Understanding humor is all about understanding context — often about understanding shifting contexts. The more you know about the different contexts in the text or performance, the deeper (and sometimes the more painful) your laughter — especially, sometimes, when you ruefully recognize yourself or people you know well as a part of the complex target of a joke. Of course, if the joke cuts too deep, too close, or you feel it misrepresents too much, you may “get” the joke, but not find it funny at all.
Which is why I tell students in my multicultural humor courses that if they are not offended at least once during the semester, they are not paying attention.
But, I continue, they should not consider this as a negative thing, but as an opportunity. An opportunity to learn more about themselves and others. An opportunity for self-examination, societal examination, historical understanding, and growth. A chance to learn that before you take offense, you should make sure you fully understand the joke and its (usually) limited target. Jokes with broad targets are rarely funny — it is as we understand the subtleties and nuances of the defined target that we truly understand the joke. Own only what truly belongs to you, I tell them — don’t just assume that the joke is talking about you.
Teaching humor with an deliberate awareness of multicultural contexts, teaching humor that comes from a variety of cultural groups, is a great way of digging into the way context affects humor. It is also a great way to explore the different ways people use humor, what humor means to them, how humor functions as a part of one’s world view, how humor affects the way people deal with each other. Teaching humor with that deliberate awareness of multicultural humor and context helps us to see subtleties that we might otherwise miss with a singleminded focus, or a focus on humor that discounts cultural differences and similarities as significant factors. Because teaching American humor usually means at least some consideration of Mark Twain, we can use Huck Finn as a quick example. If we consider Twain’s humor there from the limited perspective only of a white male, we miss the ways in which Jim uses humor to negotiate position and authority with Huck, or the way Jack uses exasperated humor in order to maintain plausible deniability (and the way Huck sees and points out Jack’s intelligence, but completely misses the humor). And we miss the opportunity to have the difficult discussion about how much Twain really understood and how much he unselfconsciously portrayed.
And how much richer our understanding of the period as a whole, and American uses of humor in general, if we read humor from Frederick Douglass, Charles Chesnutt, Alexander Posey, W. E. B. Du Bois, John Milton Oskison, E. Pauline Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and others?
Humor can also open doors for us if multicultural literature is our teaching focus. Often, when we think of multiculturalism, we are trained to think in terms of “tolerance” or “tolerating differences.” And yet, to stop with “tolerance” can actually serve to increase social and cultural divisiveness. The focus on “tolerance” assumes that something different must be tolerated rather than celebrated. Humor is one way that many cultures attempt to cross boundaries, to understand and celebrate what makes each community unique. At the same time, the ambiguity of humor and its intended audience can expose inequities and inconsistencies, both within the community and in its relation to other communities or to society at large. We laugh at ourselves, at each other, and with each other: each interaction presents its own risks and raises its own set of questions. It is a risky endeavor, not one for the faint at heart, but the potential rewards are strong.
Not least of all, from my perspective, is that teaching humor with multicultural texts and teaching multicultural texts that utilize humor are great ways to broaden my own horizons and to teach my students research methods. I cannot pretend that I understand all cultural and historical references in the texts we read together, and I do not. I openly invite — and require — students to engage in primary source research, in order to understand the cultural contexts and specific references in the texts. And I share my own findings with them. This means that each time I teach a text, I learn something new.
What better reason to teach?
Multicultural humor helps students, too, see across cultural divides that they once thought were impenetrable. For all of us, regardless of culture or ethnic background, sometimes use humor to deal with those things that matter most to us — family, love, marriage, illness, death, work problems, religious doubts, social inequities. As we examine the shifting contexts of humor in the texts, students see common ground with people they had previously regarded as alien, but also recognize where differences part them. What has surprised me, too, is how willing students are to discuss seriously the really difficult aspects of multicultural society — racism, poverty, bigotry, gender bias, authority, authenticity, privilege, stereotypes, defensiveness — when humor is there to lighten the load or focus our attention on what matters. Students have been surprised to discover their own prejudices, and to work past them, without the usual anger and defensiveness. Laughter is a great bridge — so long as we are conscious of the deep chasms it can also create.
A final note before I list some of my favorite authors, texts and comedy routines to use — and ask you to contribute yours, because a good multicultural American humor anthology does not at this point exist so we must share resources. One collateral benefit that I have found from teaching multicultural humor is that students are so preoccupied by these issues they forget their learned fear of literary forms, specifically poetry and novels. Sometimes students seem to think that English teachers stay up all night trying to find the most excruciating possible texts to read, that literary merit is in one-to-one correspondence with its painful reading factor. A comment I read (alas far too often) in my evaluations is, “And I actually enjoyed the reading for the first time in an English class!” But students also lose their fear of poetry. Discussing the humor and the meanings in nila northSun’s “99 things to do before you die” or Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “An Ante-bellum Sermon” or Sherman Alexie’s “Defending Walt Whitman,” learning about the rich cultural contexts, identifying the references and how they change the joke and the meaning . . . students forget that they thought poetry was a frightening thing. And when we look at how the form supports the meaning, they are often delighted, as by the revealing of a magician’s trick. Focusing on the humor in its contexts enriches the magic.
And now — some favorites, in no particular order — some laugh-aloud funny, others bitterly satirical, ironic, painfully funny, quietly and sadly funny, or serious with a final outrageous twist. As soon as I post this, I’ll remember a dozen more I won’t be able to believe that I’ve omitted, but here goes:
Frederick Douglass, “Servants Obey Your Masters”
Adrian Louis, “infection”; “Edwin’s Letter About A Man Called Horse; Wild Indians & Other Creatures
Lorraine Lopez, “To Control a Rabid Rodent”
W. E. B. Du Bois, “University Course in Lynching”; “On Being Crazy”
E. Pauline Johnson, “As It Was in the Beginning”
Nikki Giovanni, “ego-tripping”; “the kidnap poem”; “quilting the black-eyed pea”
Sherman Alexie, “Defending Walt Whitman”; “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor”; Flight
Mother Love, “Dealing with Illness and Helpless Relatives”
Julia Alvarez, “Hold the Mayonnaise”
Charles Chesnutt, “The Passing of Grandison”; The Conjure Woman
Paul Laurence Dunbar, “An Ante-bellum Sermon”
John Milton Oskison, “The Problem of Old Harjo.”
Langston Hughes, “That Word Black”; “Who’s Passing for Who?”
A note — since there is no good anthology, you have to be creative. All texts before 1923, of course, are in public domain and many are available in electronic copies. For more contemporary humor, there are novels or poetry collections (if you are so bold), but there are also countless wonderful pieces published in literary journals, online either publicly, or through your school’s online databases or hard-copy collections that can be put on reserve for students. Don’t neglect YouTube and various comedians’ or comedy station websites for oral humor, either.
Humor in America has had a number of posts that can be helpful in thinking about approaches to context or to teaching various humor texts. See, for example, Tracy Wuster’s “The Subtle (and a little less than subtle) Humor of Charles Chesnutt“. See also, Carolyn Zarlengo Sposto’s “Humor, Irony, and Modern Native American Poetry“; and “Happy Birthday, Max Shulman“; or “Happy Birthday, Muhammed Ali“; or my “Painfully Funny“; “Poetry Corner–Paul Laurence Dunbar: Changing the Joke to Slip the Yoke“; “Is a Joke Really Like a Frog?“; or my pieces on Mark Twain, which tend to come from a multicultural perspective.
This is only a tiny beginning. What are your favorites?
© Sharon D. McCoy, 21 March 2013