Larry Willmore’s “You did it…” was affection, expressed by a brilliant comic and man of the people. From my perspective, way on the left coast and from the comfort of my desk chair, he spoke as much for himself, as he did on the behalf of millions of people who watch him.
After nearly eight years of being exposed both to barely subsonic and outright racist political discourse, I took Willmore’s usage of vernacular language to mean “Well done! Thank you and we love you! In the context in which it was said, it was totally understandable and appropriate. Black slang can be as biting and stinging when a subject is given shade, as it can be red-hot and loving when a subject is being heaped with praise.
There are times when decorum must be adhered to. The correspondents’ dinner just isn’t one of them, and the White House confirmed as much the following day. Some took this as a departure from decorum that is inappropriate in all cases. Respectability politics has many contexts, of which the best known is the tenet to which we apply looking respectable as a way of escaping race-based victimization. But there are other types of respectability that are applied on a daily basis and one of them is the classification of hip-hop as an undignified manifestation of Black culture. That view, in and of itself is racist when applied by whites to Rap, and a form of respectability politics when certain people of color apply it to their brethren. Whether one agrees with the particular usage of the N-word that Willmore engaged in or not, one cannot divorce the context and sentiment he applied to it. One also cannot ignore the entirety of Willmore’s social critique. As a friend pointed out to me, Willmore didn’t spare President Obama criticism on certain issues during his monologue and he still sent some love his way.
After eight years of being “othered,” not being this enough, being too much that and being obstructed at every turn, President Obama deserved more than a mere “you’re all-right.” Willmore’s “you did it, my n—a!” was said with love, in a way that Willmore is exclusively allowed and I am forbidden; in a way that many a detractor of President Obama wishes they could publicly express their hatred, but can’t. Willmore is that smooth that he pulled it off in a genuinely affectionate way, all the while getting one over on the haters.
In that brief moment, millions of viewers not only heard the thumping of Willmore’s hand on his chest, but felt the force with which he showed that feeling. Their hearts smiled right back as President Obama returned the thump with a huge grin.
No contempt was expressed on Sunday night, just the familiarity of hugs and kisses. You’re all right, Mr. Willmore!
Larry Willmore with Terry Gross on his White House Correspondents performance