Is This Racist?

April 8, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
“The Haves and the Have Nots” said the marquee on the Beacon Theater.  I thought maybe it was a rock group, you know, like The Mamas and the Papas. 

We met our friends – a couple and their kids age 14, 17, and 23 – at a restaurant just around the corner.  I asked the three teenagers if they’d ever heard of such a group.  No.

It was early, 5:30, and there were only a few other diners in the place, mostly middle-aged African Americans.  Then it dawned on me – pre-theater dinner.  “I wonder if it's one of those Tyler Perry plays,” I said. 

My wife shot me a look and a very brief sentence, both of which meant, “Shut up.   You'll probably say something offensive and loud enough to be heard by these people at the table behind us.”

I knew that she was afraid I'd use the term chitlin circuit.  And maybe I would have.  I’d used it before.  In public.  But dammit, Skip Gates used the term in the New Yorker in a wonderful article about this genre of drama.  If he can, why can’t I? Or is chitlin circuit* one of those terms like the N-word that can be used only by the in-group?  What other words have this OK-for-us-not-for-you quality?

When I got home I Googled “The Haves,” and indeed it is a Tyler Perry play.  I reread the Gates article, written in 1997, before Perry became so successful.  It holds up.

I’m thinking of buying a ticket and going.  John Darbyshire, the National Review writer, would tell me that I’m risking life and limb.  Now that’s racist (his rant is here, but don’t say I didn’t trigger-warn you).

*  Wikipedia says that “chitlin circuit” is “now also known as the ‘urban theater circuit.’”

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