Steve Harvey at SIBF: You don't understand how blessed you are to live in peace
The US comedian was a big hit at the Sharjah International Book Fair – but are his views outdated?
The Ball Room at Expo Centre Sharjah is full long before Steve Harvey arrives on Thursday evening. No surprise there. The US comedian and television presenter is undoubtedly the biggest draw at this year’s Sharjah International Book Fair. The crowd outside the main entrance jostling to get in is not entirely unexpected, either. There is always a bit of overspill at the biggest events. What I didn’t foresee is the snaking line of people waiting patiently behind a guarded rope cordon a further 50 feet back from the doors. A queue to join the queue. Baffling.
Within a few minutes of Harvey turning up on stage, however, this clamour to bag a seat begins to make sense. There is something messianic about the way he speaks. Every word is drawn out, every pause overplayed, so that even the most banal statement seems to carry extraordinary weight. By the time Harvey finishes a sentence, the crowd is at fever pitch, savouring each elongated syllable. There is nothing else to do but break out in hysterical whooping and cheering.
Harvey hits his stride immediately, telling us how he started out in comedy. “I had been asking God my whole life to show me my mission,” he says. “I was trying to figure my life out.” This gets a huge round of applause. Harvey then explains that, in his late twenties, he had been writing material for comedians – 10 bucks a joke – when he decided to pop into an open-mic comedy show.
“I’m sitting there, I’m not laughing at anything,” he says. “I knew everything they were about to say but I also knew what they should have said because I was funnier than them. I just didn’t know it.” Through an unforeseen set of circumstances, Harvey ends up on stage, performs some jokes, triumphs in an audience vote and leaves with 50 dollars in his back pocket. On the way home, he starts crying. His girlfriend asks him why. “I am born tonight,” Harvey tells her.
“That was the night when Steve Harvey was born,” he says, lest we missed it the first time around. “I went to work the next day – October 9, 1985 – and quit my job with 50 dollars. I have done nothing since that day except… this.” We are six minutes and 22 seconds into the session and the roof of Expo Centre Sharjah has come off. It doesn’t reattach itself for the next hour and a half.
All of which is fine – up to a point. Harvey has a great story and he tells it well. He was born in 1957 in West Virginia but his family moved to Ohio when he was young. “I don’t know that you all understand how blessed you are to live in peace,” he says. “I was not so fortunate, I come from a violent neighbourhood.” His father was a coal miner and died of “black lung”, a disease caused by exposure to coal dust. When Harvey told his father he wanted to be a comedian, he replied: “You cannot die with your dreams packed on your back.”
We know the rest. After quitting his job, Harvey worked the comedy circuit and wound up hosting It’s Showtime at the Apollo and The Steve Harvey Show. In 1997, along with Cedric the Entertainer, DL Hughley and Bernie Mac, Harvey embarked on the “Kings of Comedy” tour, which became the highest-grossing comedy tour in history. From here, it’s just triumph after triumph: film appearances, Emmy Awards, bestselling books. In 2012, Harvey quit stand-up comedy after 27 years with a huge gig in Las Vegas. He now hosts The Steve Harvey Morning Show and Family Feud.
So yes, it is moving when Harvey discusses the moment he was told that the street he grew up on had been renamed Steve Harvey Way. “In all of my life, I could never have imagined that this would happen to me,” he says. “I grew up in a bad place. I’ve been laying on that same street and I heard people say, ‘I don’t think he’s alive.’ I’ve been in car accidents on that street. I’ve been beaten on that street […] When they said they were going to name 112th Street, Steve Harvey Way, it was so emotional…” At this point, Harvey breaks off, chokes up, and the crowd erupts. He’s a pro like that.
But none of this quite excuses what are, to be frank, some outdated views about family and the roles of men and women within that structure. Based on the things Harvey was saying at the Sharjah International Book Fair, it is hard not to draw the conclusion that he believes a woman’s place is in the home. Men provide the money; women run a tight domestic ship.
“We make the money,” says Harvey. “That’s how we show our love. If you get sick, that’s on you. I’m not going to sit and rock you till you feel better. I got to go to work. Your man gets sick, you rock him and you hold him because you want him to go back and get that money.”
What jars most, though, is the way in which Harvey dresses this conservatism up as progressive and liberating. By pointing out that, despite him being the breadwinner, his wife is still ruler of the house, Harvey hopes to illustrate how empowered she is. But his words have the opposite effect.
“I build the empire. When I go home, everybody’s last name is my name,” he says. “But when I walk in that house, I ain’t in charge of nothing. Nothing. [My wife] tells me where we’re eating. She tells me where we’re going on vacation. She knows the children’s school schedule. She plans everything. She tells me whose birthday it is. She reminds me of something on my job. She keeps everything in order.”
And here’s the crux of it. “I am too busy to remember whose birthday it is,” continues Harvey. “My kids come to me with gifts and say, ‘Daddy, thank you so much.’ I turn to my wife and go, ‘What did we buy?’” The subtext seems to be that the piffling things like birthdays and school schedules are below men, who are out doing the important stuff, making the money.
It leaves a sour aftertaste, not improved by Harvey’s repeated, unchallenged praise of Bill Cosby, nor a section Harvey does about a boy who was dating his daughter. “When you drove through that gate, you came up that long driveway,” Harvey says, recalling a conversation with the boy, “everything on this side of the gate belongs to me, including her. That daughter belongs to me.” We never hear how she feels about this.
When Harvey is good, he’s very good. He is eloquent and incisive when speaking about how hope has turned to despair in the US. When Barack Obama became US president in 2009, he thought, “Wow, something is really changing now because a lot of non-African-Americans had to vote for him to be president.” But things have fallen apart. “This last election made something rear its head in our country that I thought was dissipating,” he says. “There are hate groups in the country that, because of the rhetoric coming from the White House, feel like it’s okay to announce their hatred. And it’s crazy.
“If you make a statement to black people and you say, ‘We’re going to make America great again,’ black people hear that and we think immediately, ‘Where do you want to take us back to that was better than now because we don’t know that?’ When you say, ‘Make America great again,’ make America great again to whom? Because what? We just started riding on the front of the bus in the Sixties, so you want to take it back to when to make it great again?”
On this sort of form, Harvey is untouchable. It is just a shame that some of his other views weren’t subjected to more rigorous interrogation.
The Sharjah International Book Fair runs until Saturday, November 9. More information is available at sibf.com
Updated: November 3, 2019 09:48 AM