Humor is the good-natured side of a truth. – Mark Twain
Comedian Katt Williams showed up on America’s radar as an emerging star in 2002 with his role in Friday After Next. Since then, he has parlayed his persona of the diminutive pimp into a multi-million dollar career with successful standup specials and feature roles on the big screen.
Lately, however, arrests and bizarre onstage incidents have sullied the reputation that Williams built as one of the greatest comedic performers of this generation. Online postings of Williams’s mercurial behavior have become routine, effectively changing the public’s perception of him.
In one such case, video captured of Williams during a performance last month in Phoenix—during which he told a Latino heckler to go back to Mexico—caused a stir recently by Williams potentially alienating an entire ethnic group that has been largely responsible for his widespread success.
Naturally, gossip columnists added this incident to a growing list of strange events linked to Williams. Latinos also took to the internet to express how betrayed they felt by a man whose comedy they had previously enjoyed so much. One woman’s passionate testimony of how Williams’s remarks made her feel addressed a legitimate concern about anti-Latino sentiment prevalent in the United States. Unfortunately, the passion (read: profanity) in her video takes away from the warranted response to what she saw as a hate-filled tirade by a comedian who appears to be spinning out of control on all fronts.
Since the human condition is such that emotions often pettifog an issue instead of addressing it in a way that can bring about healthy dialogue, it is important to detach from those emotions to identify the core issue:
For ages, disadvantaged citizens of the world have viewed the United States as the land of opportunity. The lives that immigrants have created for themselves, as far back as the late 19th century, have been the model on which many people still base their vision of prosperity in America. However, the political landscape over the past several years has suggested that all Latinos be scrutinized until immigration reform better monitors the rate of undocumented arrivals. So naturally, Katt Williams’s suggestion that US immigrants should pledge allegiance to America first and foremost or return to their homelands incensed an already volatile topic.
Iconic author and humorist Mark Twain’s claim that “humor is the good-natured side of a truth” sets an ideal for which all comedians should strive, and most do. Unfortunately, the good-natured approach to revealing a truth loses its way when people mistake their uncensored thoughts for impregnable truth. In the context of Katt Williams’s address to a heckler, what could have been an interesting and humorous commentary on the duality of being an American for some people looked more like a xenophobic rant with no comic value whatsoever.
An objective look at the “performance,” sheds light on a mentality shared by many black Americans, but is still difficult for some to understand and articulate. Like immigrants from all over the world, Mexican-Americans embrace their new home for the opportunities it provides. At the same time, those same people pledge allegiance to their home country by refusing to abandon their cultural roots.
This dual consciousness espoused by international transplants differs starkly from the double consciousness attributed to the black American experience by W.E.B. DuBois in 1897, which defines it as the division of identity for black people. For instance, the black American experience of segmented identities is in the interest of assimilation into a predominantly white society. Since attempts to hold on to African heritage were largely precluded during the American colonial period, and back-to-Africa movements did not fully emerge until after Emancipation, black Americans’ connection to the motherland usually goes no further than shared physical traits.
In other words, black Americans can hardly fly flags of African countries with the same certainty and pride that Mexican-Americans can fly theirs because the national roots of black Americans are far more difficult to trace. So it is understandable that Katt Williams would identify Latinos’ ability to proclaim love for two homelands as unusual when that connection to ancestry doesn’t exist for black Americans who’ve been here for generations.
However, invoking the spirit of Dobbsian populism to point out that difference between black and brown does nothing to acknowledge the advantage Latinos have in embracing their own culture or to explain the never-ending challenge of cultural definition among blacks.
There is no way that someone outside of Katt Williams’s inner circle can fully explain his antics of late. But regardless of the context, Williams’s boorish take on one man’s Latino pride inspires a worthwhile discourse that will likely be missed in the heat of this incident.
Further, the public’s ravenous appetite for trainwreck celebrity prefers monitoring a successful comedian going out of control over a performer who lends relevant insight into how important social issues can be understood writ large. Still, it is unfortunate that a performer of Williams’s acclaim has been steered into notoriety when his talents would render that kind of attention unnecessary to stay relevant.
So, sure, call Katt Williams crazy. Imagine what it would be like if he and Charlie Sheen lived together in a house to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real. Dismiss any work that Katt Williams has done because his more unhinged side has come to the fore lately. But take a moment to consider the significance of his comments as it relates to how we, as Americans, view one another. Comedy has been an art form through which the most diverse concentration of people unites on an intellectually cathartic level. And although Katt’s comments missed the mark to satisfy that unity in itself, audiences should pick up the slack and do the thinking required to find the value in this particular shortcoming.
I do not know Katt Williams personally, so the access I have to his work and his thoughts are the same as anyone else with a television or internet connection. So I apologize in advance to Katt Williams and anyone who knows him personally who believe I’ve spoken out of turn in my suppositions. While public figures comply by definition with the scrutiny to which they are subject, it is important to reaffirm the humanity behind this post in a space where so many users exploit anonymity by pretending they can say whatever they want without consequence. I hope this postscript has done so.