Mark Twain Journal, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Spring, 1998), p. 8
*The article originally appeared in the Mark Twain Quarterly (former title of the Mark Twain Journal), in the issue for Fall-Winter 1942-1943 (5.3:12).*
There is a feeling among most Americans that the Negro is quite naturally and incurably humorous. One has only to see Africa to be cured of this. There is nothing more dignified nor serious than the African in his natural tribal relations. I shall never forget the sight of a Mandingran Mohammedan striding along in his beautiful white cloak and embroidered boots, tall, black, and with perfect dignity; or the way in which a Black West African went to his knees at sunset and bowed toward Mecca. Further down the coast the chiefs of the villages I visited, the porters, the children had nothing of what we associate with Negro humor.
On the other hand in the United States and the West Indies, the Negroes are humorous; they are filled with laughter and delicious chuckling. They enjoy themselves; they enjoy jokes; they perpetrate them on each other and on white folk. In part that is a defense mechanism; reaction from tragedy; oppositions set out in the face of the hurt and insult. In part it supplies those inner pleasures and gratifications which are denied in broad outline to a casteridden and restricted people. Of course this is not universally so. There is an undercurrent of resentment, of anger and vengeance which lies not far beneath the surface and which sometimes exhibits itself at the most unwanted times and under unawaited circumstances.
In general it would be impossible to classify, without such careful study as he has not been possible in my case, the kinds of humor, the variety of jokes which characterize the American Negro. I imagine that in large they would fall in the same general categories with those of people the world over. Certain sorts of humor have been exaggerated and emphasized among Negroes; for instance, the dry mockery of the pretensions of white folk. I remember when a celebrated Texas politician was shouting a fervent oration, two undistinguished Negroes listened to him from a distance: “Who is dat man?” said one. The other looked on, without smiling: “I dunno, but he sutin’ly do recommen’ hisself mos’ high.” Many is the time when a truculent white man has been wholly disarmed before the apparently innocent and really sophisticated joke of the Negro, whom he meant to berate.
Then among themselves Negroes have developed a variety of their own humor. The use of the word “nigger,” which no white man must use, is coupled with innuendo and suggestion which brings irresistible gales of laughter. They imitate the striver, the nouveau riche, the partially educated man of large words and the entirely untrained. Williams and Walker in their celebrated team work brought this to a high and delicious point of efficiency. Probably the new anthropology will have something to tell us of Negro humor in the future, which will be illuminating and instructive. As it is, one can only say, that to the oppressed and unfortunate, to those who suffer, God mercifully grants the divine gift of laughter. These folks are not all black or all white, but with inborn humor, men of all colors and races face the tragedy of life and make it endurable.