- Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery
Glenda Carpio’s accomplished first book, which offers an interdisciplinary analysis of historical literature, recent performances, satirical novels, and biting visual wit, expands the meager bookshelf of African American humor studies. Rather than trying to cover the many facets and variations of the entirety of African American humor, Carpio wisely concentrates on the connections between slavery and black humor. Mel Watkins and Daryl Dickson-Carr have already explored such topics, but this book offers new ways to consider black humor. As Carpio notes, her book does not “provide a historical account” (as Watkins’s collections do), but rather investigates “the relationship between violence and humor” complicating the “distinctions between polite and popular representations of slavery” (28). For Carpio, slavery “becomes such a subject only in the most piercing tragicomedy, one in which laughter is disassociated from gaiety and is, instead, a form of mourning” (7). She also considers how humor responds to manifestations of racism, whether as in the old adage “got to laugh to keep from crying” or in the deep African American tradition of signifyin’. Carpio argues that humor does not simply reflect the tragedy of slavery, but also traces the intricacies of racial discord. She tracks the relationship between stereotypes and humor and considers how the use of stereotypes to critique situations or social injustices can actually liberate the contested stereotype and not merely support its continuity.
The artists she discusses offer nuanced variations of black humor, and while each approach is different, Carpio subtly links their work together in the shared art of “conjuring” and their abilities to invoke not only past injustices, but also to contextualize them in the present moment. The book is divided into chapters each of which is focused on one or two figures. These include a historical investigation of the fiction of William Wells Brown and Charles Chesnutt; performances by comedians Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle; Ishmael Reed’s satire; the paintings of Robert Colescott and the silhouettes of Kara Walker; and the early plays of Suzan-Lori Parks.
Despite Carpio’s assertion that her book is not a history of black humor, the chapter on Brown and Chesnutt does provide a historical context for African American humor and oral culture, focusing on the two authors’ strategic use of humor and the ways in which they appropriate black stereotypes from “vehicles of humor against African Americans Americans to sources of humor by African Americans” (34). Theatre scholars know Brown for his dramatic readings of his play The Escape, while the writings of the less-familiar Chesnutt recall the early twentieth-century work of satirist George Schuyler (Black No More) and Ishmael Reed (whom Carpio later discusses in detail). Carpio argues that both used humor as a “distancing mechanism” (37), and their place in her book prepares readers for the work of the twentieth- and twenty-first-century humorists she considers.
The book’s strongest chapter concerns the work of comedian Richard Pryor. In it, Carpio asks whether Pryor’s particular brand of humor “redress[es] American Slavery” (73). Through analysis of recordings of Pryor’s live stage shows, Carpio tracks the comedian’s ability to connect to black audiences through the use of destructive black stereotypes and his own unique performative strategies as a conjurer. For example, his excessive use of the “N-word” offers a “bridge between the divisive past and an equally, if differently, divisive present” (89). Pryor’s subsequent renunciation of the N-word in performances and efforts remove risqué material from them in the early 1980s mirrors the change in comedian Dave Chappelle, known for his equally outlandish and biting wit during the two seasons of his Chappelle’s Show on Comedy Central (2003–05). While Carpio does not afford Chappelle the same in-depth analysis as she does Pryor, she links the two performers in style and content, suggesting that their humor seeks a collective catharsis from the effects of racism and offers...