Category Archives: Frederick Douglass

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 →

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Sunday Sermon: Activist Humor and Frederick Douglass’s “Servants, Obey Your Masters”

Courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Frederick Douglass

Today, Frederick Douglass seems a formidable and imposing figure, his speech eloquent, inspiring, provocative and fiery.  He was certainly all of this and more.  But he also made people laugh.  During the antebellum years, lecturing alongside an uncompromising firebrand like Henry Highland Garnet could mean broken bones (and Douglass himself could attest to this), lecturing with Douglass usually meant getting out unscathed,  outwitting the enemy, and perhaps even changing some minds — even if his humor bothered some critics. 

But as Billy Kersands, a renowned African American blackface performer, once said without a trace of a smile, “Son, if  they hate me, I’m still whipping them, because I’m making them laugh.”  While Douglass wrote caustically about white blackface performers and earlier African American blackface performers such as Gavitt’s Serenaders, I think that he shared Kersands’ assessment of the power of humor. 

Douglass’s humor ranged from the self deprecating to the bitingly caustic.  He wielded humor to defuse tense situations, but, perhaps more importantly, he used it as an activist strategy to forward the abolitionist cause and as a powerful tool in the fight for equal rights.  Often these moments of humor were simply that — moments inserted to defuse tension or to skewer a point with precision.  Other times, Douglass used extended routines to drive home his points and pull his audience right along with him

One of his most powerful extended uses of humor is when he takes on the persona of a white preacher addressing a slave congregation (the actual audience being made up of largely white attendees and hecklers at abolitionist meetings).  This text is from a meeting in Scotland in 1846, but he used versions of this speech for years across America, too.  The speech presented below is excerpted from a newspaper account, and it includes parenthetical asides relating the audience’s responses.  The reporter sets up the speech, saying that Douglass was going to 

give them a sketch of a sermon which he had often heard preached. The text was ‘Servants obey your masters.” He would divide it into separate heads, and here he was going to imitate the preacher, for he wanted to show them how rantingly, how piously he might appear when in the service of the wicked one himself. Mr. Douglass then in tones of mimic solemnity gave the following epitome of the discourse:

Frederick Douglass humor

—”Servants obey your masters.”

–You should obey your masters, in the first place, because your happiness depends on your obedience. (Cheers and laughter.) Now, servants, such is the relation constituted by the Almighty between cause and effect, that there can be no happiness neither in this world nor the world to come save by obedience; and it is a fact, that whenever you see misery, wretchedness, and poverty, want and distress, all is the result of disobedience. (Laughter.) Peculiarly is this the case with yourselves. Under the providence of God, you sustain a very peculiar relation to your masters. The term “servant” in the text means slave, and you will of consequence perceive that this is a message to you by the mouth of the Apostle; so as a preacher of the Gospel I beg you to listen to the words of wisdom. (Great laughter.)

–I said it was peculiarly the case that your happiness depends upon your obedience. It is verily true, and suffer me to illustrate this position by the statement of a fact. A neighbour of mine sent his servant Sam into the fields to perform a certain amount of labour which ought to have taken him two hours and a half. Now, by the way, his master was a pious soul, and after having waited till the expiration of the time which he had allotted to Sam for the performance of the work, he went out into the field, as he was accustomed to do, for the purpose of ascertaining why Sam was detained. (Laughter.) When he went, lo and behold, there lay Sam, his hoe in one place, and Sam fast asleep in the corner of the fence. (Great laughter and cheers.) Think of the feelings of that pious master. Oh! it was a trying situation for a servant of the Lord to be placed in. (Laughter.) He went “to the law and to the testimony” to know his duty, and he there found it written, that “the servant who knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.” Accordingly, he took up Sam, and lashed him till he was not able to bear it. Now this is the point I want to come to. To what was Sam’s whipping traceable? (Cheers and laughter.) Solely to disobedience. (Much laughter.) If you would be happy, therefore, and not be whipped, you will avoid sleeping when you should be working, for if you would enjoy and live under the sunshine of your master’s good pleasure, let me implore you, as one who loves your souls, ”be obedient to your masters.” (Cheers and laughter.)

–You should obey your masters, in the second place, because of a sense of gratitude for your present situation compared with what it might have been. You should be inspired by a knowledge of the fact, that the Lord, in his mercy, brought you from Africa to this Christian country. (Shouts of laughter.) Oh! this is an important consideration, and one to which I will call your attention for a few moments. Your fathers—and I dread to enter upon the picture—were taken from Africa—degraded, lost, and ruined Africa—darkness may be said to cover that earth, and gross darkness that people—to be brought into the sunshine of this land of freedom. (Laughter.) Continue reading →

Fourth of July

 

An excerpt from Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech, “What to the slave is the 4th of July?”  An example of a use of humor (specifically his call to mockery at approximately 3:00) of a great power.