MAXWELL:  We need to lighten up

4/21/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


When I told an acquaintance, a woman in her late 40s, that I collect Amos ‘N Andy videos and cassette tapes, she was outraged.

“How can a black man mess with that racist crap?” she asked.

“Because it’s funny,” I said.

“You’re sick!”

I had expected such a reaction. Because black people have been abused from the moment they were dragged onto America’s shores, my acquaintance, trapped in an ethos of real victimization, is emotionally and psychologically justified in her sentiment. After all, vicious humor was used to deny black people a soul, which is one reason that most of us now reject humor that puts us down in any way.

Although she may be forgiven on emotional and psychological grounds, she has no intellectual justification for reacting as she did. In fact, her behavior is the product of contemporary ethnic correctness. Blacks, as with Jews, Hispanics and other marginalized groups, traditionally have used humor to their advantage.

“From a marginal position one sees things more clearly and therefore more comically!” writes historian A. Roy Eckardt in a 1992 article on Jewish humor.

Not until the 1960s, during the height of the civil rights movement, did the likes of Amos ‘N Andy become taboo. Most blacks rejected the show because its creators were white, which should not have mattered. During this time, too, blacks, as a group, began to lose the benign side of their humor, their spirited self-mockery and self-deprecation. We also began to lose our awareness of humor’s life-giving power.

Sure, today we may laugh at sitcoms, such as Martin and Living Single, and the stand-up smut on cable. But the public banter and infectious joking relationships that sustained us during centuries of inhumane treatment are waning, especially in the middle class and other polite circles, where smugness is the mask of choice. Genuine joking has been replaced by gangsta rap, snaps and other anti-social genres.

What a shame. During my childhood, I heard great jokes all the time and everywhere _ in the barbershops among the old men, in schoolyards among the boys and in the kitchens among some of the older women. I recall the catharsis, the fellowship, the fun of it all.

We even laughed at lynching. Listen to this joke: A Philadelphia-born teenager went to visit his kin in a small Alabama town. After arriving, he didn’t see any other black people. He turned to a redneck and asked, “Where do all the colored folks hang out in this town?” The redneck pointed to a live oak in front of the courthouse and said, “See that limb . . .?”

The very act of telling such a joke made lynching less frightening, thus empowering us.

Blacks correctly suspected that they received unequal justice before the law, which made the courtroom a source of ironic humor. Here is a gag that my grandfather loved: “It is the opinion of the court,” intoned the Mississippi judge, “that this innocent Negro is guilty as charged!”

Illiteracy, because of prohibitions against educating blacks, also served as a rich source of humor. I often heard this one: Little Henry came from school and said to his father, “Say, dad, I need help with my ‘rithmetic. The teacher says we got to find the least common denominator.”

“My Gawd, ain’t they found that thing yet?” the father shouted. “Hell, they was looking for it when I was a boy.”

Africa, our ancestral home, provided unlimited hilarity: A white missionary trekked into a remote part of Africa and met the chief of a cannibal tribe. “Do your people know anything about religion?” he asked. “Well, we got a little taste of it when the last missionary was here,” the cannibal said.

Humor was the slave’s talisman. Folklorist W. D. Weatherford explains humor’s efficacy: “No master could be thoroughly comfortable around a sullen slave; and, conversely, a master, unless he was utterly humorless, could not overwork or brutally treat a jolly fellow, one who could make him laugh.”

For society’s pariahs, humor symbolizes a rhetorical effigy, having the power to destabilize the enemy’s control. I grasped this truth several years ago while reading Steve Lipman’s book, Laughter in Hell: The Use of Humor during the Holocaust. How, I wondered, could Jews find humor in the worst evil ever perpetrated by humankind? Dutch Jew Rachella Velt Meekcoms, who staged vaudeville shows with other teenage inmates in Auschwitz, comments in her diary: “In spite of all our agony and pain we never lost our ability to laugh at ourselves and our miserable situation. We had to make jokes to survive and save ourselves from deep depression.”

Earlier generations of blacks, like Jews, told jokes to save themselves. Today, we blacks still need to save ourselves from hostile forces, both external and internal. We need to lighten up, to stop taking ourselves so seriously, to stop turning many innocent comments about race into insults. And for goodness sakes, get out and tell a few good jokes.

Skin color, for example, is a major concern in black life, so here is a joke fit for the most discriminating repertoire: Dwayne was indignant to learn that his main squeeze had refused to marry him because of his black, black complexion. To complicate matters, she had nicknamed him “Captain Midnight.”

“She got no business callin’ me Midnight,” he protested. “That gal is pretty close to 11:30 herself.”