Featured Philosopher: Luvell Anderson

Very excited that Soup’s next Featured Philosopher is Luvell Anderson. Take it away Luvell!

Many thanks to Davefor inviting me to contribute to this wonderful site!

I am working on a couple of book projects at the moment. One is about the roles race, class, and power play in our interpretive practices and the limits this intersection poses on understanding. The second focuses on the aesthetics of African American humor and its use as an instrument of social critique. What I thought I would do is adumbrate some ideas from the second project.

What constitutes African American humor? Plenty of scholars have written on the “special place” of laughter in the African American experience, including folks like James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Claude McKay, the Jamaican-born writer and poet and key figure of the Harlem Renaissance, writes in Home to Harlem:

“He remembered once the melancholy-comic notes of a “Blues” rising out of a Harlem basement before dawn…melancholy-comic. That was the key to himself and to his race…No wonder the whites, after five centuries of contact, could not understand his race…No wonder they hated them, when out of their melancholy environment the blacks could create mad, contagious music and high laughter.”[1]

What McKay expresses in this passage is something of the centrality for which humor and music play in the lives of African Americans; so much so that it presumably confounds white people after so long a contact with them, especially given the circumstances of their respective social conditions.

The perception of humor playing such a hefty role in African American psychic life might lead us to think there is such a thing as a distinctive form of African American humor. Part of the project’s aim is to present a plausible account of a unified tradition. This is not where I want to focus my attention here, however. Instead, I want to think through an interesting claim by novelist Paul Beatty. First, a quick setup.

When Dave Chappelle left his wildly popular and successful television show The Chappelle Show back in 2005 he said that he did so, in part, because of what he perceived as inappropriate laughter from white audience members. A story written for Slate recounts the event in the following way:

While Chappelle acted out a sketch that featured him as a pixie in blackface, he heard a white crew member laughing a little too hard. This was, apparently, the galvanizing moment that caused Chappelle to reassess the intent of his comedy, and the kind of laughs he was giving his audience. As he told Time, “I want to make sure I’m dancing and not shuffling.[2]

Chappelle notices that something is off with the audience member’s laugh. Presumably, the way he was laughing and, perhaps, what he chose to laugh at, signaled the presence of a separation between that crew member and Dave, a separation indicating that something’s gone askew.

An initial question Chappelle’s recounting raises is about the appropriateness of laughter. What is it for one’s laughter to be inappropriate? There are other questions lurking as well, one of which emerges from a claim made by Paul Beatty. Beatty, in the introduction to Hokum: An Anthology of African American Humor, writes:

No matter how heartfelt, white interpretation of Negro humor and Negro existence is often too black. It’s Vanilla Ice slant-rhyme jive black. It’s poor, beleaguered Bill Clinton pleading temporary blackness and bivouacking in Harlem among his people of non-Rwandan ancestry. It’s the in toto blackness of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Check and Double Check, a blackface so pervasive, so complete that even Amos and Andy’s and Topsy’s palms and fingernails are shoe-polished to a grease-monkey pitch.[3]

What does it mean to say that white interpretation of African American humor is often too black? One reading of this suggests that white people, for either reasons of zeal or reticence, are overeager to “Other” black people, in order to maintain a boundary, so as not to see them as too similar, too American.

To the extent that this is right, it provokes the question, “Should white people engage with African American humor?” An answer to this question requires thinking about a few things. First, what is involved in appreciating humor and why think white people incur a bigger burden in trying to appreciate African American humor in particular? Second, what are the possible harms involved in failing to appreciate, or at least sufficiently appreciate African American humor? For white audiences, engaging African American humor (at least of certain types) runs the risk of concretizing baseless fears or providing rationalizations for previously held misconceptions (Chappelle’s worry). At the very least, this presents a prima facie burden for white patrons.

There is also a challenge for black humorists. For the black humorist, presenting material before white audiences runs the risk of fostering further misunderstandings about Black life and black humanity. What responsibility does the black humorist have in presenting distinctively African American humor before white audiences?

These concerns raise a challenge to those who would find humor a useful mechanism for helping to alleviate racial division. How does one perform humor that accentuates difference without giving others a perceived license to cover over our shared humanity?

This is the central challenge for those who think of the language of the arts as the universal language that grants members of disperse linguistic communities hermeneutic access to one another. Being that this is still presented as a linguistic item of sorts, concerns about appropriate interpretation are present and real. Perhaps, instead of putting all of our energy into formulating methods of interpretation, we should be thinking more about creating situations of trust that allow for the kind of openness and patience truly deep communication requires.

 

[1]Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 298.

[2]Willing Davidson and Mark Joseph Stern, “Dave Chappelle’s Problem,” Slate, March 30, 2006, http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2006/03/dave_chappelles_problem.html.

[3]Paul Beatty, Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor, 1st U. S. edition (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2006), 2.

10 Replies to “Featured Philosopher: Luvell Anderson

  1. Fascinating stuff, thanks, Luvell. I too am interested in humor, despite being myself humorless and having humorless friends like Sobel. But at any rate, as I’m sure you know, there are a LOT of complications involved here. I’ll just briefly note one. First, there is a big difference between the staged humor (and associated laughter of audience members) in a performance domain and the laughter that takes places between friends or people who share something distinctive in common. In the former, there are factors like intent, entertainment value, delivery, playing to a certain “common denominator,” and so forth, that collectively determine appropriateness of laughter in the audience. In the latter, there are many other factors it’s hard to put your finger on, but they include affiliative values, membership signs, cleverness-w/r/t-the-standards-of-that-specific-group, and so forth. Here, appropriate laughter is sometimes, at least in part, a function of membership in the in-group. Wannabe-membership laughter feels pushy or forced, somehow “off.”

    In your post, you draw from both domains (performance and affiliative humor), so I wasn’t sure what the relevant appropriateness standards would or could be for proper engagement with African American humor (or how we might determine those standards), given that each domain will have different standards. Perhaps there are no unified standards, or perhaps there is often an unholy mix of domains. (Note that it was a white *crew member* who was laughing in the way Chapelle found off-putting, so it was a strange conglomeration of performance and affiliative domains, perhaps.) At any rate, I’d love to hear more about whether you think there are these distinctive domains of laughter as suggested, such that the “African-Americanness” in each may play different roles, and so that it becomes ever more difficult for whites attempting to negotiate them.

    (As a side but related note, I once showed the very first — and devastatingly hilarious — Chris Rock HBO special to a white couple who were horrified by his “I love black people, but…” bit and so sat there stone-faced, refusing to laugh. This struck and still strikes me as an inappropriate reaction of the opposite sort to the one bothering Chappelle. But again, there are confounding issues here, as there was not only a performer-audience dynamic in play but also an in-person-political-stance-signal dynamic in play.)

  2. Thanks David!
    Great question. It definitely seems like context makes a difference to considerations about the appropriateness of laughter. In interpersonal contexts, humor often has the function of creating or sustaining bonds of solidarity between those involved, so there is a kind of familiarity between interlocutors that is assumed in those situations, one that might relax some norms or pressures around certain topics. In the comedy club or staged context, the interpersonal familiarity is gone, but there are expectations of the audience to laugh promiscuously. In fact, I often get the sense that comedians in those settings almost try to mandate laughter.
    Perhaps in the Chappelle case there’s a question about who humor is for, that gets taken up in considerations of the appropriateness of laughter. That drives his reaction to the crew member’s laugh and subsequent abandoning of the show, since he came to the conclusion that his humor on that show wasn’t for what he perceived as an audience not sophisticated enough to “get” the humor (I believe he mentioned objecting to laughter from audience members too at one point). I could imagine the possibility that determinations about who humor is for are more relevant than context, per se, so that laughing at something becomes an issue about appropriateness when the laughing subject is not the “appropriate” audience for the humor.

  3. Hey Luvell. Thanks for this, it definitely got me thinking. I wonder if you might elaborate on the final claim, “Perhaps, instead of putting all of our energy into formulating methods of interpretation, we should be thinking more about creating situations of trust that allow for the kind of openness and patience truly deep communication requires.”

    In particular, I’m wondering why creating situations of trust isn’t a method of interpretation? It seems to me it is, broadly construed. So do you have a narrower understanding of “methods”? Second, I’m curious about how we spell out “truly deep”? As you know, we have a shared interest in the topic of understanding others, and how power changes or influences this understanding. Would I be right in thinking this is where the second topic of humor loops back to the first?

    Thanks!

  4. Hey Remy. Thanks for your questions!

    I suppose I am thinking of trust as a precursor for genuine conversation. It seems like once trust between interlocutors is established, each is willing to be generous or charitable in their interpretations of the other’s utterances. Without it, people seem apt to be much more suspicious of one another, their motives, beliefs, etc. So I would regard trust as a kind of preparatory condition rather than a way of interpreting others, though it definitely affects how one interprets.

    On the second question, yes, I think you are right. Power relations and the consequences they give rise to has a significant impact on the establishing of trust, or lack thereof, which in turn impacts how we understand various expressive acts. Thus, ‘truly deep’ is contrasted with conversations mediated through a lens of suspicion.

  5. Sorry, Luvell, I can’t resist: Trust takes lots of time to establish. I wonder if “benefit of the doubt” would be good enough in circumstances of mere acquaintances, or perhaps even people you’re meeting for the first time.

  6. Thanks David. It’s true trust takes time to establish, at least, something like deep or significant trust. I suppose a more nuanced discussion of the kind of trust I think needed for genuine understanding would include considerations about degree (i.e. we need not be thinking of total trust), a concentrated trust (i.e. only extend trust to someone for a particular situation and time), and the like.

    I wonder, do you think there is a real difference between ‘trust’ and ‘benefit of the doubt’? To my ear, I can hear a sense of ‘benefit of the doubt’ that basically amounts to trusting someone, perhaps in a very limited degree, for a particular topic or situation, maybe for a limited time, etc. Or do you see something else going on that I’m missing?

  7. I haven’t thought about this a ton, although I’d like to. I think the benefit of the doubt is different than trust. The former is about charitable and sympathetic reading, as applied to people. Its violation is one of the everyday immoralities — or at least dashing of expectations — that forms the backbone of many relationships. But one can also extend the benefit of the doubt to people one doesn’t trust as well.

  8. I’m not positive you two are disagreeing at this point. I hear Luvell saying that “benefit of the doubt” is a mild or weak sort of trust–that the two are on a continuum. Thought of functionally, when you give someone the benefit of the doubt you take their words to increase your credence in what they say. When you fully trust someone (on a topic) you take their words to more strongly increase your credence in that thing. The former sort of reaction, surely, will be more fragile and more easily undone, but again this might be thought of as a matter of degree. Why not think of the two on a continuum like that as Luvell seems to suggest?

  9. I think this way of putting it is how I am thinking of it. I suppose I don’t see any reason to think of benefit of the doubt as being different in kind from trust. If we see the two as on a continuum, then the question becomes about the degree of trust needed for the kind of thing I describe, which is something I haven’t really thought through yet.

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