Author Archive: Sharon McCoy

In the Playground of Parody

We’ve all had that heart-stopping moment going through airport security, when our bag (or the bag of someone near us) is swept off the belt and meticulously torn apart by grim TSA personnel.   Everyone lucky enough to have already passed through watches out of the corner of their eye as they hurry to get their stuff and get away — just in case.  We all know that those orderly lines are just a stampede waiting to happen.

And we’ve also all felt the intrusiveness of a TSA agent who got a little personal and over-aggressive with the wand or with a manual search because the scanner picked up the quarter we forgot was in our breast or pants pocket.   We know that vulnerable moment of personal terror when we realize that our line leads to the scanner that requires us to raise our hands over our head rather than just walking through — in spite of the fact that our belt, now riding in the gray tub, was the only thing keeping our pants up.  We know that we’re just regular folks, but it feels like a violation when we’re singled out for further screening.  Terrifying, too, as we know that with the threat level at Orange or above, they aren’t messing around; protestations of innocence will be utterly ignored.  And forget it if you even look like you fit into one of the “terror profiles.”  You’re positive, right then, that you’re about to find out just how tenuous our freedom actually is.  Gitmo, here we come.

This spring, director Roman Coppola (son of Francis Ford Coppola) teamed up with comedian and actress Debra Wilson to play on these collective fears and feelings of vulnerability in — of all things — an Old Navy commercial.  The ad has roused much comment, running the gamut from its dismissal as racist trash and egregious minstrelsy to its celebrations as hilarious, as brilliant parody or satire.

Wilson, an eight-year veteran of MADtv, plays a TSA agent who tries to spice up a job that is both high-stress and boring, injecting a little humor to keep herself awake and alert as she’s encouraging passengers to follow the rules and keep the lines moving along:

“Sir, keep your pants on.  Ma’am, water is a liquid all over the world, so that’s H – 2 – no!”

The characterization is pitch perfect, balancing just the right amount of bored stoicism and aggression with humor.  Then the comedian takes it over the top:

So, is it a brilliant spot or is it a particularly egregious bit of corporate racist fantasy, blackface minstrelsy haunting us still?

The answer, perhaps, is both.

In creating characters, Debra Wilson draws a firm distinction between doing “impersonations” and “impressions.”  In impersonation, her goal is to “be” the person she’s impersonating, to make someone feel that they’re seeing that person, actually meeting that person.  Impressions, on the other hand, are presentations of “social perception” — take-offs of what people see or want to see, of public persona and behaviors.

Impressions are parody, and Wilson says, “I am there to represent what most people are saying, most people are thinking, most people are reading about.”  Her intent is not to represent the real person, but rather to parody what is acted out in the social arena, to parody and caricature the public actions of a person, or the public’s perception of that person, rather than the person herself.   The object of the impression, then, is to hold the public image, actions, and social perceptions up to a mirror of parody.

Wilson further argues that there’s “no point in doing it if it’s not a playground.”  She loves complex situations, with multiple levels of actions, opinions, perceptions clashing, which offer her “the opportunity to have a larger playground.”  (See interview below, of Wilson’s 2010 appearance on the Gregory Mantell Show.)

So what is the “playground” of parody offered in this commercial featuring Connie, the TSA agent?  Continue reading →

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The Trouble Begins at Nine?: Mark Twain, “A Speech on Women,” and Blackface Minstrelsy

“Trouble,” as I may have said once or twice, was Twain’s trademark.

On 11 January 1868, Mark Twain was asked to give a speech (printed in full below) responding to a toast at the Washington Correspondents’ Club.  The toast: “Woman, the pride of the professions and the jewel of ours.” 

John F. Scott, ed. New York:  Dick & Fitzgerald, 1868.

John F. Scott, ed. New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1868. Collection of the author.

The speech was well received and widely re-published in newspapers — and also in an 1868 book called Brudder Bones Book of Stump Speeches, and Burlesque Orations, which contains a variety of humorous speeches and sketches from the blackface stage, variety houses and the lecture circuit, all indiscriminately mixed together.  Twain, though, is given special recognition in the text, being referred to as “the celebrated humorist.” 

While Twain was initially tickled both by his speech and its coverage in the press — and even sent a copy to his own mother, who apparently loved it — he later worried about whether the speech was too vulgar in places.  In the various reprints, it would seem that some editors agreed with him, as they omitted bits here and there.  Their choices are interesting.

The Washington Star version (13 January 1868), for example, mildly says that Twain “responded” to the toast.  It omits an off-color reference to wives cuckolding their husbands and bearing others’ children and an appreciative tribute to Eve in the pre-fig-leaf days.

Brudder Bones, on the other hand, offers that Twain “was called upon to respond to a toast complimentary to women, and he performed his duty in the following manner.”   The book changes that “manner” a bit, by striking the final, conciliatory paragraph that puts all “jesting aside” with a toast honoring each man’s mother.  Brudder Bones also omits Twain’s stated desire to “protect” women, apparently not seeing this as necessary or appropriate, or perhaps funny.  Like the Star, the minstrel show version omits the reference to women’s infidelity and the children that arise from it, but reprints in full the appreciation of Eve, which celebrates female beauty and sexuality.

TroubleAtNineBut for Twain enthusiasts and scholars, Brudder Bones also includes another item of interest.  It is well known that Twain advertised his lectures with various versions of the phrase “The Trouble Begins at Eight.”  And his favorite blackface minstrel troupe, the San Francisco Minstrels, also used variations of the same phrase to advertise their shows for almost two decades, an association Twain seemed to enjoy — and certainly never complained about.  Brudder Bones, though, confirms that both Twain and the San Francisco Minstrels likely had an earlier source for that particular phrasing.  The 1868 book includes a sketch written and performed by blackface minstrel, entrepreneur, and promoter Charley White —  De Trouble Begins at Nine, as played at the American Theatre, 444 Broadway.  This theatre burned to the ground on 15 February 1866, according to theatre historian George Odell (VIII.84).

So . . . the trouble actually began at nine — nine to ten months before Twain’s inspired first use of a variation of the phrase.

And now, let’s take a look at the mild trouble Twain stirred up about women at the Correspondents’ Club, trouble that he felt that “they had no business” reporting “so verbatimly.”  For those who appreciate Twain’s later 1601, this “trouble” will seem tame indeed, but it does have its charms:

**********************************************************

A Speech on Women by Mark Twain

Washington Correspondents’ Club, 11 February 1868

MR. PRESIDENT: I do not know why I should have been singled out to receive the greatest distinction of the evening — for so the office of replying to the toast to woman has been regarded in every age.  [Applause.]  I do not know why I have received this distinction, unless it be that I am a trifle less homely than the other members of the club.  But, be this as it may, Mr. President, I am proud of the position, and you could not have chosen any one who would have accepted it more gladly, or labored with a heartier good-will to do the subject justice, than I.  Because, sir, I love the sex. [Laughter.] I love all the women, sir, irrespective of age or color. [Laughter.]

Human intelligence cannot estimate what we owe to woman, sir. She sews on our buttons [laughter], she mends our clothes [laughter], she ropes us in at the church fairs — she confides in us; she tells us whatever she can find out about the little private affairs of the neighbors ; she gives us good advice — and plenty of it — she gives us a piece of her mind, sometimes — and sometimes all of it ; she soothes our aching brows; she bears our children — ours as a general thing.  In all the relations of life, sir, it is but just, and a graceful tribute to woman to say of her that she is a perfect brick.[Great laughter.]

Wheresoever you place woman, sir — in whatever position or estate — she is an ornament to that place she occupies, and a treasure to the world.  [Here Mr. Twain paused, looked inquiringly at his hearers and remarked that the applause should come in at this point. It came in. Mr. Twain resumed his eulogy. Look at the noble names of history!  Look at Cleopatra! — look at Desdemona! — look at Florence Nightingale! –look at Joan of Arc! –look at Lucretia Borgia! [Disapprobation expressed. “Well,” said Mr. Twain, scratching his head doubtfully, “suppose we let Lucretia slide.”] Continue reading →

Teaching with Humor

Around this time of year, I can always feel the tension whenever I walk into the building.  Everyone I greet has puffy eyes, the bags under them extending all the way to their knees, from too many late nights, too many hours hunched over computer screens, books, and essays, frantically trying to get it all done before the deadline.

And those are just the instructors.

The students, though they have the resilience of youth on their side, tend to be in even worse shape, all of their tension exacerbated by too many dining hall meals, homesickness, lingering self-doubt, and being rousted out of bed or the shower in the wee small hours of the morning by fire alarms pulled in the dorms.

And yet, the serious business of learning must continue, and it must continue to be effective.

Humor can be a useful tool to deflect the tension and keep us focused on what matters.  It can also be an extremely effective mnemonic device if it hammers home a concept.   But I have discovered over the years, for myself anyway, that it isn’t a good idea to wait until this time of the year to try to inject that sanity-saving humor.  It works best if by this time of the semester, it is already a habit.

Numerous studies have explored the links between laughter and learning, demonstrating that when humor complements and reinforces the concepts — not distracting from them — students retain more, their anxiety levels drop, and their motivation increases (Garner 2006).  Self-deprecating humor on the part of professors relaxes students and makes them seem more approachable or understandable (Shatz and LoSchiavo 2005).  The focus must always remain on learning, and a teacher must be careful not to undercut his or her purpose or credibility by becoming more of an entertainer in students’ eyes (Bryant and Zillman 2005).

A teacher must never forget the power dynamic in the room, either, and use humor to target a student or group of students (Gorham and Christophel 1990), or “put them in their place.”  Such humor is far too aggressive and has no place in the classroom.  As I’ve written elsewhere on Humor in America (Is a Joke Really Like a Frog?), humor depends upon some level of shared ground, and because of this reveals the boundaries of a particular community.  Making a student or group of students the butt of a joke sets them outside the community rather than bringing them in, and further, raises anxiety levels in all of the students, causing them to wonder what would make them become a target.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t kid around with students or gently tease them, but the focus must always be on enhancing their learning or reassuring them that you don’t doubt their abilities.  You can never forget who holds the real power in the classroom, or the damage you can casually do.

Humor shouldn’t be forced or feel obligatory either.  It isn’t for everyone, but it sure gets me through the day, and my students seem to enjoy it.  More important, they learn, doing themselves and me proud.

I teach writing and literature, with a focus on research.  Much of the humor I use in the classroom is geared toward revealing the absurdity behind bad habits of writing or sloppy thinking, or toward removing some of the mystery about what makes good scholars, writers, and researchers — and students’ anxiety about whether they have what it takes.

Because many of them come to the classroom well-trained in timed exam writing, they tend to want to have a thesis before they start writing, to need to know what they want to say before they begin, before they really look into the evidence.  I’ve kidded around with them about this for years — if a thesis is an interpretation of evidence, how can you interpret what you haven’t got yet?  But this video is the best thing I’ve found for helping students see that when you narrow your focus too soon, you cherry-pick the evidence, seeing only what you want to see or have decided that you will see — and often miss the best part in the process:

After watching this video, I have a ready-made shorthand for marginal comments or conferences.  As the video says, “It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for,” so it is dangerous to have a thesis too early, and in the evidence-gathering part of the process, you must remain open to what is there.  When a student is having problems with this, I can just point out briefly that there seem to be some moonwalking bears around.  And instead of getting defensive, they laugh ruefully, and settle in to talk about what else might be there.

Another problem students often have is missing key facts in a text, reading hurriedly or sloppily, and ending up with arguments that cannot be supported because the facts are against them.  While there is never one correct interpretation of a text, there are wrong ones, interpretations that violate or ignore facts.  But when you point out that a student is doing this, s/he often feels defensive, stupid.  Humor can help.  So I tell students, “You can’t make a stunningly brilliant argument about the symbolic significance of a yellow shirt if . . . Continue reading →

“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 Continue reading →

Jim’s Dilemma

Your pa, he says to me that I need to come and help you understand why he had to go away, why he had to join the Missouri Colored Regiment.[i]  Says I was good at explaining and good at leaving my own self, and so I might as well be the one.  But you knows what your pa’s doing, don’t you?  You knows that he joined up so’s you all be free when he come back.  That’s cause you listen good, child.

Your pa, he never did understand, though, about why I went away.  Never did let me tell the whole story.  Always said I loved that white boy better’n him.  Never did understand.  But that’s my fault, I reckon.  Or maybe that’s just the way it goes.

Ole missus, that’s Miss Watson as was, she moved in with her sister, see?  And I hads to go with her; didn’t have no choice, though that meant I was 20 miles or more from your nanny and your pa and your aunt ‘Lizabeth what as died before you was born, 20 miles instead a just a few.  Used to come see them most every night, but after that—  Johnny—your pa—had to be the man of the house whiles I was gone—much as slavery lets you to be a man.  But love that white boy more’n him?   Huhn!  I tell yah—first words I says to that white boy, I says

 “Name’s not ‘nigger,’ boy.  Name’s Jim.  And I lay I’ll teach you to know it.”  Those was the first words I said to him.

Huh?  You’re right.  Told you, you’s a smart boy, and I admit it.  Them’s the first words I thought when that little white trash moved in and got dressed up in all the fancy clothes and done called me nigger though he just crawled right outten a hogshead his own self.  What I said aloud was “Yassuh, young massa?”  Man’s gotta know where the corn pone comes from.  It’s a tough world, it is, child, and don’t you forget it.

The boy weren’t so bad, though, as white folks go.  Fact is, I believe he had a good heart in there when it weren’t messed up and confused.  He told some of the story round about here, when that Tom Sawyer would let him talk.  And Huck, he told the truth so far as he could, I guess.  As he says, we all gots some stretchers in us.  But he was the only white man I ever know that even tried to keep his word to old Jim.  Only white man I ever know that thought a word was a something to keep, when talking to a nigger.  Most of them’d sooner lie than look at you.  But you know, they don’t really like looking now, do they?

Huck, he weren’t so bad, though.  And he did try.  But with a dad like his’n and that Tom Sawyer always raisin’ Cain and messing with his head, calling him chucklehead when he got a fair point an’ such truck as that.  Huck never had no chance.  But he tried, and I got to give him credit for trying.  He was a good boy, take it all in all.

I done told you the story lots a times, about the time I runned.[ii]  Had to.  You know that.  The devil he got in me.  And old missus, she got scared.  Was gonna sell me down to Orleans, she was.  Never woulda seen your pa or ‘Lizabeth again.   I lit out mighty quick, made a good plan, too, but there’s people everywhere, on account of they thought Huck done been killed.   They was crawling all over both sides of the river.

I took my chance in the dark—you knows the story—how I hid in the driftwood, then latched onto the raft.  I needed to get far away, and I knowed it.  Heard all day from where I was hiding in that cooper’s shack about how Huck‘s killed on the Illinois side.  Knowed oncet they realized I was gone, they’d blame me for it.  Ridden by witches and with the devil’s own coin, they’d never believe it weren’t me, and they’d know I’d lay for Illinois.  Where else a man going to go?   It’d be like that nigger Joe in Boone County what killed that white trash with de axe, or that Teney in Callaway that they said killed that woman.[iii]  I’d never a seen the inside of a jail.

But I didn’t have no luck.  When the man come toward me with the lantern, there weren’t no use for it; I struck out for the island.   Had to lay low, ‘cause they was hunting Huck, and pretty soon, they was hunting me, too.  Couldn’t get much to eat.  Knew I needed to swim for the Illinois shore afore I was too weak from hunger, but they was hunting too hard.  And push come to shove, I kept thinking ‘bout your pa, and about poor little ‘Lizabeth, and somehow I couldn’t leave.  My head was just a busting and so was my heart.  Lit myself a fire to keep warm, made sure it didn’t smoke, but I kept seeing ‘Lizabeth’s eyes looking into mine.  Wrapped the blanket round my head to shut them out, but that didn’t make no matter.  Finally done fall asleep, though.

First thing I saw when I wakes up was that there dead white boy, big as life.  Thought he was a ghost at first, I did, come to haint old Jim, who only tried to help him when his pa come back.  Old Jim, who never told the missus bout all the times he sneaked out in the night to cat about.  Niggers never have no luck—you remember that, child—it’ll save you lots a disappointment in this life.  But no ghost ever blim-blammed like that, and so I knowed it was really him, his own self.  That child could talk the hind leg off a donkey, he could.  I kept quiet and let him run on, thinking mighty hard.

He had a gun, see.  And people thought he was dead.  Or was that just one a him and Tom Sawyer’s jokes again?  It weren’t the first time white folks thought they was dead, though this’d be the first time a body had cared that Huck was gone, first time in his whole life.  But there he was with a gun, a-chatterin and a-jammerin on.  Was he a-hunting me?  Hunting old Jim after he had his lark and made folks think he was dead?

Then he busts into my thoughts.  Tells me to make up the fire and get breakfast, just like he owned me.  That boy playing me, I thinks to myself, but I gots to know.  Maybe he’s just a-hunting.  So I axed him some questions, and found out he been there since the night he was killed.  So whatever he’s a-playing at, he ain’t a-hunting old Jim.  I tells him I’ll make a fire if he’ll hunt us up something for to cook on it.

I was expecting him to come back with some squirrel or some mud-turkles or such truck, or maybe a rabbit iffen I was lucky, and I hoped he had a knife with that gun, but I looked round for a sharp stone, just in case.  When he come back, he come back with all kinds of stuff, a catfish and sugar and bacon and coffee and dishes, if that don’t beat all.  I was set back something considerable, ‘cause I knew right away what it meant.  Continue reading →

Culture Shock

I have just returned to the South, after two months in the West helping my mom in the wake of my dad’s death.  Getting home is bittersweet and exciting, but also something of shock.  Though the South and the West have much in common, in terms of how much both regions are shaped by their land and climate, by how much that land gets under your skin —  in the South, it’s a bit more literal.

Like chiggers, for instance.  Or the unforgettable burn of re-encountering a fire ant — two things I never knew existed until I moved here.  Or 90% humidity, which means that if anything sits still for more than half an hour, something green grows on it.  And something four-legged or six-legged walks across it, chased by something four-legged or eight-legged.

Okay, so it should be a picture of the spider, but the toads are SO much more friendly.

Okay, so it should be a picture of the spider, but the toads are SO much more friendly.

Dodging through the toads and frogs playing happily in the garage, my son dove for a bathroom that hadn’t been used in over 8 weeks, his urgency spurred by the last 6 hours without a break in the car in our hurry to get home.

“Mom! Come here!” Desperation tinged the voice.

“What?”

“There’s a spider in here!”

“That’s okay.  Spiders are our friends.  They eat the truly icky bugs.  No worries!”

“Mom!  Stop driveling — this is a spider!!”

And not just a spider.

Continue reading →

Into the (Personal) Archives: How to Manage a Husband (1919)

My mom once told me that the secret to a happy marriage is to do all of your construction projects while your husband is at work.  She knew well what she was talking about — over the years, she cut into walls to create built-in cabinets; she put up new shelves in rich and vibrant woods and hung hinged doors on other shelves that she wanted covered.   All construction debris was cleared neatly away, though, each day before my father got home — and this year marked their 65th year together.

What my mom never had to tell me, though, is that the real key to a long and happy relationship is a sense of humor.  Life is far too important to take seriously.

When my father passed away last month, among his things we found a treasure that his mother had saved from her wedding shower on June 5, 1919.   The gifts to her included a collection of spices in tins to start her kitchen in her new household — and a book of personal and spicy advice, written in acrostics, called How to Manage a Husband.  By the Experienced and the Inexperienced.   When I started reading, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when I got to the “T” in “Edith,” I knew that the women of that long-ago post-war generation were no different.  I’ll never think of my seemingly serious and elegant grandmother in quite the same way again.

Edith's advice apparently still had appeal in the 1940s.

Edith’s advice apparently still had appeal in the 1940s.

Eat everything prepared and
Digest it
Invite no quarrels
Tie him to a tree if unmanageable
Help in everything

Make the ice cream
Overcome mishaps
Receive his friends
Thank him
Overlook much
Never give up

***

Never leave him
Entertain him
Love him
Love him a little more
Independent thinking
Eliminate waste

Serve him plenty of food
Hang him if necessary
Attract no one else
Get up early in the mornings
Educate him to help with the work
Never nag

***

Okay, so I did a double-take on this one.  “Hang him if necessary”?  One hopes that Nellie was one of the “inexperienced” . . . .  Continue reading →

Finding the Flow: Mark Twain, the River, and Me

While writing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain had some trouble finding his flow.  The manuscript was clearly important to him, and clearly troubling.   His early mentions of it in letters are ecstatic — the writing was moving swiftly and clearly.  But soon he hit snags.  He ended up putting the manuscript away several times and writing three other books before it was finished.  One of these books, Life on the Mississippi, has clear ties to Huck, but there are several significant scenes in his European travel “buddy” book,  A Tramp Abroad, that also resonate strongly with his most famous novel.  One of the funniest, and one of my favorites, involves crashing a raft.

Until this past Sunday, I had never really appreciated, except in a distant and intellectual way, Twain’s fascination with rivers.  Even though I’ve been kayaking numerous times, and I’ve always had fun, I’ve never before tackled it with such a strong sense of my own mortality, the inscrutable flow of the current, and the exhilarating and hilarious terror of crashing.  And now, frankly, I find myself even more puzzled by readings of the novel that focus on the idyll of the river and see the tension and the terror coming solely from the society’s intrusions on that peace.

A river, really, is a fucking scary place.

Those moments of calm, drifting slowly along with the current, fill you with the delusion that you understand the flow, that you’ve surrendered to it, that it will in some way take care of you.

What utter horseshit.

The river is a powerful and inexorable force, utterly oblivious to your puny self, and it is best that you never forget that — at least while you’re actually still in its reach.  It is just as happy to have you smash into a boulder as it is to have you flow gently and peacefully in its lullaby.

WaterfallSunday was a lovely, lovely day.  As I embarked on the annual Mother’s Day “Broads on the Broad River” trip, I remember thinking that it could not be more idyllic.  The weather was perfect, sunny but not too hot, a constant breeze flowing; the company, of the best sort.  I let myself go with the flow of the current, looking for the arrows in the water that mark the safe passages between the rocks in the rapids, floating with exhilaration when I hit them just right and shot through.  And I laughed, too, when I missed the sweet spot and bumped over the rocks instead.  The first small waterfall, pictured here, was easy this year, and I grew cocky as I made it through without dumping.  The even smaller waterfall downriver, though — one that I wasn’t expecting — was another story.

Heavy rainfall had changed the river that I thought I remembered.  Our group had gotten spread out, and I learned of the second waterfall only when I saw a distant friend ahead suddenly disappear.  Her head reappeared downriver, and I marked the spot I thought I had seen her navigate the hazard.

Boy, was I wrong.

Only when I was on the crest did I realize how poorly I’d chosen my spot.  Looming right in front of me with remarkable insouciance was a gigantic fucking boulder, lying crosswise, right in my path.  I turned the kayak as fast as I could, to try to shoot the narrow space between the bottom of the fall and the rock, congratulating myself when I succeeded.

Dumb.

As soon as I shot out of the ironic shelter of that rock, the full force of the river hit the kayak broadside, throwing me and all of what Huck would call my “traps” into the current.  I got my head above water, and ducked again just in time to keep from getting brained by my own overturned boat, maniacally spinning its own dance in the current.

RaftTA1r

“A Deep and Tranquil Ecstasy”

Believe it or not, it wasn’t my life that passed before my eyes at that moment, it was this picture from Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad.  (Twain scholars are truly weird people.)  Here, the two friends sit blithely on their raft, with umbrellas to protect them from the sun, bathing their feet in the cooling water, and there is Sam, smoking away, like nothing will ever go wrong.  But to me, now, it seems that there is a pensive gleam in his eyes, absent from his friend’s blank and vacuously smiling face.

As a child, Sam almost drowned in the Mississippi river numerous times.  His brother Henry died on it, as did countless others he knew, and the slave trade was active up and down its waters.  Mark Twain could have had no illusions about the ephemeral nature of the river’s idyll, whether the inevitable disruptions came from man or from the oblivious beast of the river itself.  He had to be fully aware of the inevitability of the crash, of one’s helplessness in the current, of the hubris and strength with which we go against the current for a time or mistakenly believe we actually have control.   Or peace.

In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the raft crash comes at a turning point in the novel.  It is abrupt and terrifying, and it comes almost right after Huck has realized at last the magnitude of the crime he is committing by traveling with Jim.  Further, he realizes at last that Jim has children of his own and an agenda of his own beyond helping this young white ragamuffin escape his father.  But even then, Huck protects Jim from some slave catchers by telling them a lie, because Jim has praised him for being the only friend he has now, and for being “de on’y white genlman dat ever kep’ his promise to ole Jim” (124).   But fog, the river, and a careless steamboat pilot result in a violent crash that separates them and changes the course of the novel.

In the complementary raft-crash scene of A Tramp Abroad, however, the moment is brief and fleeting — a minor but significant incident in the course of the novel.  Here, in chapter nineteen, Twain’s narrator revels in his hubris and takes exuberant credit for the crash: Continue reading →

Standing Askew: If Tragedy Plus Time Equals Comedy, What Do You Call It When There Is No Time?

The idea of “comedy” carries with it a sense of lightness, easy laughter, or distance.  It also carries with it the implication that the audience who is listening, watching or reading is primed to laugh.  They expect to be entertained and amused, to hear something funny.

When people are in the midst of tragedy, or dealing with its aftermath, their expectations are different.  They seek comfort.  Connection.  Strength.  Relief.  Information.  Laughter can seem inappropriate — especially lighthearted laughter or any sort of mockery.  But laughter can also provide comfort, connection, strength, and relief.  And sometimes humor — as opposed to comedy or a joke — can also provide information, or a new perspective that enables coping.  In other words, humor can allow us to stand a little askew — a stance that can help in surviving a tragedy, or in coping afterward.  This use of humor is very human, but I also think, in many ways, it is particularly American.

In September 1857, the ship Central America, carrying 626 crew and passengers and almost $2,000,000 in treasure,  went down in a hurricane off the southeastern coast of the United States.  Sighting a ship in the distance, all of the women and children were put aboard the only three lifeboats they had.  The men aboard went grimly about the business of bailing until the ship finally went down.  Of the approximately 576 men cast into the waters when the ship went down, fewer than 10% survived to be rescued.  But amid the terror of the wreck, a group of survivors remembered most what gave them hope and strength:  humor.

One of the passengers on board the ship was the blackface minstrel Billy Birch.  Along with other men, he had put his wife Virgina (with her pet canary firmly and safely tucked into the bosom of her dress) into a lifeboat.  Cast into the sea with the others when the ship went down, Birch swam about until he found a bit of flotsam.  Hailing other survivors in the nearby waters, he invited them expansively to have a perch on his “yacht” to rest, and apparently kept up a running patter of jokes and humorous comments as they waited hours in the cold and stormy seas for rescue.  Years later, long after the stories of the night’s terror had dimmed in the popular imagination, occasional re-tellings surfaced about the incongruity of the famous actor and his impromptu floating stage, of his indefatigable good humor and laughter.

The story resonated because it appealed to something deep within Americans’ sense of themselves.  Unlike the legendary British “stiff upper lip,” Americans seem to pride themselves on meeting disaster and danger with resolve and quips and humor.  Events of the last week show that this is still true.

When on April 15, the Boston Marathon was violently disrupted by bombs exploding near the finish line, the initial response across the nation was of course shock, empathy, sadness, and anger — simultaneous with pride in those who helped and in the resilience of survivors who woke up “happy to be alive” and runners who had not been able to finish the race but who, only a day or two later, were discussing online how to finish the race in honor of the fallen, which included an 8-year-old boy, and out of determination not to be stopped.  Humor quickly came into the national conversation as well, as one of the slain, Krystle Campbell, was described over and over as having “a great sense of humor” as one of her most important and defining characteristics.

Stephen Colbert weighed in the next evening, with a tribute to the people of Boston in his opening monologue that is being shared on websites and in news reports around the world.  The monologue has already been characterized as “masterful,” “meaningful,” “eloquent,” “touching,” “patriotic,” “moving” — and “humorous.”  I would argue that it is also quintessentially American.  Continue reading →

Teaching Humor with Multicultural Texts; Teaching Multiculturalism with Humor

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? Continue reading →