Tourists say the dumbest things. They travel the globe ostensibly to learn and to gain experiences so that when they return home they can do so as more well-rounded and informed human beings. Well, that’s the dream anyway. Tourists are always out of place, they are often pretending to be (much) smarter than they are, and they carry with them a sense of entitlement–all of these factors set them up to be perennially funny as objects of ridicule. Few things are funnier than ignorance, but when it combines with arrogance, then a wonderfully silly comic star is born: the American tourist, a figure of derision for about hundred and fifty years now.
It was Mark Twain who first popularized and perfected the American tourist, in his best-selling The Innocents Abroad in 1869, a narrative of a bumbling five-month tour–America’s first pleasure cruise–across the Atlantic and around the Mediterranean Sea to see the “Old World.” He later built on that persona in other travel books like A Tramp Abroad (1880) and Following the Equator (1897). Twain captured the perils of tourism in many ways, but one of his most effective and hilarious shticks was to mock the inherent ignorance and arrogance of tourists simply by reporting what they said.
Tourists say the dumbest things. Just ask Azie Dungey, an actor who, while looking for stage work in the Washington D.C. area, found roles, as she puts it, playing “every black woman of note that ever lived. From Harriet Tubman to Diane Nash to Claudette Colvin to Carline Branham–Martha Washington’s enslaved Lady’s maid.” Readers here may be too timid to ask this: Is that THE Martha Washington, President George Washington’s wife? Yup. History is fun. Ms. Dungey, during the energy and optimism infused into the presidential election of 2008 and throughout President Obama’s first term, Azie Dungey supported herself by playing a slave who served the first, first family. American irony at its best.
Her role is as “Lizzie May,” a fictional character drawn from Ms. Dungey’s experiences performing as a slave woman at George and Martha Washington’s home named Mount Vernon, now a popular tourist site. And her forum is Ask a Slave: The Web Series. The short sketches recreate many of the questions that tourists posed to Ms. Dungey over the years. Ask a Slave is promoted as “Real Questions, Real Comedy.” It will make you cringe.
When tourists reveal their ignorance and arrogance, we have what is called in the profession “a teachable moment.” A traditional method of trying to encourage a learning process is called the Socratic Method, named after Socrates that famous smart guy from ancient Greece. He is dead now. The method involves getting people to ask questions and from the answers to encourage more questions and thereby lead to the gathering of knowledge–and, from that process, achieve the gaining of wisdom. Or something like that. Tourists all over the United States (and the world, for that matter) are often encouraged to ask questions of their guides. At many historical sites, guides are often complemented by historical re-enactors to create “living history.” It is an appealing bit of stage craft. “All of history is but a stage, and we are merely reenactors and tourists.” Shakespeare wrote something along those lines. I just updated it.
But when the questions are so clueless, what’s a slave to do?
Well, the actor Azie Dungey performed her role to the best of her ability (and with much patience), but all the while she collected information, and now, as Lizzie May, she has some different answers to give. She, with the help of other members of the crew, are re-enacting those tourist re-enactments and providing the rest of us with our own funny teachable moments. The first episode immediately reveals why the online comedy series has caught fire.
Lizzie May is a significant expansion of the role that Ms. Dungey played at Mount Vernon. She is able to provide answers that would have gotten her fired at Mount Vernon, all the while maintaining a demeanor that is seemingly polite and deferential and that the original role demanded. Yet the answers are assertive and thus subversive. She thereby provides a compelling satirical voice. The resulting humor is well worth viewers’ time and offers us our own teachable moments.
Ignorance is funny. It has always been funny because it provides us the wonderful opportunity to laugh at someone else’s stupidity. Fortunately, there is an endless supply of it, so humorists can always find some facet of human behavior to exploit for laughs. When the subject matter is tied to the legacies of slavery, the humor has an unavoidable edge. One thing that the tourist questions reveal beyond their stupidity is a desperation for self-affirmation, or an almost pathological need to lessen the horror of slavery, to give many modern tourists more distance from the slaveowners and supremacists in their racial family tree. The need is understandable; the ongoing moral cowardice, however, is tiresome to say the least.
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.
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 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.