In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Frontispiece from Widow Rugby's Husband, by Captain Simon Suggs. White Honor, Black Humor, and the Making of a Southern Style Johanna Nicol Shields Nothing about the South is harder to fathom than how European and African American traditions mixed in the lives of nineteenth-century people. Although some black and white southerners have flatly denied cross-cultural influences, even those who want to find connections must dig deeply for evidence.1 In what follows, I suggest we mine a neglected source—southwestern humor—because I believe that slaves helped to inspire it when, by acting out the trickster style from their African heritage, they subverted white honor. Humorists copied, exaggerated , and published these curious exchanges between power and wit, tainting them with racism while capturing them in form. Understanding the dynamics of this influence requires reading blatantly offensive stories like the one printed here; but with that forewarning I offer an example of how an African American spirit lives beneath the dialogue in antebellum humor. Here, by sketching a would-be trickster at work and making an attempt to copy his voice, one humorist blends traditions born on two different continents into a southern style. The man who wrote this story was one of the most talented of the popular humorists: Johnson Hooper, a newspaper editor living in the backwoods of eastern Alabama, who tapped a national market in 1845 with his first book, Adventures ofCaptain Simon Suggs.2 A trickster par excellence, Suggs lives by his wits, exploiting the "soft spots" of his victims to bring them ruin. Almost all of Suggs's scams involve free people, at whose follies we can laugh, but here, in a story from Hooper's second collection, The Widow Rugby's Husband, half of the joke is about Tony, a slave.3 We cannot laugh at him, as Hooper's readers did. Generally speaking , people laugh at things that are incongruous, at situations that fail to meet their basic expectations—those expectations that they articulate and those that are unspoken. If we apply modern sensibilities and moral expectations to this old story, we will never understand why Hooper's readers laughed. To do that, we have to suspend judgment and try to think as Hooper hoped his readers would think about the small drama between Captain Stick and Tony. 422Southern Cultures Capt. Stick and Toney Old Capt. Stick was a remarkably precise old gentleman, and a conscientiously just man. He was, too, very methodical in his habits, one of which was to keep an account in writing of the conduct of his servants, from day to day. It was sort of account-current, and he settled by it every Saturday afternoon. No one dreaded these hebdomadal balancings, more than Toney, the boy of all-work, for the Captain was generally obliged to write a receipt , for a consider- Reprinted from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 1855. able amount, across his shoulders. One settling afternoon, the Captain, accompanied by Tony, was seen "toddling " down to the old stable, with his little account book in one hand, and a small rope in the other. After they had reached the "Bar ofJustice," and Tony had been properly "strung up," the Captain proceeded to state his account as follows: Tony, Dr. Sabbath, to not half blacking my boots, &c, five stripes. Tuesday, to staying four hours at mill longer than necessary, ten stripes. Wednesday, to not locking down the hall door at night, five stripes. Friday, to letting the horse go without water, five stripes. Total, twenty-five stripes. Tony, Cr. Monday, by first-rate day's work in the garden, ten stripes. Balance due, fifteen stripes. The balance being thus struck, the Captain drew his cow-hide and remarked—"Now Tony, you black scamp, what say you, you lazy villain, why I shouldn't give you fifteen lashes across your back, as hard as I can draw?" Shields: White Honor, Black Humor423 "Stop old Mass," said Tony; "dar's de work in de garden, sir—dat ought to tek off some." "You black dog," said the Captain, "hav'nt 1 given you the proper credit of ten stripes, for that? Come, come!" "Please old massa," said...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 420-430
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.