Lincoln on Race and Slavery

By Abraham Lincoln; Henry Louis Gates Jr. et al. | Go to book overview

Appendix

Lincoln, Race, and Humor

for political effect than did Abraham Lincoln. During his rise as a successful lawyer and Whig political organizer, Lincoln used selfdeprecating humor to diminish the elitism associated with both his profession and his party. Through humor he could display his knowledge and wisdom without appearing threatening, and could exercise leadership without distancing himself from those whose votes he required. During the famed debates with Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln's clever folksiness rallied audiences to his side and heaped ridicule upon his opponent's assertions, making them appear unworthy of the voters' credence. But what proved eminently respectable to both candidates was contempt for African Americans. It should come as no surprise that racism tinged Lincoln's public and private humor. Even when his jokes served to buttress his opposition to the expansion of slavery, they relied on racist cultural assumptions. Indeed for such humor to work, it must affirm stereotypes. Like minstrelsy, racial humor created bonds and established cultural boundaries for whites, serving as an effective instrument of repression and dehumanization. Sexual themes appeared most commonly in the race jokes of the nineteenth century. As in Lincoln's story of the razor stropping, they expressed fantasies of black male sexuality and white sexual inferiority. Such jokes affirmed white fear of unrestrained black sexuality—and what it implied for white womanhood—and simultaneously assuaged that fear by reducing blacks to helplessness and leaving ultimate power (the razor) in white hands. Lincoln jokes abound, but relatively few can be authenticated by exacting modern standards. The ones reproduced below are from Lincoln's writings, from those of his contemporaries, or from reliable recollections of contemporaries. Many not included are from nineteenth-century sources with questionable political motives. For the full range of Lincoln humor, see: Paul M. Zall, ed., Abe

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