I’ve thought a lot about humor this past year, especially when I was teaching my lecture course on gender, race, and media in the fall. “It’s just funny,” students would say in defense of media they liked. “They were just kidding,” they’d add, or “It was just a joke.” I took to pointing out that something’s not funny when only the person telling the joke winds up laughing. That’s not humor: it’s an act of domination.
I was talking to a friend yesterday about just this subject and she made me remember a book review I’d come across some time ago. In it, journalist Lloyd Lewis reviewed Shirley Graham’s book for teens on Frederick Douglass for the New York Times.
Lewis observed that his grandfather had lived near Quakers who had nursed Douglass back to health after he had been brutally beaten by a pro-slavery mob in Pendleton, Indiana.
Lewis ended his personal reminiscence on the following odd note:
“My grandfather,” he recounted, “said Douglass had a superb voice and stage presence, but small humor, due no doubt to his heart-rending experiences as a slave. My grandfather cited a Republican rally, in the Seventies perhaps, where a white orator, after the fashion of the time, told several very humorous ‘darky stories.’ When he was finished the tall lanky Douglass, with his leonine mane, was introduced. He said, ‘Those stories were funny, very funny, but I felt each of them a foot pressing upon my mother’s grave'” (6 April 1947).
Clearly, this message had impressed Lewis’ grandfather so much that it got passed down to Lewis himself, although it’s not clear what his meaning he drew from it (beyond the fact that it illustrated Douglass’ “small humor.”
Still it was a powerful rhetorical moment in which Douglass held the white orator, and those in the audience, accountable to the way in which racist humor worked. And it’s worth pointing out the resilience of white peoples’ responses: called on the carpet for racism, we project the responsibility for those speech acts onto those injured by them and those who object to them. Called on the carpet for sexism, men similarly attribute responsibility to those dour, humorless feminists who can’t take a joke either.