Karla Peterson: How Dave Chappelle, a poetry podcast and a Bruce Springsteen playlist are talking about racism

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Dave Chappelle during the Astroworld Festival at NRG Park in Houston on November 9, 2019. - Trish Badger/Imagespace/Zuma Press/TNS

Just over a month ago, George Floyd was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis. In the turbulent weeks that followed, the country has been rocked by protests and roiled by calls for change in a world where too many Black men and women are killed because of their skin color.

In the midst of the tumult, some voices have emerged from the zeitgeist with words and music that captured the moment and also explained the moment. Here is what these searchers, seekers and scholars had to say about racism, violence and where we need to go from here.

Dave Chappelle, “8:46”

“This is not funny at all,” comedian Dave Chappelle says near the end of “8:46,” his new Netflix special. And he is not joking.

Filmed in June during a live, socially distanced show in Yellow Springs, Ohio, this bare-bones performance — which Netflix is streaming for free on its YouTube channel — is Chappelle’s raw and furious response to Floyd’s death. “It’s not for a single cop,” he says of the marches, protests and upheavals that have erupted over the last few weeks. “It’s for all of it.”

From the horrific deaths of Philando Castile and Eric Garner to his own mixed feelings about weighing in on this cataclysmic moment, Chappelle covers a lot of historical and emotional territory in 27 searing minutes. But he is at his most eloquently outraged when he talks about his great-grandfather, William D. Chappelle, who went to the White House in 1918 as part of a group protesting violence against Black people.

In addition to being a bishop with the A.M.E. Church and the president of Allen University, Chappelle’s great-grandfather was also born a slave. And in connecting the sins of our past with the crimes of the present, Chappelle puts the current wave of unrest and the call for a national reckoning into painful and necessary context.

“These things are not old,” he says. “This is not a long time ago. It’s today.” (YouTube)

Tracy K. Smith, “The Slowdown” podcast

Always a source of illumination and inspiration, this podcast from former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith devoted the earlier part of this month to poems tackling social justice, oppression and racism and celebrated Black lives. Even at their darkest, the poems burn with urgent heat and the light of insight.

The podcasts, in which Smith introduces and reads the poems, usually run about five minutes each. But in the expert hands of poets like Ross Gay, Monica A. Hand and Evie Shockley, five minutes is plenty of time to honor Eric Garner’s humanity (Gay’s “A Small Needful Fact”); rage over lives lost (Shockley’s “Supply and Demand”); and revel at the force of nature that was Nina Simone at the Apollo (Hand’s “Black Is Beautiful”).

And five minutes is more than enough time to think about what the future needs to look like:

Let a second generation full of courage issue forth; let a people/loving freedom come to growth, Margaret Walker writes in “For My People.” Let a beauty full of/healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing/in our spirits and our blood. (slowdownshow.org)

Bruce Springsteen, “From My Home to Yours” on Sirius/XM

For the last few months, Bruce Springsteen has been entertaining the locked-down masses with “From My Home to Yours,” a guest DJ show on Sirius/XM’s E Street Radio channel. He played shut-in-appropriate tunes like Cracker’s escapist “Turn On Tune In and Drop Out With Me” and Courtney Barnett’s “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party” for a show that was fun, friendly and totally rocking.

But on June 3, “From My Home to Yours” went directly from Springsteen’s soul to the heart of our national turmoil. The episode was titled “American Skin,” after Springsteen’s devastating song about the 1999 death of Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea who was shot 41 times by four New York City police officers who had mistaken him for a rape suspect. He was reaching for his wallet; they thought he was reaching for a gun.

Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots)” turned 20 this year, but it could have been written today. It was the first song he played on that June 3 broadcast, but it wasn’t his last word on the subject. The playlist also included Childish Gambino’s furious “This Is America”; Bob Dylan’s haunting anti-slavery ballad “Blind Willie McTell”; and Billie Holiday’s wrenching “Strange Fruit,” which Springsteen called “one of the darkest songs in the American canon.”

It a tough episode for a disturbing time. But before he signed off, Springsteen reminded us that the painful ties that bind us can also unite us.

“The American story, our story, is in our hands, and may God bless us all.” (On demand on the Sirius XM app.)

Heather McGhee and Ibram X. Kendi

She is a public policy expert. He is a bestselling author and historian. Together, Heather McGhee and Ibram X. Kendi have become the go-to media guests for any podcast host or journalist hoping to make sense of this moment. They are also the smart and passionate voices we need to guide us through the long and twisted history that led us here.

On multiple recent podcasts (including a fascinating “Armchair Expert” discussion) and in a TEDWomen talk from late 2019, McGhee discusses the price we all pay for racist policies in health care, infrastructure funding and education. To hear McGhee connect the race-related 1959 draining of a public pool in Atlanta with the sub-prime mortgage meltdown of 2008 is to be blinded by the light bulbs snapping on in your brain.

Meanwhile, Kendi is ruling the podcast and news-show circuit (and the bestseller list) with 2019’s “How to Be an Antiracist,” in which he explains how to recognize and fight the deeply rooted racism and inequality that is woven into every facet of American life. This includes the importance of looking beyond the racist views of individuals to the institutions that perpetuate them for the institutions’ own benefit. If you are waiting for your game-changing copy to arrive, check out Kendi’s long and thought-provoking conversation with Brené Brown on the “Unlocking Us” podcast.

This new American chapter, our chapter, is in our hands. May God bless us all.


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