I imagine there has never been more laughing from an award preamble at this ceremony. There certainly hasn’t been that much laughing prompted by the mention of a sex tape (it was Chuck Berry’s). But all of this is to be expected from the introduction of Dave Chappelle as a W.E.B. DuBois Medal Winner for 2018.
Organized by Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, these medals are, in the words of the Center, “awarded to individuals in the United States and across the globe in recognition of their contributions to African and African American culture and the life of the mind.” Recipients have included scholars, artists, writers, journalists, philanthropists, and public servants whose work has bolstered the field of African and African American studies. A sign of the exceptionality with which Chappelle has been regarded? He’s the award’s first comedian recipient.
Harvard professor Lawrence Bobo introduced “Professor” Chappelle, so named for the prominence that several Chappelle’s Show sketches play in his course teachings. “Racial Draft” was cited and quoted, as was the groundbreaking Clayton Bigsby Frontline sketch. And Bobo dissolved into giggles once again as he recounted the premise of the “Time Haters” sketch—and the fact that only Chappelle and his frequent collaborator Neal Brennan seemed to find shooting a slave owner funny in the writer’s room. After a rousing welcome that praised Chappelle for his embrace of the tragicomic role that Black comedians often find themselves in, and referencing the New York Times’ moniker of “great folk hero” (which Chappelle seemed genuinely surprised by), the comic took to the mic for a brief acceptance speech.
In his remarks, Chappelle earnestly thanked his fellow honorees (who included presidential portraitist Kehinde Wiley, Just Mercy author Bryan Stevenson, and athlete/activist Colin Kaepernick, among others), admitting “you all make me want to be better.” He also acknowledged the role that his mother, an African-American studies professor, played in his development and much of the act he tours with today: “I am not an uninformed person, and that’s because of her.” He also took a moment to explain his connection to another DuBois medal recipient, 2015 honoree Muhammed Ali. At the opening of his introduction, a photo was shared onscreen: a young Ali, cradling a 2 year old Chappelle. He explained that Ali signed a coloring book for him, as did Ali’s sparring partner who later became a heavyweight champion. And he capped off the story with an inevitable punchline: that the toddler colored all through the book, messing it up.
Acknowledging the activist roots of many of his fellow honorees, the comedian also spoke the rough spot that many of his fellow comics have been put in, being expected to speak on politics and the present moment “with the eloquence of lawyers or politicians.” But he ended with a message of hope, particularly for those who wondered if his four Netflix specials were his last. “I got one more special in me,” he said, taking off his medal to hold it up. He then quoted a Negro spiritual that inspired Baldwin as a sign of his intent to use his platform for good: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”
— gary washburn (@GwashburnGlobe) October 11, 2018