June 20 is the birthday of Charles Waddell Chesnutt, one of the most important authors and humorists of the Gilded Age. Chesnutt (1858-19320) is often discussed in terms of the humor of his works, especially the short stories of his two collections The Conjure Woman and The Wife of His Youth, both published in 1899. In a journal entry from 1879, Chesnutt wrote of the purposes of his fiction, which he viewed as elevating not the black race but the white. He wrote:
But the subtle almost indefinable feeling of repulsion toward the negro, which is common to most Americans—and easily enough accounted for—, cannot be stormed and taken by assault; the garrison will not capitulate: so their position must be mined, and we will find ourselves in their midst before they think it.
So instead of the “assault of laughter,” Chesnutt saw his goal as using humor to subtly influence feeling, or as he put it: “while amusing them to lead them on imperceptibly, unconsciously step by step to the desired state of feeling.” The entire journal entry is printed below. But, first, I will discuss the ways in which I have taught Chesnutt as a figure in the plantation school of American literature.
I saw Dick Gregory once, and I want to commemorate that occasion while he is still alive. I hope he reads this.
My mother did not tell me I was Jewish until I was 46 years old. I was not raised Jewish in any way. We ate pork and ham at home. I had never been inside a temple or synagogue. And yet I was thoroughly familiar with Jewish family life because I listened to the radio, especially the Jewish comedians like George Jessel (“Hello, Mama, this is Georgy”), Eddy Cantor, and Minerva Pius, who was Mrs. Nussbaum in Fred Allen’s Alley (“You were expecting maybe Greta Garfinkel?”). I don’t count Jack Benny; he was a comedian who happened to be Jewish, not a Jewish comedian. Gertrude Berg was not a comedian, but her portrayal of Jewish life in the soap opera The Goldbergs certainly had its effect. There were others whose names I have forgotten, but because of radio comedians I became thoroughly familiar with what English sounded like with a Yiddish accent. And long before I was 46 I was keenly aware both of antisemitism among the kids I went to school with and of the way in which Jewish comedians were gradually making Jews more familiar and hence more acceptable to goyim.
Now that I’ve introduced myself, let me set the stage. After the Civil War, the United States Army set up military installations throughout the western U.S. with the purpose of protecting settlers moving west from what we now know are Native Americans but were then called Indians. Many of the troops assigned to these forts were what were known as “buffalo soldiers” – freed slaves. After all, during the war the Union army had made use of “colored” troops – not, of course, integrated into white units, but as separate but equal units – and these soldiers had acquitted themselves well in battle. Around the outposts towns grew up, and as time went on some of them became almost civilized. The state college where I was teaching was located in such a town, and buffalo soldiers had served in the adjacent fort.
In December of last year, I happened upon an exhibit of Glenn Ligon’s work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (a show that originated at the Whitney Museum). I was struck by Ligon’s direct takes on race, politics, and sex in American history through striking visual juxtapositions of text and image. As a humor scholar, I was especially struck by a series of five works in which material from Richard Pryor was screen printed in bright ink onto bright backgrounds, making the words hard, if not impossible to read.
Glenn Ligon, Just Us #1, 2004 (photo by T. Wuster)
As the text accompanying the piece states, the uncomfortable optical effect “delivers an optical punch commensurate with Pryor’s ‘colorful’ language.” (See below for full text) Indeed, some of the paintings are so difficult to process, due to the clash between colors, so as to be unreadable. Only after photographing the above picture was I able to decipher the text. I was greatly struck by the re-presentation of Pryor’s works into a visual medium that both reflects and comments upon the discomfort that can be caused by the social critique of his comedy.
While not all of Ligon’s pieces deal as directly with subjects that can fall under the cover of “humor,” his work contains connections between language, image, and society that mirror the impact of humor that shocks us into seeing the world and speaking the word in new ways.
Glenn Ligon’s “America” is showing at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth until June 3.
See below for one further piece.
From the Whitney Museum webpage:
Glenn Ligon: AMERICA is the first comprehensive mid-career retrospective devoted to this pioneering New York–based artist. Throughout his career, Ligon (b. 1960) has pursued an incisive exploration of American history, literature, and society across a body of work that builds critically on the legacies of modern painting and more recent conceptual art. He is best known for his landmark series of text-based paintings, made since the late 1980s, which draw on the writings and speech of diverse figures including Jean Genet, Zora Neale Hurston, Jesse Jackson, and Richard Pryor. Ligon’s subject matter ranges widely from the Million Man March and the aftermath of slavery to 1970s coloring books and the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe—all treated within artworks that are both politically provocative and beautiful to behold.
The best way to characterize Stephanie Eisner’s controversial editorial cartoon about the killing of Trayvon Martin is to borrow a phrase from Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” a song that has been in my head all week anyway because I’m teaching Do The Right Thing in my film class – which just so happens to famously end with the killing of an unarmed young black man. That phrase, by the way, is Chuck D’s succinct biography of Elvis Presley, and it works equally well for Ms. Eisner’s cartoon: straight-up racist. It is hard not to see the cloying, ironic intonation of Trayvon as a “colored boy” as either outright derogatory or, at our most generous, as the work of a young woman in America who is horrifyingly oblivious to her own go-to vocabulary for thinking about black people.
The cartoon was originally published in the March 27, 2012 edition of The Daily Texan, a student newspaper at the University of Texas at Austin, but it was quickly pulled from paper’s website after receiving almost instantaneous negative attention. But it was put back up later in the day, and the editors expressed a willingness to publish the views of individuals even if those views are controversial. But it was pulled off again two days later, when Eisner was also fired from the paper, and the editors finally backed down after backing her two days earlier when the cartoon had first went back up. (This is their public apology, although I personally believe that they should have just left it up and let the cartoonist accept responsibility for her work, which I would be happy to debate in the comments section below.) At some previous point in all of this, Eisner herself had publically defended her cartoon, which took some serious explanation – which is precisely what a good cartoon should be able to circumvent – and then she later also apologized and assured everyone that she was not a racist. This all happened very quickly and has already been extensively documented (for example, please read in order this, this, and then this), and so the fallout itself is not something that really needs retelling.
Nor am I willing to suggest that Ms. Eisner is in fact a racist, which she is probably not. The problem, however, is that in her misguided attempt to critique what she imagined to be a media bias when it came to the depictions of Trayvon Martin and his killer, George Zimmerman, the resulting cartoon betrayed both an misunderstanding of the meaning of “yellow journalism” and an almost complete ignorance of the actual issue itself. (Plus it doesn’t seem to care that a real person, you know, died.) If, like many editorial cartoons, the content is meant to be read ironically, then how else are we to interpret the its picture of “the media” telling the story of a “handsome, sweet, innocent colored boy” as anything other than Eisner’s perceived lack of bias against Trayvon? By creating such a disparity between “white man” and “colored boy,” Eisner is not only mining an archaic, emasculating American idiom, but also reminding her readers that it is still important to discriminate against black people, even when the white person (Zimmerman) seems to kind of clearly deserve a closer look based on his actions. The cartoon can therefore be read not as an appeal for neutrality in the media, but for some kind of messed up balance of bias – one that will put Trayvon in his place because he is not “innocent” of being black. In other words, according to the logic of this cartoon, Zimmerman is not “big, bad” to the same degree that Trayvon is not “handsome, sweet, innocent.”
I’m reminded of a joke that Slavoj Žižek told on a recent episode of the public radio show Smiley and West, a joke which the philosopher used to illustrate we he sees as the true spirit of capitalism:
“Like we in Slovenia, in my country, we have a beautiful disgusting saying that if you ask a Slovenian farmer, God appears to a Slovenian farmer and tells him I will give you a cow but I will give to your neighbor two cows. A Slovenian farmer answers no. Rather kill one of my cows but kill two cows of my neighbor.”
In this case, if Zimmerman is currently under the scrutiny in the media, Ms. Eisner would rather have us “kill two cows” and make sure that Trayvon is not only scrutinized but smeared. Why else would she call him a “colored boy” if not to recall an era in which this demeaning phrase was what white folks treated as neutrality in their regard of African-American youth and not as an actual racial slur? Like Geraldo Rivera’s absurd claim that Trayvon’s hoodie was as responsible for his death as George Zimmerman’s gun, Eisner’s cartoon presents the argument that if the media has vilified Zimmerman as a “big, bad white man” on the basis of ethnicity, then it has not fulfilled its responsibility to duly defame and blame the victim on the basis of his.
Again, I am not trying to suggest that Ms. Eisner is anything other than a college student who still has a lot to learn about the history of her country, its language, and the difference between media bias and yellow journalism. But in all honesty, she also has a hell of a lot to learn about cartooning. Many have already commented on the ovoid features of the young child as resembling that of an inflatable sex doll. (Either that, or in my opinion, what the childhood drawings of notorious porn-face-tracer/comic-book-artist Greg Land might have looked like.) Also, it is unclear if the child is supposed to be shocked by what she (?) is hearing, or if there is some other emotion or reaction involved. Also, the child’s right arm seems to suggest a short-sleeved shirt, but the left arm is either long-sleeved or, honestly, pretty much non-existent; her left hand just kind of shoots out from her hip. And really, the lettering in the speech balloon is just, like, totally all over the place. The arrows pointing to “white” and “colored” make sure that we don’t forget that these are important words, and that this cartoon – by extension – is making an important point about an important issue that we might have missed without a triad of arrows pointing to each racial signifier like it was the neon sign outside of a strip club. Also, we can see that the “o” in “innocent” is replaced by a (black) heart, which is kind of awkwardly followed up by another heart right after the word itself, which is probably just supposed to be decorative – that is, just a heart and not to be read as “innocento.” Which is just bad lettering, although I doubt that the paper will receive any angry letters about that. Finally, it is also worth pointing out that the cartoon misspells Trayvon’s name as “Treyvon” on the book cover, which is either just sheer sloppiness or further signifies a complete disregard for the victim and all that his name has come to stand for over the last few weeks.
His name is the easiest thing that Eisner could have gotten right.
The post below was published in February 2011 by Michael Kiskis on his blog, Kiskis Log. Dr. Kiskis passed away suddenly in May, a shock of great sadness to the community of Mark Twain and Humor Studies scholars who knew well both the insight of his scholarship and his passion for his work.
What I didn’t know about was his blog, which I discovered when John Bird posted a link on the Mark Twain Forum. After reading the posts, I was struck not only by their insight, honesty, and humor, but also by a feeling that such writing—informal, yet academic—should be shared with other scholars. Dr. Kiskis’s blog rekindled an idea I had been considering for several years, an online publication for humor scholars to post occasional pieces and to share their own blogs.
This essay, “The Critics Dream Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” is published in honor of Dr. Kiskis’s life and work, and for the part his work played in the genesis of the Humor in America blog. I am reposting it with the kind permission of Michael’s wife, Ann. I encourage you to read further in Michael’s blog and to see his website for more information on his career. See also Michael’s other blog, Canonical Babbling.
The Critics Dream Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
by Michael Kiskis
Mark Twain helped open American literature to the multi-cultural polyphony that is its birthright and special strength.He appreciated the creative vitality of African-Americanvoices and exploited their potential in his art. In the processhe helped teach his countrymen new lessons about the lyricaland exuberant energy of vernacular speech, as well as about thepotential of satire and irony in the service of truth….…But there is something about Huckleberry Finnthat sets it off from Twain’s earlier work and makes it seemless a continuation of the art he had been developing and moreof a quantum leap forward; its unrivalled place in both theTwain canon and in the American literary canon relfects thisspecial status. (5)
Twain’s book is a wake-up call, an entreaty to rethink,reevaluate, and reformulate the terms by which one definesboth personal and national identity, the terms by which oneunderstands a person or a culture as “good” or “evil,” a pleato reexamine the hypocrisies we tolerate and the heinousbetrayals of hope we perpetuate — in his time and our own —in the name of “business as usual.” (203)
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn panoramically chroniclesthe plight of the runaway male slave, the slave community,the slave family, and the vision and indefatigable hope of thisAmerican. Against him is a South that is both proslavery,the progenitor of Jim Crow, and hypocritical in its values.More complexly, however, this chronicle is one whoseconclusion questions the readers and their notions of whatfreedom means. What does it cost? Through Twain’s portrayalof Jim and the other slaves, the African American slave emergeswithout what Langston Hughes disparaged as the romantization ofthe South and southern slavery. (xv)
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.