“A University Course” on the Value of Satire in a Crazy World

Life, fundamentally, is absurd.  Every day we encounter opinions, actions, experiences, or events that make us wonder whether we are crazy, whether the world is — or whether there is sanity to be found anywhere.

Satire provides a vehicle for holding such contradictory world views in simultaneous suspension — a way of shifting the ground to contain the uncontainable, to allow the simultaneous expression of unresolvable and sometimes ambiguous opposites.  While some argue that students struggle with recognizing satire or analyzing it successfully, I think that the struggle is more than worth it — and I find that once students move away from the idea that there is one right answer, they truly enjoy the power of satire to open their minds to new possibilities, uncertainties, or perspectives, without the overwhelming despair that sometimes comes from a “serious” or “straight” presentation of difficult material or moral conundrums.   As I have argued in a previous posting, the power of satire lies not in its unambiguous moral target, but in its propensity to force us to make a choice about what that target (or those targets) might be.  To both force critical thinking and allow us to laugh painfully, or laugh it off — if we so choose.  Because sometimes, laughing is the only way that we can keep moving, keep functioning in an upside-down world.

In the late spring of 1923, W. E. B. Du Bois found himself in such a place.  About six months earlier, the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill “died” in the Senate, the victim of a filibuster and a deeply divided nation, after four years of Congressional debate and re-working of the bill in committee and on the floor of the House.  The bill had been introduced by Congressman Dyer of Missouri in 1918, and its defeat was marked that spring by a lynching in his home state, the communal and extra-legal murder of James T. Scott in Columbia, Missouri.  Scott was an African American employee of the University of Missouri, and the lynching was noted nationally for the presence of students — and particularly, 50 female students — though reports state that none of them actually “took part,” but were spectators.  While Du Bois had often responded to previous lynchings with a trademark sarcasm and satirical outlook, the defeat of the Dyer Bill and the lynching of Scott seem to bring a new level intensity to his satire — a satire marked by both despair and desperate hope.

The tenderness of this drawing by Hilda Rue Wilkinson, with its peaceful evocation of family and normalcy makes a stark contrast with Du Bois's opening salvo.

The tenderness of this drawing by Hilda Rue Wilkinson, with its peaceful evocation of family and normalcy makes a stark contrast with Du Bois’s opening salvo.

The cover of that June’s issue offers no clue as to the intensity of the subject matter on its opening page.  The drawing is peaceful, a mother and her daughter with flowers against an open and non-threatening backdrop of hills, trees, and sky.  It is an intimate moment, and the mother frankly and calmly returns the spectator’s gaze, while the little girl seems off in her own thoughts, undisturbed by the watcher.  The title of the magazine, The Crisis, jars a little, its meaning in opposition to the peaceful, domestic feeling of the artwork.

But that moment of dissonance becomes cacophony when the page is turned, revealing a scathing and brilliantly, horrifically, and shockingly funny satire entitled “A University Course in Lynching,” penned by W. E. B. Du Bois.

The page is clearly marked “Opinion” in bold letters rivaling the title of magazine, Du Bois opens the editorial by proclaiming that “We are glad to note that the University of Missouri has opened a new course in Applied Lynching.  Many of our American Universities have long defended the institution, but they have not been frank or brave enough actually to arrange a mob murder so that students could see it.”  He notes that the lynching of James T. Scott took place in broad daylight and that at least 50 women were in attendance, most of them students.  Du Bois goes on to satirically praise the University’s efforts in a style that recalls Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”:  “We are very much in favor of this method of teaching 100 per cent Americanism; as long as mob murder is an approved institution in the United States, students at the universities should have a first-hand chance to judge exactly what a lynching is.”

He describes the case in brief detail, stating that “everything was as it should be” for a teachable moment.  Scott “protested his innocence” against that charge that he had “lured” and sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl “to his last breath.”  The father has “no doubt” of Scott’s guilt, but “deprecates” the violence of the mob.  What Du Bois does not say here was that the girl’s father, an immigrant professor at the University, actually tried to speak up and stop the lynching, but chose to be silent when the crowd threatened to lynch him as well.  Du Bois concludes:

Here was every element of the modern American lynching.  We are glad that the future fathers and mothers of the West saw it, and we are expecting great results from this course of study at one of the most eminent of our State Universities.

Suddenly, this little girl and her mother are in a different world.

A world upside-down.  A world in which communal murder is officially condoned, due process is suspended, and lynching is not a phenomenon of a wicked South, but of the West.

My students notice different things every time I teach this satire.  Partly because Du Bois’s piece also mentions a lynching at the southern University where I teach, my students often focus on that aspect, on the power of the satire to enlighten them about history they did not know, history that hits close to home.  This week, however, my students focused A University Course in LynchingRSon Du Bois’s use of the word “we” in the beginning and ending.  When I finished reading the piece aloud as they followed the projection on the screen, there was the usual rather stunned silence as it sunk in.  The first comment was about the first word of the piece, the impact of the word “We” as an opener.  “We,” the students noted, gave the “opinion” the weight of authority, as of a committee or group, a communal stamp of approval rather than a lone voice in the wilderness.  An institutional, administrative, or government decree, one that make you want to follow along.  “We” impels you as a reader to choose:  are you part of the “we” or the “they”?  To which “we” do you belong?  Where do you stand?  And we noted the irony of this, how wickedly and pointedly apt his use of “we” is in relation to the mob mentality of lynching, the social and communal aspects of it that we find so horrifying today — unable to understand how these horrific murders turned into community events, barbeques, picnics, occasions marked by souvenir postcards.  The use of “we” brings this group mentality, this group speak uncomfortably close to home.  And yet the satire offers us a way out — a shifting ground of “we” to choose from.  Or to stand against.

This focus on the “we” of the beginning led to a question about the ending.    Did I think that Du Bois meant what he said?  Was he expressing a genuine hope that “great results” would come, that some good would come out of this horror, that these “future fathers and mothers” would learn an opposite lesson and stop the nightmare?  As I usually try to do, instead of answering, I opened the question to the class.  Another student offered the interpretation that the remark was heavily laced with sarcasm, aimed with despair, rage, outrage, and fear.  The conversation bounced back and forth a bit, and we talked about the way satire allows both possibilities to exist simultaneously.  Despair and desperate hope can and do exist side by side.

Some hope for great social change to come from satire.  But if history — and the history of satire — teaches us anything, it is that social change builds for a long time before cataclysmic change can actually happen.  While the U.S. Congress never did pass an anti-lynching law, a hate crimes bill was finally passed in 2009.  Du Bois did not live to see this change, and the events of his later life show that he may have finally given into the despair that dogged his steps here.  But the power of the satire he penned in 1923 still bites today.  And while Mark Twain’s (Satan’s) oft-quoted maxim that “Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand” may only be true in the nihilistic sense that even what we consider moral crumbles before it, there is one thing I know for certain.

Having laughter in our arsenal, some days, is the only way that we can stand, and keep standing.

©  Sharon D. McCoy, 17 October 2013

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