Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Given that I was a professional editorial and panel cartoonist for seven years (1965-72), starting when I was 17-years-old, it shouldn't surprise readers that my fiction exhibits irony, humor and irreverence. Bear in mind, too, that I grew up in Illinois. Not in Peoria, where Richard Pryor was born and raised, but close to there. When I was in college, my black male friends from Springfield all had an unbridled sense of humor flavored like Pryor's (maybe there was something in Illinois water that produced that), the comic genius whose style can be seen in black comedians from Eddie Murphy to Chris Rock.
Nevertheless, I've occasionally heard from some readers (white and black) that the humor in my work either surprised or troubled them, especially in stories and cartoons set during the period of slavery like Oxherding Tale and Middle Passage. (Slavery isn't depicted as funny in those novels, but some of their characters are funny, as flawed human beings.) I imagine these dour, humorless, and dull people feel black life and literature should be filled only with tears, wailing, and the gnashing of teeth. (If so, that tells us a lot about them, their limited vision of black America, and you can bet I'd never want to take a cross-country drive in a Volkswagen Beetle with any of them.) Traditionally, humor is a survival mechanism. Look at the "John and Old Master" trickster tales from black folklore (where slaves often outwit their owner); or the work of that grandmaster of black American cartoonists Ollie Harrington; or the witty, racially insightful observations of Langston Hughes's Jesse B. Semple. Even in the Nazi concentration camps, Jewish survivors of the holocaust refused to let their oppressors take away that last vestige of their humanity, which could be seen in their humor (Does anyone today remember the work of Italian film-maker Lina Wertmuller, films such as Seven Beauties?)
Humor takes many forms: comedy, irony, wit, satire, the incongruous, the absurd, and it can be psychologically and spiritually liberating in, for example, Japanese Zen stories. It is as much a part of life's texture as the tragic, so here is my advice:
Beware the tight-sphinctered man or woman who cannot laugh at life's absurdities.


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