Leslie Jones of ‘SNL’ defends her jokes about forced breeding during slavery

Unless you watched the entire broadcast, it was easy to miss the controversy over “Saturday Night Live” writer Leslie Jones’s bit on “Weekend Update” this past weekend. The first trickling of commentary about this week’s episode was all about the comic brilliance of the “Beygency” sketch, but Twitter soon found its way to Jones.

In her first on-camera appearance on the show, Jones congratulated Lupita Nyong’o on winning People magazine’s “Most Beautiful Person” award, then argued for a “most useful” category for herself, asserting to “Weekend Update” host Colin Jost that she would be his pick if he were approached by three Crips in a dark parking lot. “The way we view black beauty has changed,” Jones said. “See, I’m single right now, but back in the slave days, I would have never been single. I’m six feet tall and I’m strong, Colin. Strong! I mean, look at me, I’m a mandingo … I’m just saying that back in the slave days, my love life would have been way better. Massah would have hooked me up with the best brotha on the plantation  … I would be the No. 1 slave draft pick.”

After a joke about announcing which plantation she would choose, likening the decision to the NBA draft, Jones said, “Now, I can’t even get a brotha to take me out for a cheap dinner. I mean, damn. Can a b—– get a beef bowl?”

Michael Fassbender as "Edwin Epps", Lupita Nyong'o as "Patsey" & Chiwetel Ejiofor as "Solomon Northup" in Steve McQueens's 12 YEARS A SLAVE. Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.”

Jones actually referred to herself as a mandingo, a term that already has a reputation as a lexical landmine when used to describe black men, but takes on a particularly pejorative distinction because black women have struggled to assert and define not just their humanity, but their femininity. Think of Patsey, Nyong’o’s character from “12 Years a Slave,” whom Master Edwin Epps heaps with praise because she consistently outperforms her male counterparts — often by more than 100 percent — harvesting cotton.

Jones isn’t the first black comedian to make a joke about slavery, particularly about the inhumane system of forced breeding that treated people like livestock. The most famous example is this clip from Chris Rock’s “Never Scared,” which turns 10 years old this year:

“During slavery, they used to take the biggest, strongest slaves and breed them, and try their best to make big strong super slaves,” Rock said. “Okay? That’s right. That’s right. And there’s evidence of that today, like the NFL, for instance. NFL stands for ‘N—- F—— Large.’ They bred the slaves — and this is why black people dominate every physical activity in the United States of America, okay. We’re only 10 percent of the population. We’re 90 percent of the Final Four, okay? We f—— dominate … basketball, baseball, football, boxing, track, even golf and tennis. And as soon as they make a heated hockey rink, we gon’ take that s—, too.”

Sunday, Jones gave an impassioned response to critics in 16 tweets, attributing the negative response to sexism.

“If anybody should be offended is white folks cause it’s what they did,” Jones tweeted. “Y’all so busy trying to be self righteous you miss what the joke really is. Very sad I have to defend myself to black people. Now I’m betting if Chris Rock or Dave [Chappelle] did that joke or  jay z or Kanye put in a rap they would be called brilliant. Cause they all do this type of material. Just cause it came from a strong  black woman who ain’t afraid to be real y’all mad. So here is my announcement black folks, you won’t stop me and Im gonna go even harder and deeper now. Cause it’s a shame that we kill each other instead of support each other. This exactly why black people are where we are now cause we too f—— sensitive and instead of make lemonade out of lemons we just suck the sour juice from the lemons. Wake up.”

So what’s the difference between Rock’s commentary, which was well-received and critically praised — Washington Post critic Tom Shales called it “thinking man’s raunch” and a “furious tour de force” — and Jones’s?

Rock’s monologue was served with a heaping mound of condemnation for slavery; he put his jokes in a larger context, arguing the merits of affirmative action. Jones’s bit, however, seemed to diminish the importance of a dark-skinned black woman such as Nyong’o being named “most beautiful” — Nyong’o has spoken publicly about her struggle to see herself as beautiful because of her dark skin — while also depicting forced breeding as consensual or enjoyable.

“Where is the rape idiots,” Jones tweeted. “I said nothing about rape you f—— morons. I was talking about being match to another strong brother.” She continued: “Not being raped by white man. What part of this joke wasn’t true? I would have been used for breeding straight up. And that’s my reality.”

Jones’s commentary also comes after two weeks of news coverage in which race, and slavery in particular, have been at the forefront of the national conversation. First, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy: “I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.” That was followed by the recorded racist remarks of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who received a lifetime ban from the NBA.

Jones was one of two black female writers hired, along with cast member Sasheer Zamata, after a long campaign decrying the lack of black women employed by the show. This is why Jones’s first appearance on “Weekend Update” was met with such towering disappointment.

When Jones was hired in January, fellow comedian Simone Shepherd, who had been invited to test for “SNL,” was overjoyed.

“Seeing her be able to stand her ground as a black female comedian, I know when she gets in that room with those writers, she’s going to do the same,” Shepherd told She The People. “It makes me feel like, ‘She’s in there. Who knows what’s next?’ … A lot of times, people get into places and they conform. [Jones] is not going to do that.”

Luvvie Ajayi, author of the Awesomely Luvvie blog, posted this reaction on the Awesomely Luvvie Facebook page: “Saturday Night Live is basically telling us to be careful what we ask for.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.

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