TIME feminism

SNL‘s Leslie Jones Uses Slavery to Make a Point About Being Black and Beautiful

Saturday Night Live - Season 39
Leslie Jones, Colin Jost and Cecily Strong during Weekend Update on May 3, 2014. Dana Edelson—NBC/Getty Images

Slavery's legacy means that black women get to be strong, exotic and hypersexual, but rarely beautiful, as this sketch expertly critiques

Saturday Night Live faced a great deal of well-deserved criticism for the lack of diversity among the show’s writers and cast. This year, they finally responded by hiring actor Sasheer Zamata and writers Leslie Jones and LaKendra Tookes. There is still work to be done toward making the show more diverse and inclusive, but this is a start.

The thing is, when we call for diversity, we often have a very specific idea of what that diversity should look like. There is an unreasonable burden on people who are thrown into such a glaring spotlight. We wanted Saturday Night Live to become more diverse, but it has to be the right kind of diverse—offer up the right kind of message—and everyone has a different opinion of what right looks like.

Each year, People produces a list of the most beautiful people—an arbitrary assortment of famous people with preternaturally good looks, beaming out at you from glossy magazine pages. This year, Oscar winning actress Lupita Nyong’o is People’s most beautiful person—as well she should be. Nyong’o is a stunning young woman with a luminous smile and a depth of talent.

During this weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Live, Jones gave a monologue on Weekend Update about the pick. “The way we view black beauty has changed,” Jones says. “I’m six feet tall and I’m strong, Colin. Strong!” Jones goes on to say that she would have been the “number one slave draft pick” and how “massa” would have hooked her up with the best slave on the plantation to breed even better slaves. She referred to herself as a “mandingo,” who, with the right partner, would push out babies like Shaq and LeBron. What she had to say was uncomfortable and, at times, downright painful. She was being funny—or not. Humor is relative. Regardless, Jones was accurately commenting on one of the many travesties that took place during the slave era.

People are reacting. I am not here to judge those reactions, but I understand where Jones is coming from. To be considered beautiful as a black woman, you need to be exceptionally beautiful. You need to be slender and smooth, with the sharp cheekbones of a Lupita Nyong’o. All too often, you also need to be fair-skinned, which has made the darker-skinned Nyong’o’s rise to such great heights so spectacular to see.

Some people are bristling about how cavalierly Jones dealt with what we know was rape, and how black women and men’s bodies were used to produce more stock for white slave owners. As a critic sensitive to how popular culture deals with sexual violence, I understand. But there is so much more taking place within Jones’s monologue. I have watched the clip several times now. Beyond the surface of the joke, I see pain. I see rage. I see a woman speaking her truth.

The “black is beautiful” movement has worked to challenge damaging notions about black beauty since the 1960s, but more than 50 years on black women rarely get to be beautiful. Black women get to be strong. We get to be imposing and intimidating. We get to be thick, hypersexual bodies. We get to be exotic. We get to be the dirty secret you won’t take home to your family. That is all people want to see in us. When black women are considered beautiful (and this is quite a narrow space), too many people want to be congratulated for briefly expanding their understanding of beauty. Look at how some people have fallen over themselves to express how beautiful they find Nyong’o, how they wait to be praised for such aesthetic benevolence.

Black women are rarely seen for who we are. We are rarely seen or held with any kind of tenderness. We are rarely wanted. Jones was making a joke—or perhaps she wasn’t. On Twitter, she defended her monologue and, among other things, she said:

“I’m a comic it is my job to take things and make them funny to make you think. Especially the painful things. Why are y’all so mad. This joke was written from the pain that one night I realized that black men don’t really f–k with me and why am I single. And that in slave days I would have always had a man cause of breeding.”

We got diversity on Saturday Night Live, but we don’t get to control the narratives that rise from that diversity. We don’t get to hear and see only that which makes us comfortable.

Look at Jones’s face at the end of her monologue. See what is there. I am haunted by what I see. She was expressing a very specific loneliness I instantly recognized—having a big black body that may never be seen as beautiful or desirable, while carrying so much desire that goes unsatisfied.

It hurts to watch Jones share her rage and hurt veiled in humor. It hurts to realize how the legacy of slavery lingers. I want to take Jones’s face in my hands and tell her she is beautiful. She is beautiful. I want to hold all her hurt and rage so she can be free of it, even for a little while. I want to remake this world into something better so black women don’t have to recognize this kind of hurt and rage. I want all black women to see the ways in which we are endlessly beautiful even if few others do. I want to believe I am beautiful.

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