No martyr to liberty - just tasteless and clueless

December 06, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

Boy, talk about learning something new every day.

The URL for the Web site is www.savejustin. org. The "Justin" in this case is one Justin Park, who with two ads inviting students to a "Halloween in the Hood" party set off the biggest dispute on the Johns Hopkins University campus in years.

University officials recently suspended Park until the spring semester of 2008 for posting the ads, which some claim were racially offensive. (Park referred to Baltimore as an "hiv pit" and used terms like "hoochie hoops" and "bling.") Park's defense was that he meant no offense, that he meant to be funny and that he used language from a skit on black comedian Dave Chappelle's now-defunct television show.

So first we had protests by Hopkins' Black Student Union members about the ads, the party thrown by Sigma Chi fraternity and the racial atmosphere at the school in general. Now come the protests in favor of Park, who is being cast as a free-speech martyr.

Frankly, I'm not feeling that. We're talking about a guy who was either arrogant enough or smug enough to think he's another Dave Chappelle. If he really feels that way, he now has one year to get that stand-up comedy career going. Comedy clubs across the nation are, I am sure, eager to book him. Maybe he can be a warm-up act for Michael Richards.

From what students in my writing class at Hopkins tell me, the real punishment would have been for Hopkins officials to make Park stay at Hopkins, given the workload and absence of much social life. Park's supporters feel otherwise. At a rally last week, they stood on the Hopkins campus holding signs, some of which read:

"Students still have rights."

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

"Where's the free speech?"

"Support free speech."

"Free speech now."

Free speech, free speech, free speech. Let's slow down for a brief reality check: Park's case isn't like "Red Emma" Goldman being imprisoned for advocating anarchy in the late 1890s, or socialist Eugene Debs being sent to a federal pen for speaking out against World War I.

This is about a college kid who watched a black comedian's television show and then figured he'd try to be as funny as the comedian. But Chappelle brings certain cultural credentials to his humor about black folks. Chappelle grew up in "the hood." Whatever else has been said about Park -- and much is said about him on www.savejustin.org -- no one's claiming he grew up in the hood.

In short, as we say in the hood: Humor about black folks is an A and B matter Justin Park needed to C his way out of.

Park also needs to "see" this: Racial humor is a tricky business. Only those truly gifted at it can do it. Richards found that out only too recently. Whoopi Goldberg found that out years ago, when her then-boyfriend Ted Danson appeared at a Friar's Club roast wearing blackface and using the N-word in a deservedly criticized and riotously unfunny routine.

The late black comedians Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx were good at racial humor. So was Dick Gregory, before he got holy on us. Chris Rock and Chappelle complete what is a very short list, and even they've taken some heat for their humor.

In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, it was Hollywood studios taking the heat from groups like the NAACP. Oddly enough, I covered some of that heat in my class just this semester. The topic was racial and ethnic stereotyping. I had the class view the cartoons "Scrub Me Mama With A Boogie Beat" and "All This and Rabbit Stew," in addition to an episode of the old Amos 'n' Andy television show. (I guess you've already concluded that Park isn't in my class.)

The first cartoon is so racist it was yanked from theaters after the NAACP protested. "All This and Rabbit Stew" is a cartoon featuring Bugs Bunny being hunted by a shuffling, dimwitted, slow-talking black man. Bugs eventually distracts the hunter from his task by shaking some dice and enticing him into a game of craps.

The Cartoon Network passed on showing "All This and Rabbit Stew" as part of a Bugs Bunny weekend marathon a few years back. It wasn't a matter of "free speech." Honchos at the Cartoon Network passed because they made a choice between "free speech" and the heat they knew they would take for showing "All This and Rabbit Stew."

The issue at Hopkins isn't free speech; it's whether people are willing to take the heat for the free speech choices they made.

Hopkins officials might have let Park off easy. If I had my druthers, he'd still be in school.

But he'd be doing his comedy routine about black folks in front of an audience comprised of a few Bloods, a few Crips and a whole mess of ticked-off Black Muslims.

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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