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Why negro humor tends to be so black

There is nothing like Negro humor. It is loud, profane, juicy, wondrous, scabrous, willful, tricky and sometimes delivered in coded language. It is steeped, as well, in American history, in blackface and Jim Crow laws and segregation. And also in the stuttering integration we all still participate in. And it is funny as hell.

Let us now, at long last, praise all those Negro humorists from years gone by. Some still with us, but so many gone. Moms Mabley and Pigmeat Markham and Redd Foxx and Flip Wilson and Bert Williams and Amos 'n' Andy, gone. Stepin Fetchit, gone. Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor and Chris Rock and Steve Harvey and Eddie Murphy and Bill Cosby are very much still with us, though Gregory and Pryor are ailing and far removed from the comic stage. Altogether, through the years, they've held on.

The Negro comics' trajectory has gone from minstrel shows to outdoor tents, from honky-tonks to Greenwich Village salons, from amphitheaters to the big screen. Laughter washing over them like brittle sunshine. Sometimes the laughter is of a confused sort, owing to misinterpretation, the joke merged with history and the ears of whites placed at awkward angles.

"I was a nigger for 23 years," the great Richard Pryor once explained. "I gave it up _ no room for advancement."

So much social pain endured. But that didn't stop the curtain from opening. Hell, it opened wider. And there they stood, mike in hand, a ton of history on their backs, free to strangle it or uphold it or reinterpret it. History written by the jokesters. Just trying to get a laugh. Just holding on to freedom's ticket.

The Negro humorists began their huge rise after the death of vaudeville, on the chitlin circuit. To a comic, the chitlin circuit meant the South, out-of-the-way theaters, low paychecks, funky hotel rooms, hot plates and checks that might bounce.

They were spawned by the society in which they worked and sweated. They were Negroes, and they were America, too. But the Negro comic always had to be careful. How to find jokes and _ in a land where pain was everywhere, or most everywhere _ share them with civility? If Nat King Cole could be dragged off a stage by white thugs in Alabama, worse could befall a Negro comic with a chip on the shoulder. The sly challenge was to hold a mirror up to America. Because there sat, either in the audience or on the other side of TV screen, white America. Welcome to Negro life, at a safe remove.

There is nothing like Negro humor. It is loud, profane, juicy, wondrous, scabrous, willful, tricky and sometimes delivered in coded language. It is steeped, as well, in American history, in blackface and Jim Crow laws and segregation. And also in the stuttering integration we all still participate in. And it is funny as hell.

Comedy is hard. And when it is awash in racial battling, it is even harder. Imagine looking in the mirror and watching the mirror crack and trying to put it back together for a laugh.

"Take a nigger to bed with you tonight," Dick Gregory had once said to the whites attending a civil rights rally in the state of Mississippi. He held aloft a copy of his autobiography, titled "nigger." It drew laughter, gales of it. So it was, all at once, publicity and a sexual joke and a nod to the pangs of history.

At the height of civil rights unrest in Mississippi 38 years ago, President John Kennedy went on national TV. He looked somber and spoke somberly, holding a piece of paper in his hands, reading from it. He talked of Negro rights and the long arc of history that was now circling the country regarding the Negro. James Meredith, an eccentric black man, had entered the all-white University of Mississippi. His enrollment set off riots and killings. Kennedy looked out into the TV audience (needless to say, he assumed it was all white) and asked who among them were willing to "change places with the Negro." Negroes might have gotten a sure laugh out of that one, rushing to their tenement windows, looking for whites who might be yelling, "Me! I will change places with the Negro!"

Now fast-forward to years later, and listen to comic Chris Rock doing stand-up, looking out over his audience, into all those white faces, and saying, "Ain't no white man here willing to trade places with me." Long pause. "And I'm rich!" From Jack Kennedy to Chris Rock. Who'll trade places with the Negro? The black funny bone is razor sharp.

Negro humor continues to perplex segments of America (translation: white America). You can see it, almost feel it, in the white audience reaction to The Original Kings of Comedy, a film directed by Spike Lee. The movie stars four stand-up comics: Bernie Mac, D.L. Hughley, Steve Harvey and Cedric the Entertainer. It was shot in a cavernous auditorium in Charlotte, N.C., one of those Southern cities that used to be a stop on the chitlin circuit.

Lee lets his comics talk about anything they want to: sex, marriage, whites, blacks, hip-hop. The movie serves as a kind of explainer, actually _ blacks explaining, sometimes in inside-joke fashion, our dilemma of existing tranquilly in society and hoping whites get it. It is a kind of history lesson of the American Negro laugh track. The whites in the audience stand out. They are the integrators; for once, it is not the other way around. There is a nervous sweetness when the camera pans the audience, settling, momentarily, upon whites seated next to blacks.

One need only take apart the subjects that Lee's comics cover to find serious interludes, riffs on history and historical perspective, dollops of pain. The mixing of comedy and race can indeed be tricky terrain. If there is, as many sociologists contend, a little truth in every stereotype, how far does the black comic go in bull's-eyeing the stereotype? How massive can a backfire become? Consider The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, a television series that premiered on UPN in 1998, described as a "Lincoln-era comedy." The show was about an imaginary black Englishman who served as a smart-alecky servant to President Abraham Lincoln. The black actor who played Desmond Pfeiffer, right along with the show itself, was howled off the air. The NAACP was at the forefront of the protests.

There are some blacks, tending toward upper-crust society, who feel that the rumblings in the Negro closet of humor, when taken to the edge, would best be forced back inside that closet. For years Bill Cosby _ whose comedy is decidedly more congenial and less feisty than many of the younger comics' _ has expressed displeasure at the scintillating brand of humor propelled by the likes of Eddie Murphy and Bernie Mac. Cosby is your father's best comic; Bernie Mac, maybe secretly, is yours.

If Mac might remind some of the stereotype _ his outlandishness, his vulgarity _ the stereotype cuts two ways. It swings history at us, hoping we're sophisticated enough to understand that Mac understands. Some blacks hoard artifacts from the Jim Crow era, the Colored Only signs, the posters of the mammy musicals. Other blacks sometimes don't understand such a hobby. It could be sophistication taken to a new and bold level. Shattered images don't have to be forgotten.

Lee delves into race and history, and the degrees of separation among blacks on the issue of race. Along with The Original Kings of Comedy, Lee recently made another movie on race and comedy. Bamboozled is about blackface, that tortured period of entertainment that saw whites blacking their faces to present their stereotyped images of black folk.

One of the intriguing sidelights to Bamboozled was the New York Times' refusal to publish one of Lee's ads for the movie. Reportedly, it portrayed a man in blackface eating watermelon. For many blacks, there is nothing like the watermelon joke to rush the adrenaline. Cartoonists in the 1930s often depicted some grand activity _ a parade, a march _ and in the background had Negroes sitting on fence posts, chompin' on watermelon. I remember vividly my grandmother in Columbus, Ohio, refusing to let her grandchildren eat watermelon on the front porch. 'Less neighbors see us. 'Less the world think we had no couth.

The Original Kings of Comedy performed well at the box office, but Bamboozled bombed. Whites did not wish to see the film, but neither did blacks. In a different time, blackface got laughs. And Lee updates the story in Bamboozled: The movie is about a blackface act done by blacks that becomes strangely popular. But blackface presents a uniquely painful portrait of America. Even Lee's sophisticated reworking _ blacks in blackface _ draws too much blood. It anguishes too many hearts. It might take years more before we understand the damaging psyche of cinematic blackface.

Better financial fortune befell Robert Redford's film The Legend of Bagger Vance, a movie about a white golfer, played by Matt Damon, who has lost his swing and has it revived by Bagger Vance, a mystical Negro played by Will Smith. It is set some time in the 1930s, when there were no blacks in professional golf tournaments in the South. So it is fable and myth. It is also a silly movie that runs in the opposite direction of hard racial truths. The Negro character, seemingly ripped from an earlier time in American film history, appears to exist only for the betterment and soul-enrichment of white folks. As the Washington Post's film critic mused about Vance and the character portrayed by Smith: "Isn't it time to put Stepin Fetchit to rest?"

Negro comedy is hard. But it can also be redemptive when it is shared. Let loose, it flies like birds, as Lee's quartet of comics shows. So often Negro life, lived in the trenches, provides just enough comic relief to keep us going, smiling.

In 1936, a young Negro minister by the name of Adam Clayton Powell _ so fair-skinned he could have passed as white _ was hustling toward a first-class train compartment in Atlanta. A porter who had looked over his shoulder out of curiosity wondered if the man he had just seen stepping into the train was a Negro. Maybe. Maybe not. But damn if he wasn't going to check it out, go fetch a superior.

Upon entering the first-class compartment, the superior looked around and yelled out: "Hey, we believe there might be a nigger in here!" Before eyes could rest upon him, Powell hopped up. "Where! You better find him and get him the hell out of here! What kind of train are you running?" Then the young minister sat down, like a king, like a rich white man. And the train pulled out. Powell must have been laughing uproariously on the inside. Couldn't laugh on the outside, though. Negro life was too risky to do that.

Negro laughter, then, is hard-earned, has been for so very long, and the kings and queens of comedy knew it.

How do women deal with the male-dominated world of Negro comedy? Black women for years shied from the women's movement, contending they were wrapped up in the movement of the black race as a whole. Their men needed them. Many of the male comics' observations are directed at them, at their expense _ rollicking lines about divorce proceedings and sex in the bedroom.

The humor does lie somewhere between sexist and raw. It's not meant to be feminist or anti-feminist; it is meant to be funny. And sometimes it is just plain contagious. Many of the heartiest laughs in Kings during the bawdy sex jokes come from women. As if they are saying: Together, we shall laugh at ourselves. Or, as James Baldwin once said about a particular thorny truism: "It be's that way sometimes."

Moms Mabley knew how to deal with male egos. "There ain't nothing an old man can do for me," she once said, "but bring me a message from a young one."

Moms walked on stage one night, looked around. "Hi, children. How y'all doin' tonight?" she asked the audience. She stood staring. It was as if she was sucking in all the years, all the woes of Negro life, all the travails that had come and were yet to come. All the jokes born from pain, all the pain that led to laughter. She seemed to answer her own question: "Yeah, I know! I know how y'all feel. Moms is tired, too."

Long live Moms.

The American Prospect

Wil Haygood is a writer for The Boston Globe.