The Warp and Woof of African-American Wit

Article excerpt

THERE'S more to humor than a good laugh. "On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying, and Signifying - the Underground Tradition of African-American Humor That Transformed American Culture, From Slavery to Richard Pryor," by Mel Watkins, is a brilliant analysis of the warp and woof of African-American wit - and all that goes into it. In clear elegant prose, Watkins weaves into his narrative as much about Black culture as he does about its comedy.

Watkins takes the reader back to the days of slavery when humor not only relieved the suffering of hopeless indenture, it also helped slaves to survive. A cheerful slave was more likely to avoid white brutality. Many whites chose to think of blacks as quaint, foolish, and childlike, and if slaves reinforced those illusions, they were safer.

But Watkins demonstrates, too, how much of the humor that arose in the middle to late 19th century among black Americans was often the humor of double-meaning and irony. He finds that under surface self-denigration, the trickster was at work. And the dominant society often mistook impudence for innocence, ironic folk perceptions for simple-minded banter.

Watkins's recapping of the trauma of captured slaves, deeply affecting in its own right, also helps clarify some aspects of African-American humor to this day. Secrecy and subterfuge molded that humor and helped perpetuate African customs that gave it a distinctive cast.

Among those customs, satire was a common African expression of grievances - which made it possible to express outrage and avoid confrontation. Signifying - a verbal game or contest to put down or berate another with witty barbs - was also an African tradition. Both satire and signifying are still important components of much African-American humor.

The minstrel shows of the 19th century, in which white performers blackened their faces with burnt cork, were immensely popular entertainments aimed at denigrating particularly free blacks and abolitionists. By the end of the 19th century, black minstrels had found their way onto the stages of America - by constant self-derision. Promoters wanted them to be better at the stereotypes (they, too, worked in black-face) than white minstrels. Though it was the door eventually to vaudeville, minstrelsy in general did a lot of damage - portraying blacks as stupid, lazy, vulgar, and childish. …