"He Made Us Laugh Some": Frederick Douglass's Humor

By Ganter, Granville | African American Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

"He Made Us Laugh Some": Frederick Douglass's Humor


Ganter, Granville, African American Review


Among Frederick Douglass's formidable skills critic of slavery and racial prejudice, he was widely remembered during the nineteenth century for being able to make his audiences laugh. Toward the end of Douglass's final autobiography, The Life and Times, he remarks that "I have been greatly helped to bear up under unfriendly conditions, too, by a constitutional tendency to see the funny side of things" (470). In support of his claim, he tells a story of riding a crowded night train through New York State. As one of the few passengers who had a whole bench seat to himself, he covered his head and went to sleep. When a well-dressed white man asked him to slide over, Douglass sat up and said, "'Don't sit down here, my friend, I am a nigger.'" "'I don't care who the devil you are,'" the man responded. "'I mean to sit with you,'" to which Douglass replied," 'Well, if it must be so, I can stand it if you can'" (470). Douglass concludes the anecdote by noting that the two men then struck up an agreeable conversation for the rest of the trip.

As is typical of Douglass's rhetoric, the story turns on several ironies, not the least of which is his preference to be treated like an equal citizen despite the fact it might bring temporary discomfort. The story is important, too, because of the egalitarian turn of Douglass's final remark. His grumbling consent to the white man's request reverses the roles of a painfully familiar racial tableau in which the person of color requests a seat. Most importantly, however, the scene is characteristic of the dialectic between violence and humor that animates much of Douglass's rhetoric: The affectionate and benevolent term my friend hardly belongs in the same sentence with the word nigger. This contrast between pain and pleasure characterizes many Douglass anecdotes. At his best, Douglass could win his enemies' admiration by making them smile with him. But as Spike Lee has recently illustrated in his thoughtful film Bamboozled, making white folks laugh in this way has always had its dangers. As a newspaper editor, Douglass was well-known for his dislike of minstrel humor, and when he joked in public, he knew that he might be measured against those standards. By exploiting his audiences' likely prejudices, however, Douglass used humor to transform himself from a social pariah into an equal. In other words, while Douglass attempted to separate himself from the cliches of plantation comedy, he often deliberately invoked those genres of bigoted humor in the service of the abolitionist cause.

Because modern literary critics have generally represented Douglass with earnest passages taken from his Narrative, there has been a tendency to cast him in the singular role of righteous anti-slavery crusader. Naturally, Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison were strongly invested in people's appreciation of the Narrative on these terms. At the same time, however, many recent criticisms of Douglass, ranging from allegations of racial sedition to sexism, have their origin in close readings of the Narrative, a document that represents only a small fragment of Douglass's literary career. Douglass's use of humor turns many recent criticisms upside down and reveals a much more complicated figure than current descriptions of him as a representative man of Jacksonian individualism.

Douglass's humor is evident throughout his 1845 Narrative, although this text is seldom noted for its comic moments. Until the very end of the Narrative, Douglass usually employs a plaintive voice, consistent with the character who gives the desperate soliloquy to the ships on the Chesapeake Bay. As is commonly known, the Narrative is a well-crafted series of dramatic narratives that Douglass developed on stage during his four years' work as a paid agent for William Lloyd Garrison's Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. And while many of the powerful scenes he used in his Narrative came directly from his stage repertoire, on the page, he elected to modulate his charismatic stage persona and appeal to readers as a supplicant rather than as an equal. …

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