This passage suggests something of the nature of Black humor and the function it has served, not only in the slave narratives, but in the folk tales and throughout the history of recorded literature from William Wells Brown to Amiri Baraka. The life revealed in all of these sources is shown to often be alternately degrading and courageous, tragic and absurdly comic, hopeless and yet enduring; indeed that life could hardly ever be termed merely amusing. And the Black character, though he may be seen to laugh, can hardly be deemed carefree, unbothered, satisfied, even truly happy. Indeed the paradox of Negro humor is that in the background there is always the grim and harsh reality of Black life in America, but like Little the Black man has been able to laugh as he probes his bleeding wound - to laugh instead of succumb to utter despair and defeat. Thus his humor has been compensatory. His anguish has left him no alternative but to laugh or cry, and as is illustrated in the blues line, "I've got the blues, but I'm too damn mean to cry," the slave often refused the tears that would indicate surrender, and chose rather to secure some relief and thus some victory in laughter.
Copyright © 1997, Educational and Community Consultants Associates. This article first appeared in Journal of Afro-American Issues: 5:2 (1997), 125-134.
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Dance, Daryl Cumber. "Wit and Humor in the Slave Narratives." Journal of Afro-American Issues 5, no. 2 (Spring 1977): 125-34.