Neal Brennan: White America's Greatest Klingon Writer

Never trust anyone posing as a tour guide.

The Q&A with Neal Brennan, co-creator of "Chappelle's Show," over at Buzzfeed begins with this ominous paragraph:

In a sense, Brennan has made introducing black America to white America his life’s work. His advice for how white people should act around black people? “It’s an odd thing. You treat them like human beings.”

These two sentences are in conflict. It's certainly true that you should treat black people like human beings. The first step in that process is understanding that asking how to act "around black people" is itself an act of inhumanity.

The second step is understanding that the way to get introduced to black America is to introduce yourself to black America. This is not particularly hard. We have a month every year dedicated to this task. Some of our greatest literature, music, cinema and art hails from this experience. I have heard that there are whole neighborhoods where black people actually live.

The third step is understanding that white America does not so much need to be introduced to black America, as it needs to be introduced to itself. It pains me (seriously) to see this point made by Neal Brennan himself:

Some people question whether a white person should even be writing black characters.

NB: I think anyone can write about anything that they have knowledge of and exposure to. I think the best black screenwriter is Quentin Tarantino. Quentin may write better black characters than Spike. I mean, Sam Jackson in Pulp Fiction is fucking unbelievable. That would be Exhibit A. I actually think that’s why Spike gets mad at Quentin. Quentin happens to write unbelievably rich black characters.

So does David Simon.

NB: There’s Exhibit B. Omar is the best black TV character, one of the best TV characters of all time. I think saying a white person can’t write black characters is as racist as anything on earth. And it’s also insulting to black people. It’s like, “So, are you not human?” Because I can write about humans. A white person writing about black people is writing about humanity with a slight vernacular spin.

I am not sure who these people are who don't think white people should never write black characters. Certainly not black actors and actresses, the lionshare of whom want to compete for the largest roles possible. Probably not even black screenwriters who, like most artists, want the right to follow their imagination. More likely, there are artists who are concerned that they actually don't get to follow their imagination, and even in their native world there are white artists who are privileged over them.

Which brings us back to Neal Brennan. Last week, during the great public intellectual debate, I pointed out that I'd grown up in a time when white people freely made whatever declarations they please about worlds they knew very little about. Neal Brennan is an accomplished artist, and we all thank him for his substantial contributions to "Chappelle's Show." But if you try to picture rich black American life, and the first thing that comes to mind is The Wire and Pulp Fiction, and the first characters who come to mind are black men who kill people, I suspect your qualifications are not all in order. 

And I love The Wire, but blindness follows blindness. Leave aside black screenwriters like John Ridley, Barry Jenkins and Ava DuVernay—Neal Brennan does not know who the best black screenwriter is because the best black screenwriter right now is waitressing tables, counting up shit tips, thinking about her babysitting shift that night, hoping to get her car out the shop tomorrow, and storing lines of dialogue and character notes in her memory chalet. Neal Brennan can not know who "the best black" anything is, because the best black anythings are shot, jailed and destroyed at discomfiting rates. And there were so few black people in Wilmette. And these facts, and Brennan's blindness, and Brennan's declaration offered in blindness, are not wholly unconnected.

Never trust anyone posing as a tour guide. Learning things is hard. Do the work.

Never trust that part of you that wants a tour guide. All of us are tempted by the Cliff-Notes. Decline them. Sometimes you must wander through The Louvre.

Never trust that part of you that thinks you found "the best black" anything. Likely, you are speaking loudly of the little you know, and not intelligently of the everything that is. And you know so little of it. This world was made precisely so that you would know so little of it. And the minute you learn anything of it, you will understand why that part of you was ridiculous.

Never try to look cool and learn something at the same time. You must have an awkward phase. All of us would like to skip that awkward phase. That is not how it works. Here is how it works: Get your ass in the water. Swim like me.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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