Review: Ziwe’s ‘Black Friend’ Is A More Than Impressive Debut From A World-Class Comic Voice

Ziwe. Courtesy of Showtime. Photo credit: Myles Loftin.

I do not know Ziwe, but after reading Black Friend, I feel like I understand her. This is a high compliment, since up until this year, comedy memoirs or essay collections have mostly been odd cash grabs that are not worthy of attention, as they function like empty calories rather than nutritious dinners. This year, in an already impressively poignant and brilliant season for comedy memoirs, Ziwe’s collection of essays stands out for the way it bridges her work as a comedian and interviewer, and the personal and cultural aspects that drive that work. 

As it stands, Ziwe Fumudoh, like most comedians, is misunderstood as being her iconic persona, not someone who created a comedy identity as a lens to dial into some of the things she wants to articulate. From the first essay, ”nobody knows my name,” it’s clear that the book will focus on Ziwe the person, not Ziwe the construct. As she delves into her name — hearing it mispronounced, seeing it ascribed to another Black female comedian, learning it means “when you were born your father was away,” and taking ownership of it — the writing sets up a few things that are crucial to Ziwe’s voice on the page. There is humor, but it’s also astute and measured, landing a weight and gravitas with every sentence. It’s journalistic, which is to say smart and scholarly without losing the reader. There is also, for context within the collection, an incredible parsing of Ziwe the person outside the stage from Ziwe the embellishment, but done in a way that doesn’t negate the influence of one over the other. The essays all end beautifully, with “nobody knows my name” ending with this note about being correctly identified at the US Open: I was delighted. Not because they recognized me, which was nice, but because they knew my name was just Ziwe. 

It’s honestly refreshing to read a collection that is so exacting and determined in its craft, and it lends Ziwe additional context. A journalism major who looks up to Ida B. Wells, wrote in some capacity for The Onion, and worked on Desus & Mero, it can be easy to overlook how writing and reporting informs her work as a famous baby (goo goo gah gah). Perhaps because of this, or perhaps because readers have traditionally expected little from books by artists, the expanse of it is breathtaking (yeah, I said it). Moving from having Nigerian parents who left their home to provide a better life for their daughter, to explicit racism at an If Beale Street Could Talk screening, to the struggle of trying to break out as a comedian, to a lot of things that underpin the American pop-culture industrial complex, the collection punches its weight in a way not dissimilar from the way Emily Ratajkowsi tackled exploitation and beauty commodification in My Body. With exacting language, Ziwe gives the reader passages like this one on the pandemic, taken from “imposter syndrome”:

As the city worked to avoid one disease, we collectively came down with another: cabin fever. This resulted in what I would describe as “a very weird time” in American history. Some of us made celebrities out of accused murderers/tiger enthusiasts; others began bread-making, searching for meaning in the dough they kneaded; and far too many went live on Instagram at every waking hour of the day. 

This voice, stentorian and vast, is one of the tools that helps the book stand apart. The other is Ziwe’s descriptive talents, which are perhaps on display best in her most unforgettable essay, “airbnb,” which captures an intense exchange between Ziwe, who is walking along the road, and a man named Justin, who interrogates her from a car that has a blonde woman and Black child behind its tinted windows:

When I am afraid, I listen. It was noon. The songbirds cooed. The leaves rustled in the wind. But it was my silence that filled the valley.

“Are you staying in the Airbnb? We own this property.”

That is when I noticed that the brunette man was sitting beside a blonde woman. She had not moved, so it was hard to tell if she was his victim or accomplice. 

The fear in the essay is palpable, and Ziwe does an excellent job dissecting the layers of fear, racism, territorial segregationism, and white liberal failure that create a political atmosphere that can lead to her being cornered like this while on a writing retreat. The essay ultimately leaves a haunting imprint on the book, one that underpins the rest of the work with something sinister, but something that can be stood up to.

In “damn,” Ziwe writes about AAVE and the co-opting of it. The inciting anecdote focuses on a white actor who did a bit of code-switching to try and charm some rappers, but who just spoke as he does every day to Ziwe. 

There are few things as intimate as watching someone code-switch. I am just as perturbed by the racial implications of his blaccent as I am by the notion that he did not believe he had to use it on me. I have to assume that because I knew this actor, he was embarrassed that I could see through his performance. Still, to date, this is the only time in my life when I was insulted by not experiencing racism. I know I sound ridiculous, but you have to understand; the guy’s sheer boldness in mumbling to rappers like a SoundCloud rapper and then in the very same breath dictating to me in the Queen’s English left me vulnerable to the politics of my own blackness. Had private school stripped me of my authenticity? Or did this have nothing to do with me? Was this about the internal prejudice of Blaccent Guy? Or was I just wickety wickety wack? 

It’s this juxtaposition of inciting incident, context, and complex consideration that makes each essay standout while building to a richer understanding of Ziwe herself. In these pieces, nothing is simple, and unlike many a collection that mixes the personal and the cultural, Ziwe does not posit to have clear or easy answers, nor does she wish to just move ideas around on the page and hope something worthy appears. Most of the essays function similarly to “damn,” where the larger issues serve as a way to magnify Ziwe in a way that’s uncomfortable for her, but something she is willing to do as a new challenge.

Throughout Black Friend, Ziwe dismantles oppressive ideas and calls out white failure to stand in real, helpful solidarity while sharing the pieces of her history that led her to being the sort of person who can release a book with a major publisher and a strong marketing budget. Yes, she overcame a systemic barrier to success in the industry. Yes, her parents were strict. Yes, she struggled to be accepted at school. These things are true, but they’re not the point. Ziwe Fumudoh was always undeniable, and if you’ve been paying attention to her work, you know why. This book is just further proof she’s iconic, and will only continue to have the success she deserves as a funny, brilliant person. 

Ziwe: Black Friend: Essays.
Ziwe: Black Friend: Essays.

Ziwe's new book Black Friend: Essays is available today wherever you purchase books - grab your copy here!

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