Jerrod Carmichael’s Rothaniel on HBO Max was one of the more strange comedy specials I’ve watched because a large part of comedy is the assumption that jokes aren’t real but this special was about unshrouding secrets and confronting uncomfortable truths. The whole performance was reminiscent of what I imagined nightlife during the Harlem Renaissance would be. Jazz piano twinkled in a soft introduction, Jerrod was encircled in a velvety blue spotlight and the audience watched him from the dark periphery. The club was so dark that the audience members were flattened into silhouettes, shadows of people that once were; their motions and voices were all discernible but their faces were smothered into a smooth obsidian. The speakeasy vibe spoke to an engagement with art that bubbled underneath the surface of society. The stage direction and cinematography was too intimate and vulnerable to not be important to the purpose of this production.
About twenty-three minutes into the special Carmichael comes out as gay. He expresses that there was a point in his life where he would rather die than come out. He recognizes that he can’t control how it could change some people’s perception of him and I think that’s one of the key takeaways that speaks to queerness in the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was a period of narrative writing for Black Americans––it’s a period where we have so much literature that can illustrate our experiences. Queer motifs lurk in the underbelly of this explosive Black presence but there was a general fear of acknowledging that. I hypothesize that it’s a fear that openly acknowledging that queerness complicates the Black image instead of defining it. Carmichael speaks about a distance between him and some of his immediate family members because he doesn’t feel wholly accepted. He says it’s like “being loved with an asterisk”; from what I understand, his frustration is that his queerness has become larger than him and no amount of familial love could surmount that. Although Carmichael can accept his queerness as something that completes him, it hurts him that he is somehow a different version of himself than he once was in the eyes of others.
This special provided an emotional depth necessary when considering the pain of being denied the space to be your full self. Putting this special in conversation with Harlem Renaissance literature emphasizes an inclination to dull Black narratives into something palatable and uncomplicated––thus, erasing entire aspects of identity that can enrich our understanding of who we are.