Harambe, Comedy and Police Brutality | Chelby Gill

      Before we get started let’s clarify what a meme is, it’s best described as an internet punchline. It’s a picture, gif, or phrase that can be attached to a situation in order to enhance a joke. It is copied with slight changes and is passed rapidly throughout the internet.


Throughout this article, there will be images of memes, some of which have racist intent. Please read on with caution, especially if you are sensitive to racial prejudice. Many linked videos do not contain CC. 

     May 28th, 2016 was supposed to be an ordinary day on the web, people taking a human interest story or trending topic and conversing about it, make a few jokes and a think piece would follow suit and by the end of the week it would be forgotten. However Harambe was no average story , he was special. The story of Harambe being shot and killed while in an enclosure of a zoo captured the internet’s attention immediately, Harambe lost his life because a little boy had fallen into the mote and zoo officials felt the best decision was to shoot harambe with a bullet rather than a tranquilizer in case he reacted violently and could hurt or kill the child. Folks then started to draw parallels to police brutality cases and how the African American/ Black victim is shot while not posing a physical threat, the officer who shot the victim will claim they did so out of self-defense. In these situations the main questions asked are,

Why did they have to die?

Were they really posing a threat?

Was the use of such force necessary?

What could both parties of done to prevent this tragedy?

Would this person of been shot or seen as a threat had they of been White?


Now if the internet could have just left at that it would have been fine, there’s nothing wrong with drawing parallels between two events to create a dialogue on social justice issues. I probably would not even be writing this blog if we could have just left at drawing parallels between two situations

    However twitter is not responsible, in fact it is quite the opposite, it’s a racist, antagonistic, misogynistic, misogynoir, pretty-much-any-phobic, filled cesspool. As a young Black womyn despite the memes and jokes and good conversation I can only protect myself so much by having a carefully curated timeline.

    Racist jokes on the internet are nothing new at all, for the most part they are unapologetically racist meant to offend and antagonize. That is why I reacted to the Harambe meme differently, it managed to be overtly and covertly racist at the same time. The jokes being made were satirizing and parodying police brutality and Black pain whilst using Harambe as a placeholder for an actual Black person. Therefore folks used it as a shield to avoid accusations of racism. In short folks on twitter were anthropomorphizing Harambe as a Black man in order to get out all the racist jokes they could in 140 characters or less.  (cw: Racist image)


     Adding insult to injury there is actually a very sad and long history of African Americans being compared to monkeys, gorillas and other primates, it was to humiliate, dehumanize and fetishize Black people.  Some of that language was ingrained in the American Lexicon when referring to Black people up until a decade ago  (i.e. Jungle Fever). I am more than sure those who know of that stereotype who participated in that meme were using that to add to their punch lines as well.  We recently saw an example of this usage of gorillas towards Black people when online trolls tweeted pictures of Harambe with Leslie Jones face photoshopped onto it. (cw: Racist image)


     Let’s go back to the parodying black pain, it’s been a common theme on the internet, I first noticed this when Antoine Dodson most famous for the “Bed Intruder” song (“Hide your kids, hide your wife”) ring a bell. The internet took a clip from a local news interview where Dodson is describing his fear and concern for his loved one because there was a serial rapist in the neighborhood. “Sweet Brown” best known for the “Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That” phrase was again a clip from a local news interview and she is talking about how she escaped an apartment complex fire. This meme found humor in AAVE (African American Vernacular English) and the misogynoiristic trope of sassy and mammy type black woman. The media took these traumatic experiences from low income African American people and turned it into a mockery and reduced them to cartoon characters.

     I have used these micro aggressions to see how non-Black folks view our lives and our pain, and from what I have gathered it is nothing but entertainment to the rest of the world. Participants in the meme parodied the outrage that usually follows the news of another victim of police brutality.

     Does the rest of the world see our outrage as a community as outlandish rather than the cry for respect and human treatment that it is?(this video does not have CC.)

     Now do not get me wrong I love comedy, whether it’s black, blue, topical, observational, insult or sketch. I appreciate the sophomoric humor of Adult Swim to the white, socioeconomically upper class New York hegemony that is Saturday Night Live. I think comedy is a great tool and can be used to poke fun of social norms and taboos, but if there is one thing I know about comedy it is that you do not punch down on a person or a group of people. I enjoy all different types of humor but my “wokeness”, (which I might add I did not just decide take on this consciousness, as a Black woman I do not have the choice to be asleep) will not allow me to simply look over microaggressions in comedy no matter funny it may be.

     Harambe’s legacy could have been used for good. We could be using the attention on this story to talk about the fact that more people were concerned for the animal than the Black child. We should have spent more time discussing why many people went on to harass the family and even publish personal information regarding previous arrests that were completely unrelated. The only purpose of drudging up past arrests was to further the “Black people are irresponsible parents” narrative. On the contrary Harambe’s death could of also lead to a discussion on speciesism and interspecies intersectionality and justice. If Harambe had of been a domestic animal would officials had been so quick to shoot him. The greatest question that was seldom asked is why was Harambe in a zoo/enclosure in the first place? The idea of zoo’s and having animals on display for human entertainment is antiquated and we really should end those institutions. But the internet does not know how to be responsible so instead we are left with a racist meme that is 3 months old and that no one plans on ending.