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In most cases, minority groups use comedy as a way of gaining acceptance from the mainstream society. For a long time, African-Americans have been branded as second-class citizens, selfish, and lazy individuals. Unlike in the past when African-Americans retaliated to such prejudices and criticisms with defiance, comedians in the contemporary times use humor to settle most of these social injustices. Besides humor, different individuals are advancing numerous social commentaries regarding race and class interlink in the United States.
While comedians may revoke uncomfortable sentiments at some points, comedy is gradually becoming essential in society by compelling people to face realities that they would otherwise confront through aggression. The purpose of this article is to show that humor has been employed by the African-American population as a tool of diminishing the stereotypes that get in their way towards the realization of equal privileges in the mainstream society.
Stand-up comedy has been used as an alternative to liberate African-Americans by pushing social boundaries through stories that at times might seem unacceptable, but they are met with espousal when narrated on stage. With this assertion in mind, this article agrees with Joseph Boskin’s claim that the contemporary African-American humor demonstrates that this minority group has been liberated from the past and it has advanced to a state beyond defiance.
Humor as an alternative to violence
In cases where the truth hurts, it is better to respond with a joke as opposed to violence. Covert resistance declined at the peak of the civil rights movements in the late 1960s. Although retaliation through violence recurred during the 1992 Los Angeles incidence, the pressure was too much not only for blacks, but also for other minority groups to retaliate (Williams 67).
These events forced black comics to seek their way into white platforms by breaking the walls that had restricted minority groups from the popular culture. Stand-up comedy has developed to instigate change in a manner that leaves the audience with a lasting impression about the truth and a desire to get more of it. The fact that the truth is cemented in humor gives the critics a reason to smile, since the humor drives away the stigma thereof.
This new platform gives African-American the chance to neutralize all inequalities that face them in the mainstream culture of the United States. Good humor provokes tension and the comedians help the audience to release that tenseness. This concept of tension and tension release enables the comic to talk about sensitive issues without the fear of intimidation and victimization. Even talking about taboos becomes easy regardless of how controversial they are in the normal day-to-day life.
African-American comedians have embarked on doing comedy about their culture with a sense of humor. Then the audience realizes that the stereotype is difficult to perpetuate for the potency of the prejudice declines. Talking about what mainstream society thinks and says about one’s culture will not necessarily harm anyone, but it will destabilize people’s power and force them to rethink their stance.
For example, contemporary comedy reminds people of the interweaving racial and political conditions during the times of civil rights movements coupled with what today’s minority groups continue to face (Comer 32). Civil rights commentators such as Malcolm X and Luther King both fought hard to attain equality for African-Americans, which set the grounds for the contemporary comics who use jokes to pass similar messages. After the assassination of King in 1968, the nonviolence moral principles were immediately replaced by looting. The consequences required alternative ways to respond.
The 1992 Los Angelis riots were a demonstration of anger experienced by African- Americans concerning the verdicts in the Rodney King’s trial. Although the riots cannot be justified, the violence was an unavoidable consequence of the persisting racism, police brutality towards minorities, and the vagaries of poverty amidst the minorities (Boskin 161). From this perspective, it becomes hard to condone lawless vandals as a means of rectifying the system.
African-American comedy sought to convey the message that everyone, regardless of race or any other disparity, deserved equal opportunities. Even when African-Americans were restrained by flawed interpretation of the law and resistance, which led to the loss of lives by black radicals, comedy emerged to rekindle hope for the highly discriminated individuals. Even when the media intentionally victimized African-Americans for atrocities committed by the whites, black comics did not relent in their fight to alleviate social ills against the minority groups.
Humor in the fictions of slavery
Slavery is one example of how African-Americans were exploited and discriminated from the mainstream American culture. In his book, Rock This, the African-American comedian, Chris Rock, presents a stereotype of a minority who gives in to the mainstream culture in a bid to cope (Boskin 149). Rock gives examples demonstrating how slavery created grounds and a substantial source of African-American humor.
The examples provided in this book treat humor seriously by appealing to slavery-centered stereotypes reminding people of the past events and linking them with the present in a way that changes suffering into jokes and insight. As Boskin shows, Joel Chandler Harris and Al Jolson greatly utilized black history and present expressions to generate humor (146). They made fun of the experiences of an elderly slave working on a plantation in North Carolina.
The laughter of resistance, enhanced not only ego strength among the African-Americans, but also it served to disarm the misfortunes of the victims. Most white supremacists acknowledge what Chris Rock joked about the black people by admitting that it underlines the truth. Apparently, even white supremacists have started appreciating the opinion of an African-American comedian. Doing jokes about racial stereotypes should only be based on facts. This aspect gives the audience the element of humor when it clicks true to their experiences.
As rising social concerns cause new scenes and stereotypes in the US, African-Americans have continued to show resilience in the way they address such issues. They have used stand-up comedy as a platform to counter assumptions and treat prejudice lightly. For example, the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States created rift between the Muslim society and other individuals. In response to the anti-Islam atmosphere, Muslim American comics are touring the US in a bid to change the mentality of the mainstream society that Muslims are terrorists. In the same perspective, African-Americans abandoned savage behavior of resistance and opted for comedy to drive home their grievances (Munby 40).
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The role of the mainstream media
In the past, media platforms inclined to representing what protected white supremacy. Media had the tendency to depict the conflicts as being instigated by the blacks against the whites. Unfortunately, media platforms would treat white suspects as better individuals than black victims. Often, African-Americans were discriminated by the mainstream media, which meant continued subjugation of African Americans.
The media did not focus on communicating the cries of misery, poverty, and hopelessness of individuals living in the slums. Going back to the 1980s, the famous Cosby Show gave an insight of the President Reagan’s attack on liberal calls. Regan’s administration turned focus away from the minority concerns and concentrated on reforms that embraced the desires of the rich (Jarrett 87). It also presented viewers with a new African-American condition.
Despite the notion represented by Reagan about African-Americans being lazy, blacks did not choose to retaliate violently. The rising African-American market attracted mainstream media with shows such as The Cosby Show. This show illuminated social injustices of the time in a way that brought laughter, but relayed the message that addressed the persisting situation. The success of the Cosby Show indicated that times had changed and African-Americans had been liberated. The appeals through comedy demonstrated to the public a new image of African-Americans who were distinct from their earlier stereotyped version of being lazy and deviant.
Despite the election of the first African-American president in 2008, African-Americans remain the targets of hate crimes. Although anti-black violence has greatly decreased in the recent years, it persists in some areas, thus creating a negative impact on the minority society. However, the most important factor is that African-Americans have now liberated themselves from the past and they no longer respond with violence. The media has become less inclined to the interest of the majority and the African-Americans utilize this opportunity to change stereotypes associated with them as a minority group. As a result, African-American humor is developing to address different themes regularly in a bid to reinstate dignity and diversity in the mainstream society.
Boskin, Joseph. The Humor Prism in 20th-Century America, Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1997. Print.
Comer, Krista. “Imagining the African American West; Wrangling Women: Humor and Gender in the American West.” American Literature 82.1 (2010): 202-204. Print.
Jarrett, Gene. A Companion to African American Literature, Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Print.
Munby, Jonathan. Under a Bad Sign: Criminal Self-Representation in African American Popular Culture, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. Print.
Williams, Dana. African American Humor, Irony, and Satire, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007. Print.