Critic’s Notebook: Behind Will Smith’s Slap, Black Pain and Enough Blame to Go Around

The foolishness and violence of the Oscar winner’s act — and of Chris Rock’s cruel joke — were undeniable, but the broader context and roots of such behavior merit reflection.

My heart holds all Black people everywhere, even when we are neck-deep in foolishness, especially when we are near drowning in pain. Oscar night was some foolishness. Oscar night was also painful.

We Black folk often enough feel that we are near drowning, as we remain locked in a system that marginalizes us. The barrier-breaking wins of this season’s Academy Awards only prove my point: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, only the fourth Black American to win a directing Oscar (all have been in documentary categories); Ariana DeBose, the first Afro-Latina to win an Oscar; and, after 50 years, 152 films and $27 billion in box office receipts, Samuel Jackson finally was chosen to receive an honorary Oscar.

The film industry has, historically, swirled us around just enough to get a taste of Blackness and, soon enough, spit us out. Hollywood is a beast, and I have nothing but compassion for all three of my people caught in the backwash of the 2022 Oscars.

Had that slap taken place on the A train, at the cookout or anywhere else around the way, Black folk everywhere could all agree that that was some foolishness. Meaning that the slap never should have happened. As best-selling Black woman writer Tina McElroy Ansa perfectly said on Twitter, “All he had to do was reach over, squeeze her hand and say to her, ‘Fuck him! We got this, babe.’ Then sit back and start revising his acceptance speech.”

Note that Sister Tina does not suggest that Will shouldn’t have protected his wife.

I mean, that’s his wife.

Meaning, Chris Rock should have never, ever let that joke come out his mouth. Imagine being in a barbershop and hearing some man say about another man’s wife anything close to, “She looks like she’s ready for G.I. Jane 2.” I mean, that’s some real foolishness, meaning you are kinda asking for someone — the husband, the son, the brother or uncle, a half-sister, a play cousin, Auntie, even Grandma, anyone in that woman’s family — to defend her.

And Chris Rock knows better. He knows because he’s from Brooklyn, and he knows because he has two daughters, one of whom inspired him to make his 2009 film, Good Hair.

The fact that the slap took place on an international stage does not enlarge the foolishness — at least, not for me. I do not fear the white gaze as I drop, viscerally, into a well of Black pain: In Will’s initial laugh, the weight of always needing to be affable, especially in white spaces, even when the joke’s on him. In his sudden decision to rise and approach Chris, the patriarchy’s compulsory performance of strong manhood. In the slap, a hyper-masculine response consistent with America’s punitive justice system. In “Take my wife’s name out your fucking mouth,” the release of suppressed anger in the form of toxic masculinity. And, in the tears that fell during his acceptance speech, genuine hurt. (I know, he’s an actor, but …)

The complexity of feeling in that moment deserves books, peer-reviewed articles and 400 years’ worth of affirming, validating, and love-centered counseling focused on inter-generational trauma. It’s not that Will Smith suddenly went crazy; on Sunday night, the Fresh Prince suddenly became regular, an imperfect man and not a carefully constructed icon.

With all that going on, I don’t care what white folk think. I agree with the writer and podcaster Touré, who, on his Twitter feed, said, “Just don’t come in here with ‘But what will racists say? What will FOX News say?’ I don’t live my Black life worried about what racists will say. Just say no to whitecentrism.”

Instead, let’s center Black women.

Black women whose enslaved ancestors were required, by law in some places and by custom in others, to cover their hair in rags. Black women like Harriet Jacobs who, in her 1861 narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, wrote about the man who legally owned her and, upon discovering that she had a second child, “cut every hair close to my head, storming and swearing all the time.” Black women like the entire 2007 Rutgers University basketball team, who endured the violence of Don Imus calling them “nappy-headed hoes.” Black women who, in 2022, require a law, an actual congressional item called the CROWN Act, to wear their hair the way God and nature intended.

Despite the deliberate erasure of Black beauty, we see our magnificent Black women.

I see you, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, as you advocate for marginalized people everywhere in this country. You, sister, who are beautifully Black, stunningly bold and, because of alopecia, unashamedly bald. I see you defy the racism and patriarchy and the particular expression of misogynoir that would silence you.

After deleting her initial response, “#Alopecia nation stand up! Thank you #WillSmith Shout out to all the husbands who defend their wives living with alopecia in the face of daily ignorance & insults,” Rep. Pressley refined her thoughts and tweeted, in part, “Our bodies are not public domain. They are not a line in a joke — especially when the transformation is not of our own choosing. I’m a survivor of violence. I’m a proud Alopecian. The psychological toll we carry daily is real. Team Jada always. That’s that on that.”

A 2019 study found that Black American women suffer from alopecia at a rate disproportionately higher than white, Latina and Asian American women, and in a 2016 survey of 5,594 Black women, 47.6 percent of respondents said they experienced hair loss. It is hard to be a Black woman and not know someone who suffers from this autoimmune disease.

One “Alopecian” is a dear friend of mine, Dara Roach, daughter of the famed jazz drummer Max Roach. I see you, sis, a single mother and professional who, just two months before receiving a breast cancer diagnosis, started losing hair everywhere on your body. I am a witness to your struggle, and I am a witness to your triumph. I see you, now, CEO of a thriving business founded by a Black woman. I see you, with your beautiful Black daughter by your side. I see you, and I love you.

Like Dara, we are more than capable of standing up for ourselves. And we are glad when our Black men stand up with us and for us.

And so I see you, Jada. I see you, Baltimore girl, and know you have looked in the mirror with the same critical eye the rest of us homegirls have and, for more than three decades, have had to manage the relentlessness of external invalidation, a mainstream culture that is in a perpetual state of judgment.

When I think of the joke, I can’t help but think of a pivotal scene in Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, when Joe insults Janie but cloaks his misogynoir in humor: “A big laugh started off in the store, but people got to thinking and stopped. It was funny if you looked at it right quick, but it got pitiful if you thought about it a while. It was like somebody snatched off part of a woman’s clothes while she wasn’t looking, and the streets were crowded.”

Substitute Jada for Janie, place her in L.A.’s Dolby Theatre instead of the store, and nothing has changed nearly a full century later.

I am a Black woman, and my heart holds all Black people everywhere. I know that Will and Chris are going to work this thing out between them. This grown man business is theirs to resolve. At the time of this writing, Will Smith has already publicly apologized to Chris Rock. Will’s public statement, posted on Instagram, concludes:

“I am a work in progress.

Sincerely,

Will”

Smith is not exonerated of personal responsibility. He has to own his inappropriate response, his foolishness. Before sanctioning him in ways that concretize the damage he’s already done to his own career, the Academy must also self-reflect and own the well-documented norms, policies and images that have damaged Black people, especially those who work in the business.

In a 2006 Inside the Actors Studio interview with host James Lipton, comedian Dave Chappelle famously identified our people in Hollywood as strong and said, “the environment that’s maybe a little sick” is the cause of all the crazy. Distinguishing actions from the people who suffer the weight of public condemnation when they act in atypical, disturbing ways, Chappelle also said that the public dismissively misidentifies damaged people as crazy “when they don’t understand.”

But it’s not hard to figure out. Deliberate use of racist tropes has anchored this “environment’s” biggest, most important films, from Birth of a Nation (1915) to both Jezebel (1938) and Gone With the Wind (1939), Casablanca (1942) to It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Even films that purport to unpack racism have only perpetuated stereotypes, like the tragic mulatto in Imitation of Life (1934 and 1959). Bad Negro, Happy Negro, Magical Negro, Mammy, Uncle Tom, Jezebel: These deceptions enter us; their violence destroys us.

Dr. Joan Morgan, author and program director at New York University’s Center for Black Visual Culture, posted her response to Sunday night’s slap on her Instagram: “Two thoughts: 1. Toxic masculinity is a helluva drug. 2. Janet had her whole career totaled for years for a 20-second nipple slip.”

She’s, of course, 100 percent right. We cannot excuse Will or Chris for their behavior on Oscar night. Chris’ joke was a verbal assault, a tearing down of Black women that was triggering and cruel. Will’s slap was a physical assault, a tearing down of another Black man to reclaim his heteronormative power in that very public realm.

In a comment on Morgan’s post, professor of graphic design at the University of Illinois Stacey A. Robinson wrote to Dr. Morgan and the world, “There’s a lot of unreconciled Black male pain in last night’s ‘performance.’”

Rather than punitively discipline Will Smith for his violence, the Academy and the Hollywood machine should take this opportunity to reflect and recognize their part in fomenting it.

Eisa Nefertari Ulen (she/her) is the author of Crystelle Mourning (Atria) and a professor of African and diaspora literature at New York’s Hunter College. A Pulitzer Center grantee, she is the recipient of awards from the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center and the National Association of Black Journalists.

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