I once saw one of the pros deal with hecklers. There was a rally at the State House for a gun bill that would have made it illegal to leave loaded guns lying around where kids can get them. Naturally some of the NRAâ€™s finest were protesting the bill. They were standing around jeering Sarah Brady, wife of former Press Secretary James Brady who took a bullet in the head when President Ronald Reagan was shot. She gave her speech anyway, and stepped back for the next speaker, Sen. Claiborne Pell, who was at least 110 years old at the time.
He looked at the hecklers and said, â€œI can make a lot more noise with this microphone than you can by shouting.â€?
This was true. Also, the organizers had the foresight to invite a gospel choir to do the music, and the choir could drown out anything.
Speaking in public is risky, and you have to be crazy to do stand-up comedy. But there is a long tradition of back and forth with the audience. Hereâ€™s an example from anecdotage.com:
Gautama Buddha’s preaching was interrupted one day by a man unleashing a flurry of abusive invective. Calmly waiting for his critic to finish, Buddha asked: “If a man offered a gift to another but the gift was declined, to whom would the gift belong?” “To the one who offered it,” the man replied. “Then,” Buddha declared, “I decline to accept your abuse and request that you keep it for yourself.”
So Michael Richards can draw from a great tradition of dealing with insults by using wit, instead of offending everyone by spewing intemperate language. But he said something interesting during his tirade, he said â€œIt shocks you…it shocks you what lays buried.â€?
He was on to something there, but now he is on tv telling people that he is not a racist. White people are always saying that, and it doesnâ€™t really make sense. I think they mean that they donâ€™t believe that racial prejudice is okay, that itâ€™s immoral and they want no part in supporting it. But you canâ€™t live in our society, no matter what color you are, without absorbing racism. Thatâ€™s why the word â€˜niggerâ€™ is still obscene. It wonâ€™t lose its sting by being on a book cover or a t-shirt or being said every ten seconds by musicians. We are a long, long way from dismantling racism in our art, politics and institutions, and even when we get there, the word will float around for a long time like a hungry ghost looking to suck energy.
One hot day I was driving through — well we donâ€™t call them projects anymore, so letâ€™s say Hartford Estates. Music was blaring out an open door, lots of swear words, and that word over and over. I wondered who was playing it, what color they were, and how their neighbors felt. It was not a picture of empowerment. Most of the people living there are poor and struggling to make it up the most slippery and treacherous rungs of the ladder, some are too sick in body or mind to hold a job, and a few have found ways to make money outside the law to the detriment of the whole community. And children, beautiful American children are growing up there. They hang out at the community center, they go to the school. They shouldnâ€™t have to listen to songs like that.
One of the most encouraging responses to all this has been a call from Black performers to stop using the word. You canâ€™t take the stigma out of that word when so much of the toxic baggage of slavery is still dragging along behind us. We need new poets and better words if weâ€™re going to find a way out of the old prejudices that make White people stupid and Black people tired. What lays buried in Michael Richards lays buried in us all, and we need more creative responses to these revelations than â€œIâ€™m not prejudiced.â€?
However, if you donâ€™t want to do the heavy lifting to turn over that flat rock to see what lays beneath, there is a Black woman who can help you fast. Michael Richards, and anyone else who has $1500, can fill out an application at Rent-a-Negro.com. For that reasonable fee, Damali Ayo, a well-known Black person will vouch that youâ€™re not a racist. Perhaps for a negotiable fee she will appear with Mr. Richards on television. It would be a good way to put his situation out of its misery, let us all have a good laugh, and then get back to fighting the good fight.