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"Damn Brother, I Don't Believe Td A-ToId That!" Humor and the Cultural Identity of the American South James C. Cobb As the fervor at the revival meetin' became almost unbearable, the preacher rose to challenge each member of the congregation to confess his or her sins publicly and seek forgiveness. "God'll forgive you," the minister assured them. "Just confess your sins and receive his blessing." Meekly at first and then almost heartily, the worshippers stood to tell their shocking tales of adultery, thievery, drunkenness , and neglect. As each member of this decidedly sinful lot rose and recounted his or her misdeeds, the congregation gave forth with "Hallelujahs" and "Amens," and the preacher shouted, "God bless you for confessing your sins. No sin is too great for God to forgive." Finally, every member of the congregation had made a confession, except for one skinny and terribly uncomfortable fellow who shifted about nervously and sought to avoid the pastor's gaze. The preacher fixed his eyes directly on this reluctant sinner and began to pressure him, "Now, come on, brother. Don't be embarrassed. No sin is too great for God to forgive." This went on for several minutes until, seeing that the preacher had no intention of relenting, the man finally rose and still staring at the floor, said meekly, "Well, preacher, when I was younger, I once had sex with a goat." A sudden silence fell over the church, broken only by the preacher's response: "Damn, Brother! I don't believe I'd a-told that!" Although he probably never heard this joke, Henri Bergson insisted that "to understand laughter, we must put it back into its natural environment, which is society, and above all we must determine the utility of its function, which is a social one. . . . Laughter must have a social significance." Apropos of Bergson's remarks, the foregoing joke seems to suggest that many residents of the Bible Belt South may have indeed believed that God's grace was boundless, but they nonetheless realized that the tolerance of his followers definitely had its limits. Although such jokes have much to tell us about the inner workings of its complex, distinctive, and constantly evolving society and culture, scholars have devoted most of their attention to the somber side of the South's story. C. Vann Woodward cited the South's historic association with tragedy as the central sustaining element of its identity as a region, and if the South's historical experi- 482Southern Cultures enee is not particularly known for the chuckles it has provided, the same could be said of its cultural one. Certainly, most of the South's major writers have specialized in the darker aspects of the human condition. The region's two most significant popular musical forms are the blues, whose name pretty much says it all, and country music, which, with its emphasis on lying, crying, and dying, has been described in several quarters as simply white man's blues.1 For all this emphasis on morbidity and gloom, however, those who seek a fresh perspective from which to examine the cultural identity of the American South might well ponder the observation of William Faulkner that "there's not too fine a distinction between humor and tragedy . . . even tragedy is in a way walking a tightrope between the ridiculous . . . the bizarre and the terrible." Bergson agreed, insisting that when one becomes "a disinterested spectator . . . many a drama will turn into a comedy." As these comments suggest, to define the South solely in terms of its darker side is to oversimplify considerably a regional persona where the tragic and the terrible were often not just related to but actually inseparable from the ridiculous and the bizarre.2 No southerners were more intimately acquainted with tragedy and suffering than the region's black residents. Yet, no segment of the population was more readily associated with humor and laughter. Less observant whites actually found comfort in this proclivity for mirth, apparently seeing it as a tacit acceptance of white supremacy and the rigid Jim Crow system at large. Consequently, a troubled white once demanded of a taciturn Richard Wright, "Why don't...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 481-492
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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