There is a fascinating Saturday Night Live sketch from 1980, a piece almost entirely forgotten by most viewers of the NBC comedy show. The sketch survives in the pop culture arena only because it features the SNL debut of comedian Eddie Murphy. Airing about a month after the country elected an ex-actor to the presidency (ousting a former Georgia peanut farmer in the process), the skit is a spoof of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, that unconventional animal wildlife series sponsored by an insurance company. In the SNL piece, a Jim Fowler–type zoologist braves the “savage” landscape of a tony Manhattan cocktail party in search of an elusive subject: the Negro Republican. Tracking the “migratory patterns” of African Americans “fleeing the liberal lake wastelands” for the “fertile promised land of the GOP,” the scientist stumbles badly—a hilarious case of mistaken identity—when he assumes that a Black funeral parlor director must be a member of the GOP. Undeterred, he spots another Black man nearby—a thorough examination of speech patterns, clothing, musical tastes, and economic interests confirms that the subject is indeed the evasive Negro Republican. With great care, the zoologist sedates the “ex- otic creature,” attaching a blinking transmitter disguised as an American flag pin to the man’s lapel. As the disoriented man awakens, the scientist quickly hides, emerging to take notes on his subject from afar once the Negro Republican has wandered back into the “wild.”
“In Search of the Negro Republican” is a riveting political satire, interesting not for the writing or the cast’s performance but for the ideas conveyed by the sketch—ideas about popular perceptions of African American members of the GOP. A Black Republican, it would seem, was a rare fellow in 1980—a political opportunist and an economic conservative who, seduced by the promise of a Reagan Revolution, had disavowed his longtime home in the Democratic Party. By that same token, a Black Republican was a racial turncoat—a Benedict Arnold in blackface who had appropriated clichéd notions of middle-class whiteness: a stuffy voice, a preference for the Carpenters over the Isley Brothers, the choice of a drab, unsophisticated suit, and a degree of comfort with the quintessential symbol of American patriotism, Old Glory. A Black Republican was a curiosity—a creature to be observed, sedated, and studied.
The SNL sketch, as with any satire, is a primer in exaggeration, entertaining precisely because it taps into stereotypes of Black Republicans—caricatures that we know logically are absurd, yet nevertheless still make some kind of intuitive sense. The uneasy racialized undertones of the sketch are rendered practically invisible because something about the parody resonates. Stripped of nuance, the stereotype works because it exposes the fundamental question that so many of us ask: Why would an African American join the Republican Party? The question is an old one, an ubiquitous inquiry that many people, Democrats and Republicans alike, have posed consistently since the 1930s—the decade when Black voters first began to flee the Republican Party, then known as the “Party of Lincoln,” an ideological home so very different from what “Republican” means today. Since then, the link between Blacks and Democrats has become a knee-jerk one, a relationship that is taken for granted by all sides. Over the decades, the concept of a “Black Republican” has come to seem a contradiction in terms, invested with an odd kind of alienness. “Since President Franklin and the New Deal,” wrote the editors at the Chicago De- fender in 1976, “being black and Republican was about as compatible as being black and aspiring to leadership in the Ku Klux Klan.”