Paul R. Lehman, Letterman’s comment about Mrs. Obama and chicken shows lack of class.

April 1, 2014 at 5:02 pm | Posted in African American and chicken, American history, Col. Sanders, Conan, David Letterman, Don Rickles, Jay Leno, Matt Soniak, Michelle Obama, Mrs. Obama, Pope Francis, Slavery, spicy chicken, talk-show host | Leave a comment
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Entertainers like stand-up comics and talk show host are given license to make remarks about people of prominence as long as the remarks are taken as entertainment. People like Don Rickles or Jay Leno can make statements about important people with the intent of getting a humorous response—a laugh or smile. Although the comments regarding these people might seem disparaging, they are spoken without negative or denigrating intent. For example, Conan O’Brien, host of his TV show “Conan,” stated in a recent Monologue that “In a speech, Pope Francis criticized the Mafia and urged its members to repent. Which is why now every morning the Pope makes his assistants start the popemobile.”
We all realize that Conan’s remarks were meant to get a laugh, and not to call any negative attention to the Pope. Sometimes, however, the remarks of some entertainers can cross the line of acceptability and in doing so result in negative reactions. A case in point concerns the remarks of David Letterman in a recent Monologue. He stated that “First lady Michelle Obama is in China. Today she was busy doing some official business. She placed a wreath on the grave of General Tso, the creator of spicy chicken.”For someone to find meaning in this statement, he or she would have to have knowledge of Michelle Obama, General Tso and his chicken, and the history associated with African Americans and chickens.
We are generally familiar with America’s first lady, Michelle Obama, and know her to be an intelligent, attractive, and graceful young lady. We also know that she is an African American and a very patriotic person. She has introduced the country to a number of her interests in programs that address people concerns such as obesity, especially in the youth of America. So, any reference to Michelle relative to her concern for obesity and food would be considered in order. However, the Letterman comment had no relations to Mrs. Obama’s program on obesity. Whether it was stated out of ignorance, disrespect, bias, we do not know. What is for certain, however, it was not meant as a compliment. As a representative of the United States of America, Mrs. Obama’s reason for visiting China was to promote education which she did while showing respect for the host country. One of her activities did not include laying a wreath at the grave of an honored Chinese leader, especially, General Tso.
The reference to General Tso is not necessarily a familiar to many people because it is not a nation-wide product. The Letterman comment seems to suggest a likeness of the General to the famous Col. Sanders of the Kentucky Fried Chicken brand. But who is General Tso?In an article by Matt Soniak, Who Was General Tso? in mentalfloss.com gives us some insight on the general:“Zuo Zongtang (sometimes written as Zu? Z?ngtáng or Tso Tsung-t’ang) was one of the greatest military leaders of China’s long and storied history. Zuo’s life as a military hero is well documented (there’s even a billboard on the road going into his hometown that features his likeness), but his connection to the chicken dish named after him is a different story.” Soniak continues, “ Food historians know this much for sure: the dish is a loose interpretation of an old Hunan dish called chung ton gai (“ancestor meeting place chicken” or “ancestral meeting hall chicken”). After that, it’s all a matter of whom you ask.” The spicy chicken associated with Letterman’s comment is popular in New York and Canada.
Most people who have studied American history learned about slavery in a general sense and recognize the negative effects of that system. Few really know about the unhealthy and unbalanced diet of many of the slaves. The phrase “Soul Food” is popularized today and brings to mind happy memories of family and loved ones gathered together for occasion. The fact of the matter concerning soul food is that it represented what the slaves were given to eat. Because of their work schedule, slaves did not have the time or necessities to prepare wholesome meals. Most of the food was fried in pig fat or lard.
The majority of the meats available to slaves were pork and beef. The exception was meat acquired from fishing and hunting; chicken was not a daily dietary item. Slaves had no time or place to raise chickens, except when permitted, in the yard, or as known today, free-range. So, for the slaves to have chicken was not a daily occurrence. To associate the eating of chicken with slaves and/or African Americans is to cast a discerning eye on the hardships and like of privileges granted to them in captivity. In essence, the reference is demeaning and denigrating in that it makes fun of a people held in bondage and deprived of basic necessities.
So, when Letterman made his comment about Mrs. Obama placing a wreath at the grave of General Tso, the creator of spicy chicken, he was, in effect, calling attention to a serious miscarriage of justice relative to human beings held in slavery and poverty. The complaint here is not the fact that Letterman chose Mrs. Obama as the subject of his comments, he has every right to do so, but his reference speaks to her personal history as an African American and a descendant of slaves. The reference to African Americans eating chicken is a reminder that they were once not considered human beings, but animals. After slavery, many African Americans became farmers and raised chickens as well as pigs and beef. But the reference to chickens still strikes a sour note about slavery and poverty. So, for Letterman to make a statement in that context shows ignorance or arrogance or bias or all three.
No one wants to deprive comics or talk-show hosts of their freedom of speech or the right to poke fun at people of note, but some consideration of the ramifications of some remarks should be taken to avoid feelings of insensitivity. The problem is in the context, not the chicken. Rather than poke fun at Mrs. Obama, Letterman’s remarks reflect directly on him and his lack of judgment and class for making the comments.

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