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Adventures in a "Foreign Country": African American Humor and the South Trudier Harris Black folks in the South. Black folks and the South. Black folks from the South. Black folks against the South. Black folks with the South. Black folks above the South (as in upsouth, New York or Chicago). Black folks under the South (as in the "foot on the neck" image of oppression). These reflect some of the tensions and paradoxes involved in thinking about a people whose American roots are primarily in the South but who have such a strange relationship to it. One strand of African American history is the saga of migration out of the South and into the urban areas of the North, where formerly enslaved persons or those who were drawn by the hopes of the Great Migration found a healthy antithesis to the environment from which they had presumably escaped. Or they perpetuated a healthy mythology about the North even when it did not exist. And they made their annual pilgrimages home—frequently in rented Cadillacs— designed to impress their "backward, country" relatives. The South was anathema , epitomized in the story of the pregnant black woman who visits relatives in that region, where her pregnancy extends into the tenth and eleventh months. When a baffled doctor finally puts a stethoscope to the mother's stomach, the baby is heard proclaiming, "I won't be born down here. I won't be born down here." So black folks who had migrated north generally stayed out of the South— until 1974 or thereabouts, when inflation hit and the price of sugar rose to two dollars and forty-nine cents for a five pound bag and when heating oil bills in colder climates skyrocketed. Then, all of a sudden, those southern peas and greens, open spaces, and sunshine became attractive. It became chic for black folks to migrate back to the South. Yet for all the migration in and out, and the ambivalence in attitudes, the South, with all its connotations of repression and violence, remained and remains an active force in the African American creative imagination. In belles lettres, popular culture, and folk culture, the South as a place of mixed memory and the site of the creation of a particular brand of determination led black Americans to replay its meanings again and again. WhileJames Baldwin asserted in his 1979 novel fust Above My Head that black Americans could look at a map of the territory below the Mason-Dixon line and scare themselves to death, Toni Cade Bam- 458Southern Cultures bara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker reversed the trend of leaving the South and transformed the soil into a healthy, regenerative force for their characters. Bambara created a mythical southern town in The Salt Eaters (1980) that rivals in tolerance and cuisine any place on earth. Morrison sent Milkman Dead to Virginia in Song ofSolomon (1977) in order for him to find an ancestry that transcended not only Michigan but American soil; her revisionist approach to the experiences of enslaved Africans in Beloved (1987) left us with several memorable and mythical southern characters. Walker's claiming of Georgia soil for several of her works, including The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970) and The Color Purple (1982), illustrates yet again how contemporary black writers allow characters to grow, prosper, and reach their full potential in a territory that previously only meant death and repression to them. On the lighter side, the black folk imagination—from tales of encounters with sheriffs to dealing with generic forms of confinement—has demonstrated that the South has always been fertile soil on which to work out the blues motif (laughing to keep from crying) inherent in being descended from a people so strongly identified with that territory. The humor reflects a mixture of love and revulsion, immersion and transcendence. Comedians such as Jackie "Moms" Mabley have done their share in "inventing" (as Morrison would say) the South, for as long as the exorcising force of humor was operative, African Americans could never be defeated by racial ugliness. In a sense we could argue that African American humor—as folk narrators and popular comedians presented it—did more...


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pp. 457-465
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