Tag Archives: Paul Laurence Dunbar
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 →
Editors’ note: We are re-blogging this post from Sharon McCoy in honor of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s birthday: June 27th.
Last year we posted the poem “An Ante-bellum Sermon” from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s collection, Lyrics of Lowly Life. This week’s poetry entry discusses the historical, literary, and cultural context of that collection and its core humor. The bold red titles below indicate live links to those songsheets, audio files, or websites.
Dunbar can be difficult in many ways. His dialect can seem heavy or (to some ears) stereotypical, especially once you know that he wrote for performers who appeared in blackface. We often resist humor in poetry, but blackface offers special challenges that make it difficult for many to want to take Dunbar seriously as a poet. Songs such as Evah Darkey is a King and Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd can be hard to stomach in the twenty-first century, and even his serious, beautiful dialect pieces such as On Emancipation Day are packaged with lurid period sheet-music covers that wrench credibility.
None of this was news to Dunbar. But the era he was writing in offered special challenges in any case. He was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1872, the son of former slaves, just three years after his home state sent a resolution to Congress refusing to ratify the 15th Amendment (prohibiting denial of suffrage on racial grounds). Ohio ultimately relented, withdrew the resolution, and ratified the Amendment, but only when it was clear that it would become law in any case. Emotions still ran strong and tensions high in the state whose antebellum “black laws” had rivaled Louisiana’s for their severity, and it is not surprising that a President from this tension-filled state, Rutherford B. Hayes, facilitated the end of federal Reconstruction. Growing up African American in Ohio required a sense of humor.
Even after publishing two books of poetry before the age of 25, Dunbar still had to work as an elevator operator in order to survive, but during that time of economic depression, any job was a blessing. And his poetry had captured the attention of the “dean” of American literature, William Dean Howells. When Howells agreed in 1896 to write the introduction to Dunbar’s Lyrics of Lowly Life, the young poet must have been ecstatic.
But his sense of humor also came in handy. We’ll look at Howells’s introduction and Dunbar’s response in a moment, because Dunbar’s choices are as funny as they are full of chutzpah. But first, we need to talk a little about the particular climate of the U.S. at that time. Continue reading →