A Study in Red and Black: Ethnic Humor in Colonial America

Article excerpt

Ann Maydosz [*]

The "New Found Land," [1] as America was called by Thomas Harriot, one of the continent's first ethnographers, opened a Pandora's box of troubles for the Englishmen who landed there. Confounded by their unpreparedness for life there, they quickly discovered that unfamiliar terrain was an almost insurmountable obstacle. Yet, their eyes told them that people could thrive, even prosper there. Initially native societies evoked an awe born not just of curiosity about these newly discovered humans, but of necessity because the Native Americans' survival skills towered over the European settlers'. Eventually the transplanted Europeans were able to overcome their ineptness and led by the Native Americans, as chronicled by Harriot in his book A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, began to carve out a life on the new continent.

The European settlers' relationship with the Africans they encountered, though, suffered none of the self-doubt which infected first meetings with the Native Americans. Although Native Americans were also used as slaves, to the eyes of needy European colonists, the Africans held only one status: a conscriptable labor force. The owners of African slaves had no need or interest in learning the native culture of their newly acquired workers. Many Africans were at least nominally Christian, having been baptized before capture, and some of their owners undertook the responsibility for further religious instruction, primarily to insure their passivity and stamp out native tendencies as quickly as possible.

One element which survived and perhaps even enlivened the culture clashes was humor. European settlers, Native Americans and Africans retained the right to laugh at each other through the painful transitions all endured. Although none of the groups were homogeneous, there tended to be a seamless blending when faced with members of the outlying groups. Settlers, in this case, were of such a variety of original nationalities, all with preconceived notions of each other, that any sort of unity seemed impossible. Yet, when confronted with the wildly dissimilar cultures of the African or the Native American, a definable alliance was born. This ethnocentrism-- "us" against "them"--was the basis for the rich variety of ethnic humor which abounded at the time. Tempestuous and troubling issues: guilt, superiority and insecurity were often played out on the miniature stage of the popular joke.

These conflicts exposed a disparity of image when it came to the Europeans' view of the Native Americans and Africans. Although the European colonists viewed Native Americans and Africans differently, at face value their cultural situation was similar. Neither the Native American nor the African spoke the white man's language. Both had intact cultures when the white man thrust himself upon them, causing each to alter his values. And yet, initially, the Native Americans were perceived as possessing desirable qualities, whereas the native Africans never had this advantage. As late as 1922, these perceived differences lingered, as seen in The Planters of Colonial Virginia. Speaking of their usefulness to the Virginia planters, Native Americans are described thusly:

To hunt them out of their native lairs and bind them to arduous and ignominious service was hardly to be thought of. Their spirit was too proud to be thus broken, the safe refuge of the woods too near at hand. One might well have attempted to hitch lions and tigers to the plough shaft, as to place these wild children of the forest at the handles.

This wonderful, intangible immunity doesn't extend to the African, however:

Born in savagery, unacquainted with the English tongue, knowing little of agriculture, it was a matter of some difficulty to accustom himself to his task in the tobacco fields. yet when his lesson had been learned, when a few years of experience had taught him what his master expected him to do, the slave showed himself adequate to the requirements of one staple crop. …