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Tommy Davidson shares his story in ‘Living in Color: What’s Funny About Me’

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Comedian and actor Tommy Davidson’s journey has been marked with exhilarating highs and soul-crushing lows.

Thirty years after appearing in the groundbreaking sketch comedy show “In Living Color” with Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx and members of the Wayans family, Davidson has penned the truth about his life in and out of the spotlight in the candid memoir “Living in Color: What’s Funny About Me” (Kensington Publishing), written with Tom Teicholz.

During an interview with The Maine Edge, Davidson discusses the white family that adopted him after his birth mother abandoned him at the age of two in a pile of garbage, as well as the woman he considers his real mother, who pulled his battered body from that trash pile to raise as her own.

Davidson speaks of the painful early lessons he learned about race, his break into standup comedy and his five incredible years as a featured cast member on “In Living Color.”

Davidson opens up in “Living in Color” about his recovery from addiction, his remarkable adoptive parents, his interactions (good and bad) with some of Hollywood’s biggest names and how it felt to finally meet his birth family, including the woman who had left him for dead.

Tommy Davidson: What’s in this book is the landscape that I was able to negotiate with a lot of people who love me, and I want to pass those experiences on so that the reader can get through their landscape in life.

The Maine Edge: When you were just five years old and living with your adoptive white family, you discovered some difficult truths about race relations in America, which was not an easy lesson.

Davidson: No, because I thought we were like animals in a litter. It didn’t matter what color the mom was, she always had puppies or kittens that were multi-colored. I learned my colors from having crayons, so it made sense that whatever we were, I was the brown one. When we moved to Washington D.C. in 1968, it was shortly after Martin Luther King had been shot. There was a lot of tension, a lot of riots and fires and army tanks rolling in; we didn’t know what was going on.

After we settled in, we went to play with the other kids in the neighborhood, and all of the black kids kicked our asses every day. They hated us and they hated me. They were calling my brother and sister ‘white cracker’ and they were calling me ‘white cracker lover.’ I asked my mother ‘Why are they calling me that? I love graham crackers.’ She said that’s what people your color call people of my color when they don’t like them. That’s when she told me I was black, but I told her I’d learned my colors from the crayons, and that I was brown. I said, ‘You guys are like peach.’

We moved out to the suburbs in 1969 when I was six. That’s when I first heard the n-word. I would look up and there were grown men chasing me. I barely made it inside the house. They were saying ‘Kill the (n-word), kill him.’ They threw stuff threw our windows and wrote the word on our porch. I said ‘Mom, who are these (n-words)? We need to get away from them, they sound like bad people. She said, ‘That’s what people our color call people your color when they don’t like them.’

The Maine Edge: It doesn’t make sense now; how did you make sense of that at age six?

Davidson: It was the day my world just fell apart. I thought it was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard. I was asking ‘How can I love you, but they don’t love you?’ and ‘How come they can hate me when they look like you?’

I was trying to find my identity as a black person, but also as a human being because my family was white, but they weren’t racist. I remember being five years old and playing cowboys and Indians with my grandfather, who got down on the ground with me and said, ‘I want you to make sure the Indians win, because they are the heroes.’ And he said, ‘I want you to know that all cowboys didn’t kill Indians, because I’m a cowboy, Tommy.’ (Davidson writes in his book how he later discovered his true ancestry and that he is part Choctaw Native American).

That was my first lesson on the good side of race, that there’s love in between. Even as a kid, I read all the time, and this phrase kept popping up: human race. One day, I saw the word mankind. I thought ‘I like mankind better, because the other one seems like everybody’s racing to some kind of finish and trying to beat the next one. The word mankind sounded like humans being kind to each other, and I liked that better. I’ve been living that life ever since.

The Maine Edge: You broke into comedy in the mid-1980s, after a friend insisted that you try standup, and it wasn’t long before you won an amateur standup competition at the Apollo Theatre in New York City. Were you nervous at all that very first time you took the stage?

Davidson: I wasn’t. I had just gotten a job as an assistant chef at a Ramada Inn. It was a great job for someone who was 18 years old. I called my friend Howard, who had grown up with me, and he said ‘You’re the stupidest person I’ve ever met. Why aren’t you out there doing comedy?’ He told me I could do anything I wanted, that I could write my own ticket, instead of sitting up there in a kitchen. He talked to the manager of the worst strip club in the world and convinced him to put me on stage.

The manager looked at me and said, ‘Go on now, you’ve got five minutes.’ I looked at Howard and asked ‘What am I supposed to say?’ From the second I said something, people laughed, like they always had. Earlier in my life, the family would be gathered around the table for a meal when I would say something that had them all laughing at me. I felt bad so I asked my mom about it. She said ‘Tommy, they’re not laughing at you, you have a way of putting things that makes people happy so fast, the only reaction they can have is to laugh.’

From that moment to this one, being on the phone with you right now, it seems like it was as fast as a comet, like no time has passed.

The Maine Edge: “In Living Color” was really the first sketch comedy show with a predominately African American cast. Most media stories related to your book emphasize some of the backstage tensions you write about, but in the end, how do you sum up your time on that show?

Davidson: There were tensions, but if I were to measure those with the good times, we definitely had more good times than bad. We love each other and we loved each other, and we were passionate about what we were doing. Color was never an issue on our show because a good percentage of our writers were white, and they had the same sensibilities as we had. I don’t really think “In Living Color” was such a phenomenon, I just think that finally there was a show that represented what America really laughed at. We all laughed at Lucille Ball, at “Sanford & Son” and at “Good Times.” We all loved “The Flintstones,” “Get Smart” and “Scooby-Doo.” We all loved Spaghetti-O’s and Captain Crunch. We loved all of that, it was the American way.

Last modified on Wednesday, 19 February 2020 08:43


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