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.

TIME Television

Sasheer Zamata’s Unreasonable Burden on SNL

Sasheer Zamata, first black female ÔSNLÕ castmember in six years, stars in skit with Kenan Thompson (center) and singer Drake.Dana Edelson/NBC
Sasheer Zamata stars in skit with Kenan Thompson (center) and singer Drake. Dana Edelson / NBC

I held my breath and hoped she was good enough while knowing, deep down, that for a woman in her position, there is no such thing as good enough

The burden of expectations Sasheer Zamata shouldered in her debut episode of Saturday Night Live must have been heavy indeed. The actor is the first black woman to join the regular cast of Saturday Night Live in six years. She is only the fifth black woman to join the cast in the show’s 38 year history. These figures make no sense, not in this day and age. And yet here we are.

In recent months, Saturday Night Live has been smug if not disdainful about the show’s lack of diversity. When Kerry Washington hosted, there was an arrogance to her cold open. The show mocked itself about the cast’s lack of black women. Then they offered a voice over explaining why Kerry Washington was playing so many roles in her opening skit. Saturday Night Live only began to address this problem for real when public outcry reached a fever pitch. Quietly, in the weeks after Washington’s episode, the show held auditions for a select number of black women. In addition to casting Zamata, they also hired writers LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones.

We’re supposed to call this progress. We are, I imagine, supposed to be grateful for this gesture. That is a mighty bitter pill.

Zamata has certainly paid her dues and has the necessary pedigree. She is a veteran of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade and has performed stand up across the country. She writes, acts and directs comedy sketches for various online outlets. She has also appeared in commercials for Target, Verizon, and Apple.

Despite her credentials, there was no margin for error. Zamata had to perform at her very best to receive a fraction of the consideration she deserves. She had to perform so well to have the necessary ammunition to combat the inevitable whispers (or shouts) about why she was hired. Saturday Night Live created an untenable situation and offered up this young woman as sacrifice.

Though popular actor turned rapper Drake hosted Zamata’s debut episode, all eyes were on her. It couldn’t be helped. I held my breath as the show began, wishing I could somehow help Zamata shoulder her unreasonable burden. I held my breath and hoped she was good enough while knowing, deep down, that for a woman in her position, there is no such thing as good enough. This story is familiar.

The show wasted no time in putting Zamata to work. She appeared briefly as a relative at Drake’s Bar Mitzvah. Her moment wasn’t enough to give us a sense of what she has in store for SNL viewers, but it was wonderful to see her bright, shining face so early on.

Zamata also performed in the second skit in a turn as Rihanna dancing the opening credits of Blossom. There was gyrating and Rihanna’s trademark vagina patting. Laughs were had. In fact, Zamata appeared in the majority of the show’s skits and acquitted herself well, though not every turn was memorable. In a skit where Zamata played a teenager having a slumber party interrupted by her father, her performance was underwhelming. She spent most of the skit rotating through a small range of facial expressions. Throughout the episode, Zamata’s talents were underused. She was never really allowed to go full throttle and chew up the scenery. All in good time, perhaps.

To the show’s credit, Saturday Night Live didn’t belabor the points of Zamata’s addition to the cast or the show’s “diversity problem.” Overall, the episode was solid, though the second half waned. For the first time in years, I found myself laughing aloud during the show. Zamata’s performance exceeded my expectations — though I worry I was so ready to see a black woman on the show that too little would still be enough.

I am angered by what has become enough.

Nonetheless, Zamata’s debut episode reveals what those of us who champion diversity have always known — diversity does bring about positive change. It is no accident that Zamata’s debut episode was one of Saturday Night Live’s strongest episodes in years. What so often gets lost in these conversations is that expanding the diversity of the cast and writers will expand the diversity of thought and experience that informs the show’s writing. Diversity can only make the show better.

It is somewhat absurd that the lack of diversity on a late night sketch show has dominated so much of the cultural conversation, but this story is also a stark measure of the unbearable whiteness of mainstream television and the unwillingness of those in power to change the status quo.

Saturday Night Live has made progress with their recent hires but questions remain. Diversity is not merely black and white. When will the show feature a cast and writing team with even broader diversity? When will we have to stop counting the people of color on shows like SNL? When will actors of color stop having to shoulder such unreasonable burdens?

In the coming days, there will be frenzied discussion about how Sasheer Zamata performed in her debut. We know two things for sure — she rose to the occasion with confidence and grace, and she never should have had to.

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