Professor Jim Gray of Sonoma State University defines culture as a means of survival. Going by this definition of culture the evolution of black humor has definitely been a foundation in the survival of the comedy in America. This paper will be a discussion of how African American Humor has evolved and for centuries has changed and continues to change the way we look at comedy. Before beginning this paper, I must stress the importance of humor for all races. Truly, the environment in which most humor takes place has helped American culture and people survive. According to Constance Rourke, humor is important because: "1. Humor is a part of the natural life process and is commonly taken for granted or not recognized as having serious importance. The fact that humor is a framework for `non-real' or `play' activity and not taken as a `serious' interaction allows messages and formulations to be `risked' within its framework which would not otherwise be acceptable or possible. 3. Humor allows the exploration of new ideas in situations of uncertainty or unfamiliarity. Similarly allowed are the negotiation of taboo topics, sensitive issues, and marginal serious content. 4. Humor performs a boundary function on both internal and external lines, policing groups in terms of membership and acceptable and competence behavior. 5. Humor can function as a coping device to release tension, allay fear, forestall threat, defuse aggression or distance the unpleasant.6. Humor can represent an implicit contradiction, paradox or `joke in the social structure' made explicit. The `joke' constitutes a reversal within its boundaries of the patterns of control in the real world. 7. `Canned' jokes and `situational' jokes are not entirely separate. Canned jokes are not sealed from the situation in which they are told as they always affect it and incorporate interaction into their pattern; situation jokes always have some impact beyond their context.
Langston Hughes says, "Humor is laughing at what you haven't got when you ought to have it. Of course, you laugh by proxy. You're really laughing at the other guy lacks, not your own. That's what makes it funny-The fact that you don't know you are laughing at yourself. Humor is when the joke is on you but hits the other fellow first-Because it boomerangs. Humor is what you wish in your secret heart were not funny, but it is, and you must laugh. Humor is your unconscious therapy" (Hughes, 1966) Laughter for centuries has been the medicine that has helped to ensure the survival of African Americans.
"Herded together with others with whom they shared only a common condition of servitude and some degree of cultural overlap, enslaved Africans were compelled to create a new language, a new religion, and a precarious new lifestyle." (Joyner, 1984) As Africans were unloaded by boat and placed onto plantations, slave masters were completely enthralled by the way they spoke, moved, and danced. Out of slavery emerged a culture that would influence America's mainstream culture for infinity. Slavery created bondage for Africans and when it looked like they were going nowhere fast; they laughed, sang, and amused one another with riddles, jokes and animal tales from the homeland. Slave masters could not conceive why slaves in such a miserable state were so joyous, what they did not know was many of the songs, jokes and riddles were more than surface deep and many times about the master. The slaves made the best of the circumstances through humor and by laughing at the way the slave master treated them and their reaction to this treatment. They were laughing at the slave master and at the same time laughing at themselves. However, it did not take long before slave masters made slave merry-making public. Many times slaves were called upon to entertain master and their guests. Slave merry-making was also encouraged because it also increased the price of the slaves. "People took notice to the way slaves spoke and moved, out of slavery evolved Blackface Humor." (Watkins, 1994)
Blackface comedy was when a person (white) painted their face with black makeup and acted like a slave (Sambo). Blackface humor gave whites the chance to lift African American Humor from its original context, transform it, then spotlight it as their own entertainment, amusement (for non-black audiences) it became popular for it is supposed originality.
As blackface entertainment became more popular so did the actors. George Washington Dixion introduced "Coal Black Rose" (Watkins) one song "Sambo and Cuffee", (Watkins) was a comic song about a black woman and her lover. Dixion performed this act all over the world; some would argue that Dixion was the first white blackface performer to establish a broad reputation.
By the 1830's, blackface performers were everywhere becoming one of the most popular attractions of the American stage.
Billy Whitlock, Frank Brower, Frank Pelham and Dan Emmett were also very popular blackface performers. Dixion created the one man, show but these
men created a troupe of blackface performers. They also firmly established the image of blacks as happy-go-lucky plantation darkies, outrageously dresses and ignorant. Although there were other blackface performers before them, these men were the only ones who could give a real show from the makeup to the costume.
"By the 1840's blackface performances had reached an unprecedented level of national popularity."(Watkins) There were many performance troupes, even professional juvenile troupes. Each followed a standard; they had a three-act presentation. The first act opened up with a walkaround where the entire troupe came out made up in face paint and dressed in suits. They than gathered in a semicircle to alternate comic songs and jokes. Here is a common type of joke many used; it is called;
"Mr. Bones" and "Mr. Tambo":
Mr. Bones: "Mr. Tambo sir!"
Mr. Tambo: "Yes, Mr. Bones"
Mr. Bones: "Does us black folks go to hebbin? Does we go through dem golden gates?"
Mr. Tambo: "Mr. Bones, you know the golden gates is for white folks."
Mr. Bones: "Well, who's gonna be dere to open demm gates for you white folks?"
For many of the white people watching the show the most funny and exciting part was the joke telling. In the second act-the "olio or variety segment"- was the stump speech speaker. This occured when one member performed a comic, black version of a topic. Topics would range from, emancipation, women's suffrage, education or another current political or scientific topic. The goal was to show how blacks could not comprehend nor interpret sophisticated ideas. The third and final part of the show was a slapstick plantation skit, featuring song and dance with costumed men and women dressed as slaves.
After the Civil War, blackface troupes hired on free black men and women to perform with them. White audiences became upset and angry at many troupes. After the war and emancipation - during the reconstruction ...
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