Comedian and actor Amanda Seales' Instagram profile says it all: "I'm not 4 everyone."
Neither is her first HBO comedy special, which Seales kicks off by telling you exactly who it's for: "It's for my sistahs! But it's comedy, so it's really for everybody... Okay -- maybe not everybody. Everybody except for racists, rapists, sexists, misogynists, narcissists, you know -- folks that are calling the police on black folks for just living our lives."
Taped in New York City in front of an audience of mostly black women, the special, I Be Knowin', is representative of Seales' laugh-out-loud afrocentric point of view. It is a love letter to black women and a history lesson in black culture for curious outsiders.
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If Seales were a preacher, the audience would be her amen chorus; if she was a professor, the audience would be her rapt students. Seales' comedy positions her as both: a prolific leader who castigates injustice with side-splitting humor and a historian who tickles your funny bone while simultaneously schoolin' you. Whatever the label, Seales is a cultural truth-teller: the voice black women need now and the laughter we need even more.
Seales comedy meticulously deconstructs the world around her -- and the world in which black women specifically live -- to teach folks how to treat women and specifically black women, whose experiences are as diverse as our many hairstyles.
Seales' brand of indicting, socially-conscious comedy is backed by a master's degree in African-American studies from Columbia University, which essentially makes her a professor who drops knowledge through jokes. This has been true ever since she toured college campuses throughout the U.S. with her "Side Eye Seminar: Identifying and Defying Everyday Forms of Sexism." In her special, she kicks the knowledge dropping into high gear by tackling the national conversation around street harassment that emerged after an NYC woman released this video. Seales' personal stories, ladened with act outs, educate men on the difference between street harassment and a true compliment; the comedic tutorial also schools people on the appropriate times and contexts to give compliments. (In case you're wondering, it's only in daylight hours and from a distance that doesn't invade our personal space.)
By punching up on some of the most viral movements of our time (#OscarsSoWhite, #TimesUp), Seales is not only educating, but also redefining boundaries historically assigned to black comedians -- particularly black women comedians. Her success on HBO's Insecure and her live touring show, Smart Funny & Black, which tests the comedian's knowledge of black history, has enabled her to cultivate a niche following: smart, woke black women who like to have a good time. How else could she start her comedy special off by yelling, "Where my responsible hoes?" And have the audience cheer and wave in response?
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Seales work is proof that black comedy is boundless. Black comedy can be Seales affirming black women for knowing their credit scores and being as sexually active as they desire. It can be Chris Rock joking about black dads deserving "the big piece of chicken" at dinner; the Lucas Brothers making fun of themselves with lackluster expressions; or Phoebe Robinson (of HBO's 2 Dope Queens) making fun of the white guys she dates while talking like a Valley Girl.
Black comedy can be street, suburban, collegiate, or international; crass, clean, or somewhere in between. The only prerequisite is that's it's funny. As Seales says in the special, "Every black experience is the black experience unless it's anti-black."
With this statement, Seales validates not only diversity within the black community, but her place within the black comedy community. Seales has publicly expressed frustration for being criticized for not being a "black comedian." Seales prefers to joke about an array of topics and doesn't limit herself to the "Chitlin Circuit." It's ironic and fitting that she eventually found her niche among black women who also consciously navigate multi-layered intersectional lives.
In many ways, however, Seales' comedy follows suit with traditional black comedy, if not topically, at least stylistically. Historically, black comedy is BIG: jokes rest not solely on words, but on the comic's masterful delivery of them: the facial expression, the big physical act out, the DRAMA. A trained actor, singer, and dancer, Seales can perform with the best of them. She delivers her socially-conscious fare utilizing a preacher's inflections, a sorority sister's step moves, and at times -- by transforming into a church choir director that leads the audience into a rousing rendition of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," also known as the Black National Anthem. Here, she takes us to church without being religious.
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Like black church, an Amanda Seales comedy show is an interactive experience: you're gonna laugh, sing, dance, and learn a little something in between; you will leave on a spiritual high. I felt this way after I left my first Smart Funny & Black show.
When I watched Amanda's special, I cried three times within the first 12 minutes. Yes, it was that funny, and it was that funny because it was that relatable. She joked about racism at work and the constant code-switching black women must do to stand-up for ourselves without being perceived as abrasive. (I can relate.) She joked about the dilemma liberated women face when we want to go out but our legs aren't shaved and our toes ain't painted. (I can totally relate.) She even threw in jokes that highlighted Harriet Tubman's work on the Underground Railroad to talk about gender discrimination. Her special proved that her comedy is timely, relatable, and necessary. We need public voices like hers to declare #TimesUp.
Artists like Seales embody what's possible for black women today: a thriving career, a platform that enlightens, and success on her terms. Artists like Seales also speak about what's still wrong: #MeToo, #MuteRKelly, and #MAGA.
Her comedy isn't just a love letter to black women and a history lesson, though; it is the epitome of blackness. Amanda Seales is an intrepid curator of the black experience, an artist who creates comedic safe spaces in what author Austin Channing Brown describes as "a world made for whiteness."
When Amanda Seales is on stage, we black women can let our hair down, figuratively and literally. And it can be laid or nappy because Amanda has already shown us both on her Instagram. She is the freedom we want and the air we need when we feel like we can't breathe. She is our laughter, and our sister.
I Be Knowin' is now available on HBO.
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