In celebration of Black History month, the Black Student Alliance has been keeping Saint Louis University busy this February with an event calendar full of lectures, food, music and art. Humor was added into this agenda on Tuesday evening, as African American Studies professor Jonathan Smith gave a talk on black comedy.
“If you feel like you might be offended by language, now would be the time to get over it,” said Smith at the start of his lecture. The remark was met with light-hearted laughs, and with that Smith began his unveiling of what makes up true black humor.
First and foremost, Smith pointed out that black comedy isn’t what is typically found in actor Kevin Hart’s jokes or director Tyler Perry’s films. It needs to follow certain rules – or else it fails to be black humor and is merely a form of comedy. Political relevance serves as one of its most important defining characteristics.
“Black language and black speech has been so restricted; it has to be political,” stated Smith. He discussed the progression of black humor as having started out during slavery as a way to cope with the daily terrors slaves would experience. This tied into Smith’s black comedy characteristic that it needs to be “difficult to fathom as humor.”
Additional outlined characteristics of black humor included its requirement to be uncomfortable, topical, ironic and black. Smith showed that black humor oftentimes uses these things as a way of saying something without actually saying it. He then showed several comedy videos exemplifying black humor. After viewing the clips, he challenged the audience to consider what it was that made them laugh, addressing epithets and the use of the N-word in the videos.
“There are only certain contexts in which certain people can say certain things,” Smith stated. “It’s all about the ability of people to name themselves.”
Commenting on effective humor requiring appropriate situations, words and people, Smith said that the use of the N-word by a white person is not the same as its use by a black person. He also regarded common stereotypes imposed upon black people, such as the idea of poor parenting.
“There’s this large pitcher of cultural Kool-Aid that makes us think [black] parents are just missing in action,” said Smith.
BSA Communications Chairperson Lauren Bronner commented on finding the whole experience insightful and entertaining.
“I hope that students were able to grasp the concept that comedy and humor can be shared amongst us all if we take the time to understand and embrace each other’s cultural backgrounds,” said Bronner. BSA will be hosting a variety of events celebrating Black History month throughout the remainder of February.
“[We] want everyone to remember that this is a time to educate yourselves and others about the contributions that black people have given to the world we live in.”