Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Contesting the Boundaries of Race and Gender in Old Southwestern Humor

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Contesting the Boundaries of Race and Gender in Old Southwestern Humor

Article excerpt

As has been generally acknowledged, the humor of the Old Southwest has often featured African American and women characters, but most typically in secondary roles. And the portrayal of blacks and women has usually reaffirmed popular nineteenth-century socio-cultural attitudes and assumptions regarding race and gender, thereby sustaining the marginalization of women and blacks. Still, there are a number of tales and sketches in southern frontier humor which seem to challenge, intentionally or unconsciously, the racial and gender status quo. Granted, the authors of southern antebellum humorous pieces were typically conservative gentlemen of Whig persuasion who not only publicly supported the patriarchal and proslavery stances of the region but also wrote exclusively for a male audience that enjoyed patrician status. Even so, for reasons unknown (though speculations concerning possible motivation will be addressed in the final sections of this essay), the antebellum backwoods humorist would occasionally slip from behind the mask, creating situations and portraying characters who through their words and/or actions seemed to exhibit distinctly human attributes. And these qualifies did not always coincide with the socio-political dictates of the Old South, which tended to support stereotypical notions concerning race and gender. Yet in general southwestern humor, according to Stephen Railton, "was a counterattack upon the spirit of times, a deeply rooted motivated repudiation of the contemporary surge of democratic impulses most conveniently represented by Jacksonianism" (100). Though writings that challenge racial and gender assumptions, as some of the southwestern sketches do, may seem subversive, actually they are not as radical as they appear to be. My purpose in this essay will be to show that while selected tales and sketches by John S. Robb, Hardin Taliaferro, Francis James Robinson, George Washington Harris, Sol Smith, and Henry Clay Lewis sometimes deviate from the proscriptive racial and gender politics of their times, the issues raised in the portraiture of blacks and women would not likely have been offensive to their contemporary readers. Generally, as we will see, the humorous manner in which these writers handled their material and the usually safe, nonoffensive context in which they treated it often camouflaged or provided a buffer or safeguard for what they were doing.

Admittedly, African American characters appear with some frequency in old southwestern humor. Even though virtually every humorist of this school included some black characters, most often their portrayal never transcended the level of stereotypes. In 1958, critic James H. Penrod, in commenting on black portraiture in southern frontier humor, generally and accurately claimed that these humorists "emphasized the stereotyped traits that have prevailed in the minds of Americans for generations" ("Minority Groups" 121) and that their roles "were those of comic characters in support of the principal actors" (128). Perhaps the two most prevalent black stereotypes featured in antebellum southern humor are the loyal contented slave and the comic black. Such stereotypes, which Seymour L Gross terms the "fantasy construct" (25), are, he points out, "marked by exaggeration or omission" and tend to emphasize "the Negro's divergence from white Anglo-Saxon norms, and are consciously or unconsciously pressed into the service of justifying racial proscription" (10).

Three southwestern humorists whom I feel made overtures toward contesting the boundaries of race are John S. Robb, printer, reporter, and editor and best known for his association with the St. Louis Reveille and as author of humorous sketches collected in Streaks of Squaller Life and Far-West Scenes (1847); Hardin Taliaferro, Baptist minister, journalist, editor of religious periodicals, and author of a collection of backwoods humorous sketches, Fisher's River (North Carolina) Scenes and Characters (1859); and Francis James Robinson, newspaper writer, Georgia county clerk, medical doctor, and author of a volume of humorous sketches, Kups of Kauphy: A Georgia Book in Warp and Woof (1853). …

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