Thug Notes: Literary Analysis in Blackface

One of the perennial challenges of teaching literature is finding a way to make the text relevant to students’ interests. As a teacher of introductory courses in British, American, Caribbean, and African literatures, I’ve tried several methods—some successful; some abysmal failures-- to hold my students’ attention. So, I was intrigued when I saw a video series on You Tube, Thug Notes: Classical Literature. Original Gangster.

Thug Notes, “the illest literature show on the web,” has reviewed works such as Beowulf, Moby Dick, Hamlet, Crime and Punishment, and 1984. With the team of Jared Bauer (show creator, co-writer), Joseph Salvaggio (researcher, co-writer), Jacob Salamon (producer, co-illustrator) Greg Edwards (aka Sparky Sweets, PhD.), Thug Notes offers cogent summaries and analyses with a faux hip-hop twist on books that many students find intimidating.

In his introduction to Lolita, Dr. Sweets explains, “I hope y’ll like R. Kelly this week. We be macking on jail bait.” Dr. Sweets also describes Oedipus Rex as a “search for motherf****ing truth.”

But don’t let Dr. Sweets' mugging for the camera, his language, do-rags, and tank tops fool you. Thug Notes’ exegesis of these works of literature is remarkable, and given the medium, the interpretation of Macbeth is one of the best I’ve seen.

What bothers me though is not the distance between the Dr. Sweets’ language and the analysis—which creates a kind of cognitive dissonance—but the character of Dr. Sparky Sweets. And all I can do is ask, “Why?”

Why, when you have a whole range of Black life from which to choose, would you reinforce one of the worst stereotypes of Black men?

Why didn’t the writers, producers, and the actor know the potential damage that they could cause with this racist stereotype? And if they knew, why did they continue?

Black actors and comedians have to walk a fine line between comedy, caricature, and realistic portrayals of black life. Hollywood Shuffle and most recently, Key & Peele’s “Thug English Actor" illustrate the dilemma. Dave Chappelle also faced a similar situation, which led to him leaving his popular comedy show when he felt that a staff member wasn’t laughing with him, but at him.

Thug Notes, as the New York Times reports, is an “example of a trend that has been around for years: the application of street sensibility to high-culture, high-concept areas and, more generally, any place where it’s not expected.”

Too bad they had to use a minstrel in blackface.


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