This is my brief reflection on my research on Humor and African-American Women regarding their view and vindication of feminism. After receiving an award for it in Spain I thought this resume on Black American history could create a new debate for everyone interested on intersectional feminism.

The research is divided into two parts which will result in two different articles: the first part is titled “African-American Feminism Meets Humor” and includes a theoretical background of Black feminist humor. The second part, “Humor in Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist”, focuses on analysing Gay’s humorous thoughts on gender, race and sexuality.

Humor is as interesting as it is controversial. Now more than ever, especially with the presence of women of color in stand-up comedy and mass media, the use of humor for protest is on the rise. Besides, comedy is one of the most subjective, difficult and special ways of communicating. In addition to this, as comedy is regarded as a relaxed and casual communication approach, its protest and claims are not faced as an aggression, so it is a perfect strategy for social vindication.

There is a long history of women of color using comedy for both fighting sexism and confronting the racism that Black women face every day. In particular, I found it interesting to comment on the cases of Soujouner Truth and her sarcastic speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” (1851), as well as Moms Mabley, known for dealing with sexuality, poverty and racism in her monologues. In addition to this, Whoopi Goldberg and Tiffany Haddish have also been included as examples since they deal with their experience of racism and discrimination in their careers, either with witty responses in interviews or in their stand-up performances. To approach the effect of Black humor in today's society, authors like Cooke-Cornell and Webster have explained how the #MeToo movement has also been the subject of feminist jokes from Marsha Warfield to Michelle Buteau. Last, Patricia Hill Collins has analyzed the constant use of humor among Black women to express themselves and create emotional bonds with each other.

Humor can be useful in feminist claims and social protest. Hence, Marjolein T. Hart (2007) suggests that comedy creates a strong sense of unity among protesters. According to her, this happens because a too serious emphasis on the righteousness of the claims usually inhibits laughter and joy (Hart 3). Throughout history, professional comedians have presented harsh and undesirable political truths through laughter. It was because of their position as official joke-makers that they were not considered as problematic as other political critics: “after all, ‘fools’ should not be taken seriously and replying in a serious manner to a joke is generally ‘not done’” (6). One example of this is Wanda Sykes, a comedian and actress, who once exclaimed: “It’s 2019! If you don’t have a Black friend you are the problem!” (Hennefeld) referring to the common knowledge of how rare interracial relationships are.

Focusing on Black women, two waves of thought must be mentioned. The Black feminist movement as well as the Women's Liberation Movement unveil the constant struggles Black women face, by means of softening criticism and making it less confrontational, through witty humor until the present day (Strongman 131). In relation to this, the movie Black Panther (2018) must be introduced: this film is characteristic for its dark humor and sarcastic comments on racism and sexism. There is one scene in particular, where Agent Ross asks T’Challa in front of Okoye, his bodyguard, if she speaks English: “AGENT ROSS. (To T’Challa about Okoye) Does she speak English? … Okoye. (Facing Agent Ross) When she wants to.” In this particular scene, Okoye is claiming her rights to be talked to directly, apart from calling out Agent Ross for presuming she could not speak his language without even trying to talk to her directly from the beginning.

Back to the subject of humor as part of the feminist movement: how has humor strengthened social protest? Historically, because of the intrinsic character of jokes, humor can often act as a relief from social pressures, for example the ones suffered by women of color in the United States. Humor has been executed on stand-up comedy, speeches and interviews. For instance, Wanda Sykes remarked in a monologue how race determines someone’s presence on the news. The difference lies in the fact that a white person is normally considered to be human (because “to err is human”), while a person of color becomes a dangerous criminal: “Black people, we need a better publicist. No, fuck that. We need a publicist. I want the publicist that the white guys use” (Sykes). Sykes is referring to all the campaigns that become popular when someone white makes a racist comment or is the perpetrator of a crime, how the media, politicians, etc. focus on justifying their behavior with some trauma from their past. This is an intentional act for trying to convince the audience to feel pity and empathy for the white criminal: “That publicist kicks ass” (Sykes). Conversely, if the criminal is someone of color, the intentions of the media are completely opposite.

Nonetheless, using comedy for protest may have the contrary effect of what is intentioned. For some feminists and protesters some jokes may be “appreciated only because one feels compelled to do so” (Hart 21). This is because “a joke can bring people together but can also shock, hurt, and exclude … with the result that some groups may decide not to join the movement after all” (21). In fact, Franchesca Ramsey explains for MTV Impact that “offensive jokes normally hurt feelings or make people uncomfortable but oppressive jokes not only make people uncomfortable … they actually reinforce negative ideas about marginalized groups” and make some people believe discrimination is justified (Ramsey). One example is the pilot joke (“True”) from True Detective (2014-9): in this television series, racism is viewed from a newer perspective, although women are not included, since it focuses mainly on male figures and their experiences. Detective Marty Hart tells a race joke to his former colleague about what you call a Black pilot. The scene goes like this: “Detective Mary Hart. What do you call a Black man who flies a plane? … Detective Lutz. I don't know … Detective Mary Hart. Pilot, you racist bastard”. Interestingly enough, the joke shows both the changed climate regarding race and the subcurrent of racism that still survives in North American society.

There is a long history of women of color using comedy along both feminist and racially conscious lines. Sojourner Truth, for example, delivered at the Women’s Convention in Ohio for abolitionism and women’s rights a sarcastic and heartbreaking speech titled “Ain’t I a Woman?” (1851). This is a significant text in which, at a certain point in, Truth addresses rhetorically any man in her audience. She uttered: “he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ‘cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him” (Truth). In relation to this, decades later, a well-known comedian called Moms Mabley would tell jokes about taboo topics like sexuality, poverty or racism (Salvo). This is just another example of how useful feminist humor was for Black female public figures, whether consciously or not, as the medium of their discourses. Two of Mabley’s most remembered jokes are: “Love is like playing checkers. You have to know which man to move” and “any time you see me with my arms around an old man, I’m holding him for the police” (Sutton). Both jokes show that women are placed at the center only if their actions are connected to emotions like love or concepts like marriage. Mabley is opposing to this habit by not following societal expectations of how women should feel about matrimony, family and love.

Other more contemporary examples of sexism and women’s sexuality are Marsha Warfield’s jokes such as: “I used to be a virgin, but I gave it up because there was no money in it” (“Marsha”). Additionally, another well-known comedian is Whoopi Goldberg, who became viral on public platforms like Twitter after being asked about her thoughts on marriage life: “I don’t want somebody in my house” (Landsbaum). Topics like racism and discrimination should not be forgotten either, as Tiffany Haddish, stand-up comedian and actress, usually speaks about them in her performances: “I did tell the census man I was white, and I'm telling you, I started getting offers for the black American Express card in the mail” (“Tiffany”).

The African-American scholar Patricia Hill Collins asserts that “through serious conversation and humor, African-American women as sisters and friends affirm one another’s humanity, specialness, and right to exist” (Collins 102). Subsequently, after some interviews for her research, Collins was told that laughter comes naturally among Black women because it comes from a shared recognition of who they are in the world and how they experience life (103). From here it can be argued that, for African-American women, humor is a way of sharing their inner thoughts and fears with one another, a way to express themselves, for the most part on topics like gender, race and discrimination. Sykes is one more time the source for another example: “I’m a Black, gay woman. I think the only way to make the GOP hate me more is if I sent them a video of me rolling around on a pile of welfare checks” (Rivas).

Changing the subject, the current 2020s are highlighted by the use of social media to address concerns such as sexual harassment. I am referring to the #MeToo movement and the maintenance of rape culture in the media through articles questioning victims of abuse. In fact, as Webster claims: “in a year where sexual abuse and harassment have been discussed almost daily in newspapers, on television, in boardrooms and in the halls of government, the final frontier for the Me-Too movement might just be comedy.” In fact, rape jokes have become the center of stand-up comedy through this movement in particular, but always from an ironical point of view (Cooke-Cornell).

Some examples are Michelle Buteau: “It’s been a very interesting year for me because a lot of my guy friends have just come out as predators. Yeah, like, I always knew but it was like really their journey to figure it out” (Buteau). Again, Warfield: “How many women here like to have sex in the morning? Now how many like to be awake when it happens?” (“Marsha”). As shown in both examples, rape is still a very sensitive topic for today's society. It is through social movements like #MeToo that women are trying to draw attention to those normalized behaviors for both men and women that are clearly sexist. It is very common for men to try to impose their desires on women, as Buteau points out. Plus, it is also common for women not to prioritize men’s needs or to understand that it is normal for men to take advantage of them when they are defenseless: the usual argument being, “she didn’t say no.”

Black women who decided to protest for their rights have always been stereotyped. Generally, as Black women, they are categorized as Mammys, Jezebels, or Sapphires. Particularly, the last one of these is related to “those Black women who were considered rude, loud, malicious, stubborn, and overbearing” (“Sapphire”). In fact, Sapphire's suppose desire to dominate others and her hyper-sensitivity to injustices make her a “perpetual complainer” (“Sapphire”). Nonetheless, according to this stereotype of Black women, they do not criticize to improve society because they want everyone else to be unhappy. This is just another social control mechanism intended to prevent African American women from violating the social norms imposed on them: they are supposed to be passive, invisible and harmless (“Sapphire”). Some well-known examples of the Sapphire stereotype are former First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama, who became the target of great criticism after saying in an interview that “women are smarter than men” (Richinick). Besides, just as important, the young actress and activist Yara Shahidi, who told some jokes in an interview about how her friends always said the only scenario she would get a fake ID would be to “prematurely vote” (The Daily Show).

The above-mentioned instances corroborate the importance and usefulness of humor in the vindication of Black women’s rights and fair perception in society. Obama was constantly criticized by the media before, during and after she became the First Lady of the White House. It should not be forgotten that all of her speeches were analyzed and taken out of context, as well as satirized. In the previous example, she wanted to inspire US girls to improve themselves and change the world, because although figures are changing nowadays, the number of women (specifically those who identify themselves as people of color) in relevant positions is still limited. Obama managed to break the ice to laughter and applause, particularly with the men in attendance, who at that particular meeting were outnumbered.


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