It Isn't Just About Chappelle

09/09/2013 12:28 pm ET | Updated Nov 09, 2013

This isn't just about Chappelle.

It was bordering on an argument now. I felt my muscles getting tight as I tried to keep myself from yelling out in frustration. We were stomping across the parking lot to our cars, much earlier than expected after Dave Chappelle decided to leave the stage at the Comcast theater. I went with my friend and a couple but the conversation we were having was as though we had left two different theaters.

Was I crazy? Was I the only one who had seen the way the night escalated? My friend and I were one of the few Black people at the Chappelle show in Hartford and it was quickly becoming clear to me, that was an important fact. The couple that attended with us, Ray and Hannah, were White.

"He's a comedian, what did he expect?" Ray asked, over emphasizing his words the way he did when he was trying not to slur.

"Respect." I damn near snarled... I pointed out that there was a larger racial context, that a crowd of majority White patrons yelling at a single Black comedian had overt racial undertones, that there was significance to Dave Chappelle instructing the DJ to play Kanye's 'New Slaves' but then I stopped. As I began to explain what I thought Dave had made very clear, I realized it was pointless. Ray was drunk -- just like almost half the audience at the Oddball Funny or Die show. Ray and his wife were adamant in their stance.

It made me think of the last cookout of his I went to, when he drunkenly said race didn't matter as much in 2013. Aside from the whole Trayvon thing. of course.

I sighed. I wanted to ask Ray, why it was that any time a Black person, or even a group of us like at his last party, told him something was an issue felt he had any right to tell us there wasn't. My friend cleared his throat. I took it to be a warning and closed my mouth.

When I got in the car, I realized my friend was having trouble breathing. Anxiety. Probably the same anxiety that compelled me to call my girlfriend earlier and tell her I was uncomfortable with the vibe, hours before Chappelle took the stage. The same anxiety -- maybe -- that made Dave Chappelle say, "Maybe I should go back to doing this shit on television. Where it's safe."

Ray scoffed at the idea that one of the few Black men at the theater, the only Black man facing thousands of angry, belligerent faces felt "unsafe." The energy, the hostility my friend and I felt building, Ray told us didn't exist. Chappelle, he maintained, reacted to nothing. Hearing the bits and pieces of angry conversation around us, the mainly White attendants agreed. Everyone could agree that the heckling was out of control, that people were being rude but the onus was still on Chappelle to ignore it, to work through it, to overcome it.

In America there is a long history of asking African-Americans to endure silently. Silence, non-reaction is characterized, for us only, as grace and strength. Note, no one thought any one of the mostly White, mostly male attendees owed it to anyone to endure Chappelle's call for respect silently. They could be vocal and if they didn't like how the show was going, they could scream out commands to the man they paid and expected to dance. Now I'm going to say something that much of Black America agrees on and much of White America doesn't seem to understand to be true: Dave Chappelle walked off stage in Hartford and he was justified.

This was not a meltdown. This was not plain heckling. This wasn't an incident that occurred in a vacuum. The now infamous set in Connecticut is set against the backdrop of America's problematic relationship with Blackness and Black art. It was due.

What Chappelle did wasn't just about him, he made that clear. And it deserves to be written about more honestly and more in-depth than we've done so far. The day after the show, news of the meltdown hit the Internet with intimations of drug use, laziness and lack of desire -- it's clear we need to go back to the show and go over again exactly what happened.

The Oddball Festival had doors that opened at 5 and a slew of comedians who performed before Dave. Right before he came on the stadium started to fill up. A reggae set distracted the crowd while the stage crew got ready for Dave.

Suddenly the music stopped and conversations slowly died down. Then Dave Chappelle's silhouette appeared on a curtain that was hung up while we were dancing in our seats. Everyone in my row jumped up at once.

When we start to think it couldn't get any louder, the curtain dropped. The guys a few seats down from me screamed and punched each other. The crowd, overwhelmingly White, young and male, couldn't contain itself. Dave started to talk and his voice made us all go nuts again.

"You know you're missed when you can't even talk," he joked. He started some Paula Deen jokes that went over well when he had to stop again. Maybe it was his gratuitous use of the n-word. Maybe it was the overpriced beer that, to my amazement, everyone seemed to keep buying, but there was a palpable change. The crowd got rowdier, louder, ruder. Demands were being made. The words seemed far off and barely intelligible but he seemed to be hearing them just fine.

"I've been up here a while now and I thought it was me but now, I'm sure it's you. There is definitely something wrong with you." he told us. In other words, shut up. Few did. Ever the comedian Dave joked that he'd take all our money, not perform and waste it on gum.

"It's your money," he warned after a serious of yells and screams. Finally he gave up and took his cigarettes and his water and sat on stage. Waiting.

After Dave sat, the crowd got worse for. People were booing, heckling. I heard a woman yell something that was drowned out by a guy next to me screaming "DAVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVEEEEEEEEE" for the umpteenth time. But Dave heard her jeering at him and responded to her.

"Times like this I wonder where Katt Williams is..." He sips his water and stares at us meaningfully. There was a slight hush. The jeers begin again. I raised my eyebrows at my friend. Like Dave Chappelle, Katt Williams was pegged as "losing it" shortly after his fame had spread beyond his urban audience.

He tried again. "If there's someone next to you yelling out, punch 'em in the kidneys. I can't do everything from up here, police yourselves... and security feel free to chime in at any time here."

Security didn't move. Despite the signs warning of ejection for camera use, not one audience member was ejected. Not even the one who Dave asked to stop recording him.

A guy yelled out and Dave gestured in his direction, "See? Punch him."

After a while Dave started talking to the audience again. The crowd, which hadn't really stopped yelling, had started again.

"This reminds me of when I opened up for Richard Pryor. This was when he got sick...He had MS and it had started to show. He came to talk to me before the show..."

There were boos behind me. A Rick James joke.

"So I go out there and I do good -- the show was good, not great. You don't want to do too good and blow the headliner away and he's sick. Well he goes out there and they go crazy. Twenty five minutes into his show he stops... He looked like he was physically drained...He said 'I can't do this anymore'... he walked off stage... the crowd went fucking nuts. And they said the same thing 'We love you!' ...but it was different this time. And the difference was they knew they were never going to see him again... Now I don't have MS or anything but this... this is like that moment... the moment in every gangsta film."

"Is this happening?" Ray asked no one in particular.

The crowd started to get loud again. Name calling, boos, claims of being ripped off.

"One time I saw Damon Wayans on stage." Here Chappelle laughed a little. "And someone always says, 'Hey do Homey the Clown.' They kept heckling him."

I sucked in air. That's why he laughed. The parallels. All night, requests for characters from the Chappelle's Show. It was then that I recovered enough to tweet: "I'm watching Dave Chappelle quit stand up." If this wasn't an immediate resignation, it was a notice.

"So he says 'you want to see Homey the Clown?' He farted into the microphone. I'd never seen anyone do that before. He farted into the mic and said 'Homey don't play that" and he dropped the mic and walked off stage."

It was heartbreaking to listen to but I felt like I had to hear it all, like this was important. But even then, there were yells that he owed the audience. That he'd been fucking paid. Do something people knew. Fuck off and die. When he expressed shock that he'd sat there and been yelled at for over 20 minutes, people yelled again they paid him.

Being in that crowd, a sea of drunk White male faces and seeing Chappelle sit there and be jeered at made me uncomfortable. It was incidental, the racial make up of the crowd; how they were treating Chappelle is not. It speaks to a much longer history, the relationship between the White audience and the Black entertainer. This is a relationship you can easily trace to early minstrel shows, to archetypes of Blacks that still define the roles we're offered today. We have seen more Black comedians bow to racist tropes, demean themselves for a White audience than we have seen comedians of Chappelle's stature resist. There are many Black people who cringed at Martin Lawrence's Big Mama, who were pained by Chris Rock's Head of State, Latifah's Bringing Down the House. We know the Black comedian isn't happy in these roles, being the loud talking sidekick, the inept criminal, the sassy helper, but these are the roles White America screams out for.

The men Chappelle named -- Katt Williams, Richard Pryor and Damon Wayans -- were all comedians who started out with majority Black fan bases and then experienced "crossover" fame, where they were quickly crunched into the only roles they'll either bow out or implode Each burned out as the shift of being laughed at to being laughed with began to slowly wear at them. Chappelle himself has said in no uncertain terms that, that was why he left Comedy Central and $50-100 million behind.

Chappelle wasn't having a meltdown. Chappelle has never had a melt down. He merely decided to bow out on his own terms This was a Black artist shrugging of the weight of White consumption, deciding when enough was enough.

I remember seeing Chappelle on the Actor's Studio talking about another Black comedian who'd at the time also been written off as "crazy." When asked Chappelle answered:

"Maybe it's not the people, maybe it's the culture that's sick."