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The Warp and Woof Of African-American Wit

THERE'S more to humor than a good laugh. ``On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying, and Signifying - the Underground Tradition of African-American Humor That Transformed American Culture, From Slavery to Richard Pryor,'' by Mel Watkins, is a brilliant analysis of the warp and woof of African-American wit - and all that goes into it. In clear elegant prose, Watkins weaves into his narrative as much about Black culture as he does about its comedy.

Watkins takes the reader back to the days of slavery when humor not only relieved the suffering of hopeless indenture, it also helped slaves to survive. A cheerful slave was more likely to avoid white brutality. Many whites chose to think of blacks as quaint, foolish, and childlike, and if slaves reinforced those illusions, they were safer.

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But Watkins demonstrates, too, how much of the humor that arose in the middle to late 19th century among black Americans was often the humor of double-meaning and irony. He finds that under surface self-denigration, the trickster was at work. And the dominant society often mistook impudence for innocence, ironic folk perceptions for simple-minded banter.

Watkins's recapping of the trauma of captured slaves, deeply affecting in its own right, also helps clarify some aspects of African-American humor to this day. Secrecy and subterfuge molded that humor and helped perpetuate African customs that gave it a distinctive cast.

Among those customs, satire was a common African expression of grievances - which made it possible to express outrage and avoid confrontation. Signifying - a verbal game or contest to put down or berate another with witty barbs - was also an African tradition. Both satire and signifying are still important components of much African-American humor.

The minstrel shows of the 19th century, in which white performers blackened their faces with burnt cork, were immensely popular entertainments aimed at denigrating particularly free blacks and abolitionists. By the end of the 19th century, black minstrels had found their way onto the stages of America - by constant self-derision. Promoters wanted them to be better at the stereotypes (they, too, worked in black-face) than white minstrels. Though it was the door eventually to vaudeville, minstrelsy in general did a lot of damage - portraying blacks as stupid, lazy, vulgar, and childish.

In its early days, Hollywood burlesqued racial violence against blacks in some cases and promoted it in others. Hollywood also reclaimed the old minstrels' caricature of black servants with actors like Stepin Fetchit and Butterfly McQueen.

Still, by the 1930s, African-American humor was fully barbed and double-edged. Watkins points to heroes like Bert Williams, Bill ``Bojangles'' Robinson, Mantan Moreland, and others. When actress Hattie MacDaniel came along (``Gone with the Wind''), she brought some fire to her work - she was assertive, witty, and cantankerous. Eddie Anderson's ``Rochester,'' Jack Benny's radio manservant, on the other hand, was cocky and irreverent, always outsmarting Benny. In the 1930s, black males simply did not challenge whites in the movies or on radio.

In the 1950s, blacks demanded a change in their media image. During and after World War II, radio began to spotlight black culture and achievement. Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan were among the most important champions of black performers.

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Watkins is careful to point out that even under the rigorous strictures imposed on black comics by Hollywood and radio, many managed to develop their own subversive styles.

With the Civil Rights movement came a generation of comics, proud of their heritage and unapologetic about their color - Bill Cosby, Godfrey Cambridge, Flip Wilson, and Richard Pryor.

``Most African-Americans, as W.E.B. Du Bois and [Ralph] Ellison noted, have been compelled to view themselves through the eyes of others - to engage in intensive, critical self-observation,'' writes Watkins. ``They have also scrutinized other Americans and examined the contradictions that erode their claims of superiority. Black American humor is finally based on those perceptions. It is the shared ironic vision of a group who, in seeking to establish their place as Americans, have skeptically viewed the gap between appearances and reality and have often found contradiction and absurdity.''

One might expect a history of humor to be fun reading, but ``On the Real Side'' is better than that. It is a profound analysis of African-American wit in constant struggle with the dominant white culture.

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