘The Nightly Show,’ and Clark Atlanta University’ alumnus Kenya Barris’ ‘Black-ish.’ Both shows used humor and satire to take pounds of flesh away from racialized attacks on black culture, black life and black value in American space and thought; but ‘Black-ish’ is a runaway hit, while ‘The Nightly Show’ has been canceled.

Jon Stewart To Larry Wilmore On Final 'The Nightly Show': "What Did You Do, Piss Off Peter Thiel?"

Was the ‘Nightly Show’s’ demise a result of Wilmore and producers consistently working to make the finished product a daily race with blackness enjoying a regular Usain Bolt-like lead over wittiness, introspection, edge-pushing and humor, all in a photo finish for silver? Is it because Wilmore intentionally made too many white viewers dance with shots fired at latent and blatant forms of white supremacy, and while firing that pistol, neglected or opted against the classic lampooning and racially-deprecating humor that attracts hordes of black viewers; the same lampooning that drove Chappelle to his defection from Comedy Central and keeps Tyler Perry with no fewer than five sitcoms in regular rotation on OWN and TBS?

‘Black-ish’ survives because, where the ‘Nightly Show’ became a reliable, Mike Tyson-esque, jab-right cross-uppercut combo on issues of race, Barris and Co. opt for the Floyd Mayweather strategy of jab-counter-move with an occasional, unexpected big punch.

And that’s why ‘Black-ish,’ which may in a few short years rise to the level of the Cosby standard thanks to the nation realizing its genetic dependence on racism, is more known for this:

than this.

Hollywood, like most industries, is only now learning what HBCUs have experienced since the late 90s — the blacker you are, and the prouder you are to express that blackness for public consumption, the less likely you are to be heard by black and white people alike. Unless you meet the pro-black American narratives of “smiling through the struggle,” or “the best of the Negro race,” there is no space for black intelligence in the scope of daily thinking or consumption for most people.

This is why black folks can say HBCUs are inferior to PWIs; not just because we struggle with resources, hiring good leaders and attracting our best and brightest away from bigger, whiter schools. Its because in a growing whirlwind of how to make it in America while black, these schools no longer control the market share on the survival technique.

Apparently, the apprenticeship on surviving and thriving in white space is best taught in white space, not black insulation. Like most comparisons, it just doesn’t count if a black label is attached, and if it doesn’t come with a healthy does of white anxiety.

This is why we’d rather watch ‘Martin’ reruns on MTV2 than the ‘Nightly Show,’ and why we’d rather read Media Takeout than the HBCU Digest. We are, collectively as black folks, dramatically uncomfortable with the notion of intelligent, all-black discussion, because the only form of that discussion is recurrent, unfiltered, pain.

Confronting black realities about economic disparities, public health crises, political marginalization, and our holistic lack of unity against any of these dangers is far more difficult and complex to do, than to rail against injustice caused by a historic oppressor, and systems beyond our control. And no matter how much the universe of Very Smart Brothas, Awkward Black Girl,
Another Round, His and Hers, the Right Time, or any other painful venture into black life goes, these planets of insight and courage which make us cringe at our own programmed thinking will continue to revolve around the comforting lampooning of our existence.

And we’ll keep holding on for the right white TV executive to hook up with the right black writer or producer, to make the next great black breakthrough, built on a solid blueprint:

  • Black Excellence
  • Black Silence
  • Black Fallibility