Dave Chappelle's Positive Propaganda

In Mark Ralkowski (ed.), Dave Chappelle and Philosophy. Chicago, IL, USA: pp. 75-88 (2021)
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Some of Dave Chappelle’s uses of storytelling about seemingly mundane events, like his experiences with his “white friend Chip” and the police, are examples of what W.E.B. Du Bois calls “Positive Propaganda.” This is in contrast to “Demagoguery,” the sort of propaganda described by Jason Stanley that obstructs empathic recognition of others, and undermines reasonable debate among citizens regarding policies that matter: the justice system, welfare, inequality, and race, for example. Some of Chappelle’s humor, especially in his most recent Netflix specials, but also in his earlier standup performances and his series The Chappelle Show, is akin to art that appeals to emotion in the ways suggested by Du Bois in “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926). Beauty is essential to art, but, “I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent” (p. 22). The “one side” is that which appears to extoll American ideals, but in reality undermines them, perpetuating the subordinate status of “the other”--black citizens. Replace “beauty” with “humor” or “funny”, and we see striking parallels between Chappelle’s socio-political performances and Du Bois’ call for positive propaganda, each of which constitute “civic rhetoric” broadly construed. We no longer live in Du Bois’ America of explicit denial of rights. In many ways our situation is worse, as the mechanisms of exclusion are implicit, difficult to dislodge, because they are invisible. Chappelles’ humor draws attention to subtle undermining-propaganda in our liberal democracy, transforming it through his counter-propaganda into the spectacle that it should be; ubiquitous democracy-denying propaganda should be as obvious to whites as it is to minorities. In his words, we should all see that “that shit is fucking incredible” (Killin’ Them Softly).

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Chris A. Kramer
Santa Barbara City College


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