Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Fight the Power: African American Humor as a Discourse of Resistance

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Fight the Power: African American Humor as a Discourse of Resistance

Article excerpt

Folklorists including Richard Dorson, Alan Dundes, Roger Abrahams, and Daryl Dance have long collected and written about the rich lore and traditions of African Americans. All too often, however, when writing about the practices and traditions of a group of people, folklorists spend more time collecting and categorizing the material than analyzing it (Dundes, 2002, p. ix). Such practices do the study of African American folklore, humor in particular, a disservice because they preclude the possibility of understanding African American comedy's potential for meaningful social critique. Herein lies my interest in the comedic discourse of popular black comics. Though comics who have become commercially successful are often not deemed traditional artists and thus, a study of their material is often thought to be unacceptable for study by folklorists. Like other forms of folklore, their performances can "be used to reconstruct people's attitudes, values, and reactions" (Levine, 1992, p. 1372). More importantly, a critical interrogation of what happens when in-group humor is performed for an audience of outsiders has important implications for how we think about the role of performance and group dynamics and the reception of African American humor, folk or otherwise. Moira Smith's interest in audience reactions in "Humor, Unlaughter, and Boundary Maintenance" mirrors my own. She suggests that in Western cultures, being humorous is a core value yet often performances invoke different responses among different audiences thus creating a contradiction. In short, "when the laughter is not shared, it constructs exclusion as much as inclusion" (Smith, 2009, p. 150). This notion of the potential divisiveness of humor is one in which I wish to explore at length here, particularly with regard to the success of mainstream popular black comics. What may have started out as in-group humor becomes tainted, distorted, and significantly weakened when adopted by mainstream audiences

Jay Mechling (1993) argues that when looking at performances that are mass mediated, we have to be careful to avoid the pitfalls that strict adherence to either a folkloric or cultural studies approach might provide (p. 285). Instead, we should not merely look at performances like Rock's or Chappell's for what they represent on the surface. If we are to look at African American humor with a concern for social justice, we cannot afford to simply look at what is there or what might be motivating audience laughter. Rather, we should look at the crucial "moments of resistance" produced by such performances (Mechling, 1993, p. 285). Then we focus not on what the text is but what it might become. By conceding to the possibilities that black comics are doing more than telling jokes, entertaining us, or are otherwise there for our consumption, we endow them with agency so that we can begin to consider ways that analyzing said performances yields new and insightful commentary about race, class, gender, sexuality, and a host of other conditions endemic to life in America, indeed to life everywhere.

In the last few years several interesting and insightful studies on African American humor have been produced, none moreso than Bambi Haggins' Laughing Mad: The Black Comic Persona in Post-Soul America (2007) and Glenda Carpio's Laughter Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery (2008). While Haggins' study explores black comics, particularly those who have achieved crossover success, and the varying iterations of blackness that they have enacted, Carpio constructs a complex metaphor for how African Americans artists have used 'conjure' to continue to invoke and complicate Americans' ideas about slavery. Because Laughing Mad focuses on those comics who have appealed to largely whites audiences, I will be concerned with some of those same comedians here but I am more interested in exploring the nature and cause of the laughter. Likewise, because Carpio (2008) spends a great deal of attention discussing contemporary artists including comics, her insights into their craft are invaluable. …

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