Category Archives: W. E. B. Du Bois
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 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 →
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 →