D.L. Hughley: The ultimate Black superhero would have the power "to make white people believe him"

The comedian appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss his latest book "How to Survive America," having COVID and more

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published June 28, 2021 6:00PM (EDT)

D.L. Hughley performs at The Stress Factory Comedy Club on February 6, 2020 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. (Bobby Bank/Getty Images)
D.L. Hughley performs at The Stress Factory Comedy Club on February 6, 2020 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. (Bobby Bank/Getty Images)

A while before Donald J. Trump, the 45th president's Twitter account was deleted, he posted "My Admin has done more for the Black Community than any President since Abraham Lincoln. Passed Opportunity Zones with @SenatorTimScott, guaranteed funding for HBCU's, School Choice, passed Criminal Justice Reform, lowest Black unemployment, poverty, and crime rates in history."

And as a Black person with over 40 years of experience, I have no idea what he's talking about. In my opinion his whole administration and the years he spent in office were bad for Black people, brown people, white people, Asians, Latinos and everyone else. The end of his presidency sparked celebrations in the streets like I have never seen before ­­–– people twerking on cars, running up and down the sidewalks with faces covered in joy, and singing "Trump is done! Trump is done!" as if we just escaped the wrath of a terrible dictator, and I guess in a way, we did.

Those people deserve their celebrations, Trump was done, but we are all still left with the remnants of his administration –– our country being more divided than ever before, and his COVID debacle. We as a country have to clean up his mess, while still trying to survive. Funnyman D.L. Hughley writes about this task in his new book "How to Survive America," which is out now.

Many know Hughley as an original King of Comedy, TV personality and host of the national radio program, "The D.L. Hughley Show," but over the past few years he has planted his roots in activism, became a New York Times bestselling author and has been delivering some of the most powerful commentary on race and class in America. "How to Survive America "is the perfect mix of his recent commentary cocktailed with the hard-hitting jokes we know him for. Hughley detailed the purpose of his new book and why it is so timely on an recent episode of "Salon Talks." 

You can watch my "Salon Talks" episode with D.L. Hughley here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about how contracting COVID changed his life forever, his brand new sitcom and why television is still one of the most powerful vehicles for social change. 

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I was sad when I heard you had COVID and I'm happy that you're back on your feet and you're doing well.

Matter of fact, the whole genesis for the book happened when I had COVID and I was promoting my last book and just watching all the things that had gone on. I think one of the great things about that whole period, this whole thing that we're cycling out of, is that really, it forced us to concentrate on a lot of things and it forced us to see things that we perhaps wouldn't have. So I'm grateful for that aspect of it. Having COVID and doing press and hearing all that was going on was the inspiration for this book.

"How to Survive America" – the book is hilarious. Can you give our viewers just a glimpse of what they'll be getting into when they buy this book?

I think that the more things change, the more they stay the same. This pandemic was not too significantly, substantially different from what happened before. I think you have these, we were disproportionately affected by the Spanish flu. We were disproportionately affected by this. You had a leader at that time who refused to, who was the president of the United States who refused to admit how serious it was. We had a leader this time and I think what I've learned more and more is no matter what the circumstances, Black people are always held responsible for their own murder. Whatever way we die, it's our fault. I remember when this pandemic was raging, Europe was shut down and it had virtually touched every corner of the globe, but Jerome Adams gets on TV and tells Black people they need to stop drinking and smoking and doing drugs.

So I just, when I saw that, I've never seen a circumstance where something, a situation happened to Black people that invariably it didn't work out where society didn't see it as their fault.

One of the things that I think readers really need to hear, and that they're going to take away from this book is how you clearly break down the way Black people are more affected by all these different things, right? You go beyond COVID to the fact that we actually breathe air that's more polluted than white people.

Jerome Adams was making that speech, he pulled out his respirator. And I would imagine he lived around Black people. The tendency is whatever they don't want, whatever the dirtiest, eyesores, whatever they don't want, they put in our communities. And we are forced to ingest that. So I think that if you look at our interaction with Black women giving birth and how desperate that situation is, you can look at Naomi Osaka just now, who said that she was not mentally able to compete, and Piers Morgan attacks her and doesn't believe her. I think if Black people had a superhero, he wouldn't run fast or jump high, he would have the ability to make white people believe him. And I think it's just, there's an inherent feeling that no matter what happens to us, we brought it on ourselves.

I've read tons of books on these topics alone and done extensive research. The problem is, how come these messages don't cross over? It's like it goes in one ear and goes out the other ear, and that's on both sides, Republican and Democrat.

Yeah, I agree. I think even if you look at the Asian hate crime, which I'm glad it passed, it was so much easier to pass that than the anti-lynching law. And it's because society can't believe that Black people were treated that way or have been treated that way without their participation. In other words, they brought it on themselves. It's interesting that that would either require that America has had done horribly monstrous things, or that we are in fact, this inept, infantile group of people who deserved what happened to us. I remember reading an article Tom Hanks wrote, and he talks about how he didn't know about all the massacres that had happened in the country, like Black Wall Street, because society has made it so.

Even right now, if you look at what happened at January 6th, you have people right now who are trying to pretend like that didn't happen. Whatever they don't like, they're trying to remove slavery. It's interesting that they would try to remove slavery from my history books, but keep the monument to the man who perpetrated those atrocious acts. So there is this notion in America that no matter what happens, no matter how desperate, no matter how tragic, even if you watch what happened to George Floyd, if you listen to the defense, he died from everything but a man's knee on his neck.

I have to say, I think that there has been an awakening to some extent, an awareness of all that has gone on and what that means and how that plays out on some people. I think it's almost undeniable. I think the one thing that they always got to do, as society always got to do, is pretend like things didn't exist. And I think this has stripped that veneer away. What happens as a result of that? What happens going forward? I can't say. But now, that old NBC thing, the more you know, I think now society can't pretend like it doesn't. And so now it is not naivete, it's not being obtuse. It is willfulness. If you have willfully decided – at one point, ignorance may be bliss, but at one point you may not have known or may not have been aware of it, but now you can. And now you haven't. And now we'll see what happens.

One of my favorite sections in the book was when you go on and list every president between honest Abe and dishonest Donald, and how every president in between did more for Black people that Donald Trump. Where did this idea of "I did more for the Blacks than anybody," come from?

It is this belief that the economy was so strong, that the employment rate has jumped. He based that, in my estimation, he based that on the idea that the unemployment rate for Black people was so low, that he couldn't have been racist. Well, the unemployment rate during slavery was zero. I think there is this notion, the fact that we were working, that whether these jobs were high paying jobs or not, that they checked off a box. There's always like this idea that no matter what happens, we should be grateful for it and shut up about it. America doesn't want to pay, it wants us quiet. It wants silence. 

If you put down a gun, you need to pick up something. You need to pick up hope. You need to pick up opportunity. You need to pick up education. What they really want is the silence of people. That we should be grateful and not complain. It's better than it was. And I think that the only way that you move forward, it's like anything else, nobody gets to skip this process where you have to become aware of what has happened so that you can understand what you need to do and what you need to do and not do. So we seem to always want to skip that step.

And now we're taking a huge step forward because we're coming out of what you write about as being two threats, right? Trump and COVID. What do you think this moment means for Black people now?

Ultimately I think there is some level of self-determination that we have to decide to have. The idea that we are bad, for example, is a notion we need to despair. When Black women are doing childbirth or have Black healthcare professionals involved in the process, their potential for a healthy outcome goes up exponentially. When Black children have Black teachers, their prospects for going on to secondary education goes up exponentially. I think part of it is having society reconcile with itself what it's done, but also it's having that level of determination that we've always had. When people always go, "Well, we act like crabs in a bucket." Well, the misnomer is the crabs don't belong in the bucket.

So it is in addition to making society aware of the thing it's done, it is also us becoming aware of the things we can do. And to become, whether you like it or not, even when you want changes and political processes involved in that, it's not just people marching just for marching's sake, or people rioting just for rioting's sake. It is for an action. And that action is invariably political. You're asking for a political remedy and that requires some level of expertise, involvement, and action.

Do you think the Biden administration will get it right?

No, I don't think that. I don't. I don't. But I think that he'll get it as right as we've forced him to. Politicians are tools. They're no better or worse than a hammer. Now you can use a hammer to beat somebody to death, whatever, you can build a house with it. But it's the hammer, it's the tool. And the way we wield it will decide how useful it is in the situations we find ourselves in.

The way Republicans are denying that January 6th happened is the most goofiest s**t I ever saw in my life. I even heard one of them say it was liberals disguised as Trump supporters? I was like, "What?"

And what's funny, if that were true, then why not have a commission to get those bad actors out and prosecute them? If you really believe that it was antifa or people dressed like Trump supporters, you would be inspired to have a commission that would suss out what's going on. They denied everything. They don't want to do anything about it. This is America at large, irrespective of political party. The civil war never happened. What happened to India, never happened.

I think, as hopeful as I am, as optimistic as I'm starting to become about getting past at least this part of it, is as cautious as I am about the fact that we slip into this so easily. It was so easy to replicate what happened in the Spanish flu. And it just almost by note repeated itself. And we have to be a part of making sure that things like that doesn't happen to our communities. Because we were most likely to lose our lives, our jobs, our homes, our places. And this was an act of nature, depending on what side of the aisle you come down on. It decimated us. And we have to understand that we have a part to play in making sure that we are insulated to the best that we can against not only things like that, but the things society has for us down the road too.

So when the homies ask me, "What's the difference between Trump and some of these other presidents?" I said, "Check this out. I'm going to say one thing. We were born when Reagan was president, and we lived through Bush and Clinton and all of these other guys, and the one thing I can say that Trump did that none of them people did was, he made it so we had to sit in the house for a whole f**king year." I have never, ever, ever been a part of a pandemic that was tied into poor leadership. Other people came out of quarantine before us.

He was incompetent, and that cost lives. Incompetent. It's great for Trump supporters because it's good for whites, but it's hell on colors, I'll tell you that. At a certain point, all of them has that racial atmosphere, all of them have acted in ways that were detrimental to the things we need in our community. But at least know what the hell you're doing. At least. He had literally no idea. He had literally no idea what was happening. He had no idea how to stop it. His idea of self-preservation, his idea of it being about me. He literally believed that it just affected the blue states, so why should he care? He literally believed the people who were dying weren't going to vote for him anyway. I don't know that we've had anybody in the modern era that has been that crazy.

Is there anything we should be looking out for outside of the book? When does the book drop?

I'm writing a new sitcom that we just signed the deal to, but we'll see what happens with it. But I'd like to get back into television, because I think that even though, as diminished, as fragmented as it is, it still is a powerful messenger. It still is a way to have stories. And I think the one thing about stories, all of our travails, victories, all have to be written in a story that is easily digestible. Nobody knew about Black Wall Street, by and large, 'til the "Watchmen" did it on HBO. What? This really happened? You have to hide our truths in stories.

Tell everybody where they can get the book and when it drops.

So it's on Amazon, you can get it at Barnes & Noble. You can go online. It's going to be at your bookstores. So it's called "How to Survive in America," and the unfortunate part is that almost 700,000 people didn't. So usually I've tried to take a more ironic, humorous approach. This one is just, it's more observant, and more analytical and just I think I never forget that I'm an entertainer, not necessarily an intellectual, but I think laying these truths out in ways that people can digest it has always been important to me.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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