When people talk about the Southwestern humorists today, they most often mean authors like George Washington Harris, author of the Sut Lovingood stories, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, who wrote “The Big Bear of Arkansas, “ or Johnson J. Hooper’s Simon Suggs stories. These authors were all Southern gentlemen for the most part—doctors, lawyers, or other professional men. Yet the humor they wrote was broad, often vulgar, and were delivered in a backwoods dialect with idiosyncratic spellings. They often began the tales with the “gentleman” narrator speaking directly to the reader—explaining that they had heard these stories while traveling through the back country from colorful, though uneducated characters.
Since these are the nineteenth century humorists most often anthologized, the casual reader might draw the conclusion that their brand of humor represents the whole of humor in the Old Southwest of the 1830s-1850s. Such an assumption, however, would be misleading. As with other periods in American literature, humorists wrote their tales and sketches on both sides of the spectrum. For every author whose characters depicted backwoods con men and uneducated rubes, there existed a corresponding author who represented the Southern gentleman who eschewed dialects and instead styled their sketches and tales in the more refined and educated writing reminiscent of their British counterparts. While they often also showed the rough side of the Southwestern frontier during its early times, the con men and (often) immoral characters were themselves educated. They used little dialect, wanting to demonstrate clearly for readers their own erudition.
Augustus Baldwin Longstreet appears to be the “missing link” between authors such as Hooper and Harris, who pioneered dialect humor, and authors such as Joseph Glover Baldwin, whose sketches represent a more “refined” Southern humor. His sketches alternate between two narrators (Hall and Baldwin). One is a typical Georgia “cracker”—a poor, edging toward middle-class white, the other more educated and less tolerant of vulgarity. In his tales, the gentlemanly narrator never lapses into dialect. His “Georgia Theatrics”, shows readers the sounds of an eye-gouging, fist pumping frontier fight, only to undercut the idea—the young man is only practicing what he would do if he were called upon to fight in the backwoods manner.
On a similar note, I live (by choice) in Memphis––a city challenged by crime, crushing poverty and troubled schools––yet filled with heart, soul and innovation.
Dee “Ms. Dee-Lite” Dotson and Tim “T-Remedi” Dotson, founders of Inner City South (ICS) are heart, soul and innovation personified, using humor and poetry for change.
In 2002, ICS emerged from Memphis’ underground spoken word movement, delivering thought-provoking messages in humor-filled, hip-hop-infused, “southern swagger” style. It’s not just clever rhyme set to modern rhythm. It’s poetry that matters.
Scientists tell us that our brains release endorphins when we laugh, and that humor helps us to see the world from different perspectives.
Dee Dotson explains their poetic performances like this: “We like to say we’re going to edu-tain you, meaning that we’re going to sneak a little thought process in with the entertainment. If we can make you laugh, we’re disarming you. You’ll want to listen, and we’re taking you off your guard. That’s how we draw the audience in without sounding self-righteous. We want to use the art to elevate and bring unity.”
Tim Dotson adds, “There’s no better healing than laughter. The healing from laughter can take you so many places. Even if you laugh in your pain, it’s still a way we attach to each other. We may have some serious subject matter, but we want you to feel encouraged when you leave the performance.”
But the Dotsons’ mission goes beyond writing and performing. In 2004, they founded “Dinner and Divas” – a dinner theatre experience that represents their support toward finding a cure, and providing social services to those suffering with sickle cell anemia. In 2010, they established C.R.E.A.T.E. (Changing Realities Exposing Art To Everyone) to give urban and lower income communities access to the arts.
They make regular appearances in a variety of venues ranging from elementary schools to college campuses to arts centers. Their material is accessible, universal and relevant to all ages, but their core audience is teens, since, as Tim puts it, “They’re at the cusp of what they’re about to do.”
In a world filled with anger and divisiveness, it’s refreshing to see unifying poetry with well-crafted humor . . . and an edge!
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.
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.
“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.