The absence of black women as academic subjects in studies on humor does not mean that black women have sat cross-legged and silently watched while others slung of verbal insults. On the contrary, black women have developed their own brand of humor that undoubtedly fits into the larger tradition of African American humor. But, what exactly makes this brand unique is a question that must be posed with the study of black women’s humor in the same way that African American humor must be interrogated. By examining a select few works of novels by African American women in our collection, we hope to expose trends in novels that may be used to characterize black women’s humor.
There appear to be many trends throughout comedic works by women in African American humor. However, one glaring theme within the genre is the use of humor to address, expose, and/or cope with conflict within male-female relationships. Humor appears to be a way that black women resist patriarchal ideologies and systems of oppression like intimate violence and subjugation in the domestic sphere. This implies that humor is a medium through which women may address some of their most immediate concerns thereby upholding the feminist principle that the private is, indeed, political.
One of our earliest, most explicit demonstrations of humor in a novel written by an African American woman is predictably by Zora Neale Hurston. Though a love story, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) contains feminist undertones and bit of caustic humor. Perhaps the most notable example of humor in the book is “the dozens exchange” between Janie and her husband Jody Starks. After her husband insults her appearance, claiming that she is beginning to look old, Janie snaps back that he too has aged and is only evidence of his manhood is his big voice. Janie retorts, “When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life” (Honey, Hush! 380). In this instance, humor operates as a defense weapon against sexist notions of beauty. Not only does Janie’s humor serve to protect her personhood, but also symbolizes a metaphoric castration that allows Janie to assume a position of superiority.
Similar to the way that humor dismantles black masculinity in Their Eyes Were Watching God, humor in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) works to re-envision common, but tragic circumstances. More specifically, humor is the product of a re-imagined circumstance. When Harpo takes the advice of his father and stepmother to beat Sophia to make “make her mind,” Sophia fights back leaving Harpo with a bruised eye and a bruised ego. Too ashamed to admit that his beating came from his wife, he weaves an elaborate story to place the blame on a stubborn mule and his own clumsiness. In this instance, the male abuser is unexpectedly made the victim of the woman’s wrath. Though comedic, it manages to present the tragedy of intimate violence in such a way that the black woman is afforded a degree of power as opposed to being a helpless victim.
Lastly, evidence of humor, as it relates to personal relationships, is found in Terry McMillan’s novel Waiting to Exhale (1990). Humor is dispersed throughout this novel, but an iconic scene of humor is when Bernadine, a faithful wife and mother, discovers that her husband is leaving her for another woman who happens to be white. Furious, she takes on the badwoman persona found throughout African American literature, and takes all of her husband’s belongings and burns them inside of his BMW. When a police officer comes by to address the fire, she coolly blows him off.
On the most basic level, the situation is humorous simply because of the frustration of the character and the nonchalant manner of her actions. On another level, it could be argued that the frustration of the main character is derived from a sense of betrayal, and thus, the humor produced from her “trickster persona” is a way of calling attention to black women’s sense of alienation by black men. Humor, then, becomes a way of engaging in public and cathartic discourse on the “no good- won’t-do-right” man.
All of these examples exemplify the ways that the humor of African American women has called attention to the complicated relationships between men and women. Although the gendering of humor is a trait that appears in the humor of most ethnic communities, the specific concerns addressed by black women could suggest something about the causes of issues that most directly influence African American women. In helping to identity the historical and cultural forces that work to subjugate women, more mechanisms of agency specific to the concerns of black women may be identified and implemented.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Honey, Hush!: An Anthology of African American Women’s Humor. Ed. Daryl Cumber Dance. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1998. 379-380. Print.