I don’t want to see this because I can’t unsee it. But when I finally watched it I understood, nobody is going home.Dave Chappelle, 8:46
I first discovered Dave Chappelle’s comedic art through his speech, 8:46, posted on Youtube addressed to his local community in Ohio in response to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. I am not one to regularly use what is often referred to as obscene speech, and admittedly it was difficult to listen to his words during the first viewing. As Dave would say, Word! His words, initially shocking, stung me into an awareness of how we use styles of language as cultural markers and weapons. As he relates his own life story to issues of racism and specifically to the coincidence of 8:46, the time of Dave’s birth, and the amount of time a knee was pressed to George Floyd’s neck by Derek Chauvin, his words drew me in. Dave displays a boldness and bravery in speaking about issues that many of us would rather forget, or at least find ways to feel better about.
1590s, “offensive to the senses, or to taste and refinement,” from Middle French obscène (16c.), from Latin obscenus “offensive,” especially to modesty, originally “boding ill, inauspicious,” a word of unknown origin; perhaps from ob “in front of” (see ob-) + caenum “filth.”https://www.etymonline.com/word/obscene
I, for one, was so touched by the power of his words that something inside me was transformed in an instant, having spent most of my life avoiding controversial subjects, especially in a public forum. After some reflection, I decided to post the video to my Facebook page. It was not an easy decision, because I accept that for many people, the language alone, deemed “obscene” might provide an excuse to discount both an invitation to listen and the will to validate Dave’s perspective in this painful moment. I posted it anyway. Yes, I was curious as to how much response the post might generate. The deeper motivation though, was to express something that had been transformed in me regarding the use of language in our culture. I asked myself then, and will continue to do so, what is more obscene, Dave’s words or the deliberate murder in broad daylight of a black man that was unable to defend himself? No arrest, no hearing, no trial, no jury. That’s it.
I don’t know if the post offended anyone. No one said as much. What I am admitting to here is the change in my own understanding and appreciation of what we deem obscene, why, and its value in the culture as a sort of litmus test as to what we are open to discussing, at least in public. George Floyd was certainly murdered in public – right on the street where all could and did, plainly see. If I had to choose which obscenity to be outraged about, it would most certainly be the murder of a defenseless person in broad daylight, especially in a country that claims we are all “innocent until proven guilty.”
To be fair, I have relatives and friends who are, or have been courageous and honorable police officers. We need them. I have witnessed crimes being committed, received the benefits of their willingness to help others, and deeply support their mission of keeping communities safe.
Language does have power though, likely much more than we can ever be completely aware of, and so attending to its power remains important, as does our reaction to it. Maybe we need the power that obscenities contain within them to help us see and feel. Maybe we need the shock of feeling offended to open our eyes. Maybe we need the freedom that language offers us. Maybe we need to listen.