Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Dick Gregory and Activist Style: Identifying Attributes of Humor Necessary for Activist Advocacy

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Dick Gregory and Activist Style: Identifying Attributes of Humor Necessary for Activist Advocacy

Article excerpt

Denouncing oppression or advocating for human rights infrequently evokes levity. Social justice advocacy is often austere, if not funereal. Tragic injustices often vivify the stakes of human rights struggles, consequently rendering humor almost unfathomable. Imagine cracking jokes about Emmett Till after his murder in 1955 or riffing on Matthew Shepard's slaughter in 1998. Nevertheless, humorists regularly use their art to advance serious causes, even amidst tragedy. Literary satirists Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain typify humor in service of social justice. Bert Williams, an African American vaudeville artist who performed with the Ziegfeld Follies, subtly critiqued racism through minstrelsy at the turn of the 20th century. Following the holocaust, Jewish humorists critiqued the moral failings of the complicit and fostered solidarity among survivors. Contemporary examples of humor bent toward social justice include Margaret Cho's feminist, queer, anti-racist stand-up comedy and W. Kamau Bell's sharp socio-political comic criticism.

In his work on political styles, Robert Hariman (1995) argued, "To the extent that politics is an art, matters of style must be crucial to its practice;" in short, " [P]olitical experience is styled' (pp. 2-3, emphasis in original). Human agents negotiate power relations, knowledge, and social-political identity with "a coherent repertoire of rhetorical conventions," "habitual communicative practices," "aesthetic reactions," and "compositional techniques" that guide behavior, inform socio-political action, influence decision-making, distribute power, mold perceptions, shape attitudes, and mediate reality (Hariman, 1995, pp. 2-4, emphasis in original). In short, style and politics interweave. In this essay I continue the investigation of political styles to explore a particular set of conventions associated with an activist style of advocacy. Insofar as communities worldwide continue to struggle for justice, humanization, and recognition, critical scholars must identify discursive practices that constitute an activist political style. At its best, humor sharpens understanding of injustice, brings communities together, and provokes dialogue and action (e.g. Hutcheon, 1994; Mintz, 1988; Nachmann, 2003; Rossing, 2011). Therefore, I argue that humor figures as a necessary, if not sufficient, element of an activist style of advocacy. Said differently, activism necessarily takes place with a comic sensibility.

Comedian and activist Dick Gregory, who performed at the apogee of the United States Civil Rights Movement, offers an illustrative case study for understanding humor as a component of an activist style. Dick Gregory's career as both activist and humorist highlights particular habits, attitudes, and conventions of an activist style, thereby offering what Hariman (1995) called a "mirror text" (p. 5, 177). Furthermore, Gregory's work provides guidelines for recreating similar patterns in political action and thus, invites critical interrogation of the functioning of such a political style in U.S. racialized public culture. This essay begins with an overview of scholarly connections between humor and activism with an emphasis on humor oriented toward racial justice. Next, a brief biography of Dick Gregory explains why his career uniquely suits him for a consideration of the intersection of activism and humor. Then the argument proceeds in three parts. First, comically styled advocacy overcomes barriers to identification and powerfully unites communities in understanding and purpose, humanizing all parties in the struggle. Second, humor imbues activism with a creative spirit necessary to awaken new perspectives on reality and to challenge the status quo. Third, humor fosters hope required for optimistic progress in the face of daunting obstacles. In conclusion, I consider limitations and opportunities for humor in advocacy for racial justice.

ACTIVISM AND HUMOR

In Attitudes toward History, Kenneth Burke (1984) famously articulated the comic corrective. …

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