Humor--as a folksy Southern relative of mine was fond of saying--is something like a rich man's wallet: It's a hard nut to crack. No one seems able clearly to define it or explain why we laugh.
African American laughter, in particular, has been something of a mystery, a dilemma, or, quite often, a source of irritation for mainstream Americans from the time blacks first arrived in the 17th Century. Misconstrued or ignored, it was either labeled as naive, Sambo-like Tom-foolery or silenced and relegated to society's most inconspicuous corners. By the '80s, displayed center stage and often in prime-time without distortion, its meaning had become obvious.
Since African Americans have been inescapably engaged with the absurdity of America's racial arrangements for centuries, survival and sanity dictated that they adopt a comic view of society. As the novelist Ralph Ellison put it, because of "knowing the reality of a society that had the power to treat you as though you were actually inferior, but knowing within yourself that you were not, you were thrown into a position in which you were either going to develop a sense of humor or . . . die of frustration, of a sense of the irrational."
Most African Americans, as Ellison and the historian W.E.B. Du Bois have noted, have been compelled to view themselves through the eyes of others--to engage in intensive, critical self-observation. They have also scrutinized other Americans and examined the contradictions that erode their claims of superiority. Black American humor is based on those perceptions. It is the shared ironic vision of a people 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.
Playwright Luigi Pirandello's metaphor of "body and shadow" looms as the most fitting and enlightening definition of African American humor. African Americans have been portrayed as outsiders attempting to duplicate the customs and behavior of European Americans and ridiculed for not succeeding.
Ironically, often non-blacks imitated blacks, then struggled to give the impression that the mimicry was reversed. In the early 19th Century, for instance, a minor actor based his skit "Me and My Shadow" on the dance and lyrics of a black stable groom. In a more sardonic vein, the surfacing of a joke in the 1970s based on the hero of the 1950s radio show, "The Shadow" ("Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow do!"), reflected America's continued fascination with casting African Americans in shadow imagery.
For most of America's past, the main body has been unmindful of its own comical disfigurement. But from the slaves' animal tales in the 18th Century to Bert Williams' comic pathos in the 1900s, from Stepin Fetchit's willful lethargy in the '20s and '30s to Flip Wilson's effervescence and Richard Pryor's genius in the '60s and '70s, black America's comic vision has consistently focused on the mainstream as well as on itself.
In the 1970s, released from the inconspicuous corners where its imagery was hidden and obscured, black humor assumed a more prominent role in America's social satire. Today, with its newfound exposure, it is perhaps more bold and belligerent. But not surprising, it still thrives on irony.
African American humor, after all, still sardonically amplifies the '70s vernacular joke: "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?"
Indeed, "the Shadow do' " . . . and has for some time.*
Copyright 1994 by Mel Watkins. Adapted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc.
* BOOK REVIEW. A review of "On the Real Side" appears on Page 1 of the Book Review section.