- Danielle Heard
Comedy has played a central role in the lives and experiences of African Americans from the time of slavery to the present day. Most significantly, it has served the important role of providing emotional and spiritual survival in the face of oppression and injustice by means of cultural redress. Comedy has also given African Americans effective strategies of resistance against subjugation at the same time that it has offered modes of activism for political and social change.
Historically, African American comic performances could be found in both spectacular and quotidian contexts—not just in the blackface minstrel show or on the vaudeville stage, on radio or television programs, in literature, on film, or in nightclubs. African American comedy has also appeared on plantation fields and in slave huts, in barbershops and salons, on street corners, in kitchens, and around card tables. Despite comedy’s positive function in African American culture, however, the racism historically present in show business forced many talented African American comedians to perpetuate the harmful stereotypes that fed myths about black inferiority and interfered with the project of gaining social and political equality. The fine line that many black comic performers and artists have trod between an original African American humor and a humor based upon stereotypes emblematizes the story of African Americans’ complex relationship to comedy.
Early Black Humor in the United States.
The traditions of humor carried with slaves from Africa helped shape the comic sensibilities found in different forms of African American culture. From the rich oral cultures of Western and Central Africa we can trace the distinct patterns of witty, ironic speech and the vernacular idioms characteristic of African American comic traditions. Competitive language games, like “the dozens,” exaggerated tall tales, or “lies,” in the form of “toasts,” “boasts,” and “roasts,” and animal stories revolving around trickster figures in various physical guises all originate in the highly figurative linguistic cultures from which black Americans descend. In its earliest form, African American humor evolved to address directly the abominable conditions of slavery and segregation in a uniquely tragicomic mode.
African American folktales repeated the trope of a trickster slave one-upping a powerful but ignorant master. Performed secretly in slave quarters for the purposes of entertainment and redress, “John and Ole Massa” tales overtly criticized slaveholders. However, by disguising these oral narrative performances as adaptations of traditional African animal tales, slaves could tell the same stories of rebellion out in the open. The trickster slave and the plantation master were anthropomorphized in competitive pairings, such as tales of the Signifying Monkey’s outwitting of Lion or Elephant, or those whose punchline hinges upon Br’er Rabbit’s pulling a fast one on Br’er Fox, Br’er Bear, or Br’er Wolf. Such an effective camouflage of the black folk hero meant that white Southerners, who lived side by side with black slaves and who were often raised by black mammies, became well acquainted with and very fond of these stories, despite their critical treatment of, and occasional displays of violence against, the powerful.
Having roots in the South, Joel Chandler Harris joined a number of other white writers and ethnographers in the late nineteenth century who were dedicated to the task of transcribing this impressive body of folklore for academic purposes. Harris’s collections, which feature the happy-go-lucky slave Uncle Remus, became popular among a broad American readership, and as a result Br’er Rabbit and his cohort have enjoyed an enduring familiarity in American culture to this day. Harris’s “Uncle Remus Tales,” however, raise the problem of African American humor coming up against what Ralph Ellison called “comedies of the grotesque,” or those white performances of black culture that served to ridicule black people through crude, racist impersonations and stereotypes. The parallel legacy of black comic traditions that feature blacks as humorous individuals finds its origins on the plantation as well.
Slaves’ vernacular, in-group humor redressed the wounds constantly inflicted by the “peculiar institution,” and the lessons embedded in trickster tales and language games provided strategies for resisting the dominant class. Slaves mastered the art of “playin’ the fool,” “puttin’ on ole massa,” “stealing away,” and “shuckin’ and jivin’.” In other words, they sometimes subversively feigned a misleading naïveté and performed Sambo-like behavior while engaging in covert action to sabotage the venture of forced servitude. For example, they worked at a snail’s pace in order to slow production, and they stole from the plantation in order to compensate themselves for their free labor. The physician Samuel A. Cartwright observed this behavior, which he took to be a pathological tendency toward “rascality” among slaves. In his 1851 study, Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race, he dubbed this ailment “dysaethesia aethiopica,” literally meaning a condition of the numbing of the senses particular to blacks. Through the distorted lens of racially-biased pseudoscience, white supremacists like Cartwright could not understand how black “rascality” actually represented conscious acts of subterfuge and politically-tinged irony. Indeed, the joke was on the planters and those “scientists” sent to make the institution more efficient. However, the story of “dysaethesia aethiopica” brings into view the problematic ways in which African Americans have donned the comic mask. Though slaves and free blacks in the nineteenth century took advantage of the stereotypes through which whites viewed them in their acts of subterfuge by reiterating them, albeit in a subversive way, their comic performances carried the unintended effect of adding fodder to the mythology of racial difference and black inferiority.
Not only did the vernacular comic traditions of animal trickster tales and “playin’ the fool” bear fraught currency as they intersected with the dominant culture, but so too did the material evidence of African American humor, black laughter itself. Interpreted as a threat by whites who dreaded being the object of black mirth, the laughter of African Americans bore a mark of annoyance, if not danger, from the moment Africans arrived in the colonies. The inscrutability of raucous black laughter stirred up the insecurities of whites, many of whom recorded in writing their bewilderment and anxiety. The black vernacular tradition plays on this phenomenon with tales about the “laughing barrel” that was set up in the public square of a small southern town so that if blacks found the need to laugh in public, they could dunk their heads into the barrel to contain the noise. Though the story of “laughing barrels” may be apocryphal, it has passed down through many generations of African Americans as a tragicomic reminder of the continuing impact black laughter has upon white ears. At the same time, however, the spectacle of the feckless, chortling “darky” endlessly amused the white gaze. During slavery, for example, blacks who exemplified such a jovial disposition were highly prized on a given plantation. Even after slavery ended, the sight of the blithe, laughing slave, resurrected in post-bellum sideshows and county fairs, captivated white audiences. The blackface minstrel show capitalized on white spectators’ fascination with black laughter by centering on the black clown as target of impersonation.
Born in the 1820s in the urban North with the stage performances of Edwin Forrest and British actor Charles James Matthews (known, ironically enough, as the father of American humor), blackface minstrelsy soon became the first form of American popular culture to expand into a national institution and an international phenomenon. Between the 1840s and 1850s, minstrelsy sprang up around the country with professional troupes such as the African Melodists, the Congo Minstrels, the Buckley Serenaders, the Ethiopian Mountain Singers, and Bryant’s Minstrels, generating extreme popularity for this form of entertainment. This theatrical practice tended to feature the burlesque of impersonated black music and dance and stock caricatures performed originally by white actors, and eventually black actors, in burnt cork or greasepaint makeup. The shows revolved around comedic routines that included riddles, quips, gibes, one-liners, malapropisms, and parodic and nonsensical stump speeches, as well as slapstick and antic humor. Minstrelsy perpetuated nostalgia for the Old South and plantation life, creating an indelible familiarity in the nineteenth-century cultural imagination with the popular myth of the happy-go-lucky slave. The show’s format included the interlocutor, a straight man, and the comic “endmen,” Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, so named for the musical instruments they played. The form consisted of a “walkaround” and opening song, followed by the “circle,” or comic exchange between the interlocutor and endmen, the olio, and finally a plantation skit or farcical appropriation of a well-known play. Adaptations of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin were a favorite target of parody on the minstrel stage.
Around 1828, still during the early stages of the blackface theater, actor Thomas Dartmouth (T. D.) Rice introduced a stock character to the minstrel stage that would leave a permanent imprint, not only on the minstrel imaginary, but also on U.S. race relations for over a century to come. Having spied a disabled black stable groom in the midst of his own improvised song and dance, Rice was struck with an idea for his next act. Not only did the actor copy the song and dance word for word and step for step, as Rice tells his story, but he even bought the clothes off of the stable groom’s back in order to deliver an authentic character to the stage. Performing the groom’s song and impersonating his dance between acts of The Rifle, “Jim Crow” Rice became one of America’s best-known comedians. As T. D. Rice’s popular act increasingly impacted the black image in the white mind, “Jim Crow” soon became the dominant lens through which white Americans saw “blackness” as well as the namesake of racial segregation in the U.S. The link between many of the official institutions of apartheid culture and the minstrel tradition is conspicuous. The Confederate rallying song “Dixie,” for example, was written by Dan Emmett, one of the Virginia Minstrels, and “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” which became Virginia’s state song in 1940, was written by “The World’s Greatest Minstrel Man,” James Bland, an African American.
Blackface minstrel shows began to fade away as early as the 1880s, and by 1928, when the Al G. Field Minstrels closed down, the theatrical trend had largely come to an end. However, into the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, a few minstrel troupes could still be found touring at home and overseas. At the same time, the minstrel show took on a new face in vaudeville, on the radio, in film, and, after World War II, on television. Minstrelsy can justifiably be held accountable for the impact of its malicious representations of blackness on the conditions of unfreedom for blacks in the United States; however, it can also be held responsible for the emergence and survival of black entertainers and the comic tradition they would found.
Though the early minstrel stage was racially restricted to white actors, the early white minstrels report being highly influenced by the black performers John “Picayune” Butler of New Orleans and Signor Cornmeali (or “Old Corn Meal”). Occasionally, black performers gained entrance into white troupes. In the 1840s, William Henry “Juba” Lane, known as the father of tap dancing, performed with white minstrel troupes. From the 1850s to the 1860s, Thomas Dilward, or “Japanese Tommy,” a dwarf, also broke into the white-only circuit. By around 1855, black minstrel troupes that catered both to white and black, predominantly lower-class, audiences began to appear, although they were less successful than their white counterparts. A minority of educated black bourgeoisie adamantly protested these performances, as did many members of the white gentry, who express distaste at the minstrel show’s lack of sophistication. One of the best known black troupes, Brooker and Clayton’s Georgia Minstrels, later known as Sam Hague’s Slave Troupe of George Minstrels, at different points in time featured the talented Charles “Barrey” Hicks, Bob Height, and Billy Kersands—famous for his exceptionally large mouth. The Georgia Minstrels enjoyed widespread popularity in the 1870s, and over the course of the next few decades, they were joined by several other black troupes. F. S. Wolcott’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels would continue to tour through the middle of the twentieth century, and featured famous black blues singers such as Bessie Smith, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Big Joe Williams, Ida Cox, and Rufus Thomas, as well as the comic duo Butterbeans and Susie.
Billy Kersands of the George Minstrels, who had started his own black minstrel troupe in 1885, was one of the first black comic stars. He was well known for his comic singing, dancing, acrobatics, and drumming, but most of all for his comic facial contortions and unusually large mouth. He was known to put objects, such as billiard balls, in his mouth while dancing, for a thunderous reaction. Other well-known black minstrels include Tom Fletcher, Sam Lucas, Tom McIntosh, A. D. Sawyer, Charles Hicks, the self-proclaimed inventor of the cakewalk Billy McClain, and the prolific songwriter and cerebral comedian James Bland. Starting with these actors, the dilemma of black comedians could be characterized by the fine line between satirizing white stereotypes of blacks and contributing to those very stereotypes. What remains true of minstrelsy in the black comic tradition is that it became the arena for black performers to create and test out comic tropes that would last until the present day.
The Early Twentieth Century.
Into the first part of the twentieth century, comedy aimed at black servility continued to fuel performances on the mainstream stage, in vaudeville, in print, on the radio, and in the new medium of silent film. Comic shorts such as Laughing Ben, A Nigger in a Woodpile, and Who Said Chicken? that played in nickelodeon theaters around the turn of the century would establish film as a prominent medium for such examples. While popular black comedians and film stars employed the stereotypes and comic devices of minstrelsy, including the use of blackface, they often did so with hints of subversion. Such has been said of the celebrated comedian and film actor Stepin Fetchit (born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry) and his comic offshoot Mantan Moreland, as well as Hattie McDaniel, Willie Best, and others. As well, the comic duos of Bert Williams (America’s first black comic superstar) and George Walker and of Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles perpetuated these “comedies of the grotesque” in the musical theater, even as they experimented and expanded their comic repertoires.
At the same time, however, black comedy directed primarily toward black audiences began to reflect pent-up resentment and a more irreverent critique of white racist society. Bombastic performances of mythic “Bad Nigger” ballads and toasts like “Shine and the Titanic,” “The Signifying Monkey,” “Dolemite,” “Stackolee,” and those featuring actual African American cultural heroes like the racially controversial boxing champion Jack Johnson began surfacing at black, predominantly male venues. The “John and Ole Massa” stories also reappeared in the oral literature of this period and replaced animal representations and childish portrayals of the trickster. For obvious reasons, these more overtly critical folktakes did not get printed by the mainstream white press in the way that the Br’er Rabbit tales did. However, Zora Neale Hurston, Arthur Huff Faucet, and other black ethnologists began accumulating such folklore in print.
Some of the highest achievements in black comedy during the early decades of the twentieth century may be found in the literature of the New Negro Movement, starting with the earlier breakthroughs of Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s dialect poetry and Charles W. Chesnutt’s recasting of Harris’ Uncle Remus tales in The Conjure Woman. Rudolph Fisher, George Schuyler, and Wallace Thurman presented the culture with satiric novels that exposed the absurdity of American race relations. The prolific writer Langston Hughes gained recognition as a humorist with the publication of his novel Not Without Laughter in 1930, followed later on by his wartime serialization of “Semple” stories in the Chicago Defender. Zora Neale Hurston’s literary renderings of the folklore she amassed as an anthropologist, such as those recalled in her celebrated collection Mules and Men (1935), capture the enduring comic sensibilities of traditional African American humor.
Black Comedy in the Civil Rights Era.
African American comedy took a notable turn in the 1950s when the mounting frustration over racial injustice finally came to a head with the mass organization of the civil rights struggle in the South and across the nation. Tolerance for popular representations of black people as coons and buffoons finally met its limit. Protests against these portrayals became more regular and more successful, due in part to the backdrop of televised atrocities streaming out of the Jim Crow South into the living rooms of white Northerners. Protests organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) against the Amos ‘n’ Andy television program, for example, generated enough pressure to force the show’s cancellation in 1953 after just two seasons. Continuing pressure would eventually prompt the CBS Corporation to cease all reruns in 1966.
In literature, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man paved the way for a new kind of satiric novel that employed African American comic sensibilities to explore the absurdity of American racism and critique the problems of black protest without restraint or fear of censorship. Over the course of the tumultuous decades of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, comedic novels of this sort would be produced by Chester Himes, Ishmael Reed, Charles Wright, Cecil Brown, and others. Similarly, during this era, black stand-up comedians employing politically charged humor begin to dominate the popular scene. Slappy White, the “father of the integrated joke,” Moms Mabley, “the funniest woman in the world,” Redd Foxx, with his raunchy nightclub acts, and others unleashed their unrestrained wit on stages along the “chitlin’ circuit.”
In the 1960s, Dick Gregory reached comic superstar status with his cerebral and overtly political humor. Gregory, as well as the collective contributions of comedians of the civil-rights era, had a great influence on the comic genius Richard Pryor. Pryor, who channeled the entire African American comic tradition in his sharply political stand-up act, set the tone for the comic greats of the last part of the century, including Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle.
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