by Dr. Jason Johnson
You can find a way to laugh at anything — even slavery. At least that seems to be the case for Azie Mara Dungey, creator of the new Ask a Slave comedy series on YouTube.
Dungey worked for years as a “slave,” playing the character as a reenactor at a historic locale speaking to hundreds of tourists a day, fielding idiotic and occasionally racist questions, not just about slavery, but also black people in general today.
“To me this isn’t really about the people and the questions,” Dungey said to the program Here & Now. “We elevate history to an extreme extent and every Fourth of July everybody is proud of what it means to be an American. But we don’t take the time to understand what, and especially not to understand the story of what was considered a less valuable history — which is African-American history.”
She’s compiled those experiences into comedy segments on YouTube in which she plays Lizzie Mae, a slave at George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation, who answers questions in a subservient voice, but with a sarcasm that mirrors the best of subversive African-American comics.
An argument for “slavery humor”
Black folks have always had a strange, comedic relationship with slavery. Ask a Slave reminds us of just how far we have come in comedy with this trope, and just how much further we still have to go as a society based on reactions to it.
You see, the value of slavery humor is not to compensate for pains rendered by the “peculiar institution.” We know that institution has been long buried for over 150 years. By drawing upon the past, slavery humor helps us to critique the racist and bigoted mindsets that made slavery possible then, and that still exist today in less blatant forms.
The ignorant questions asked of Lizzie Mae in Ask a Slave show that backwards thinking is alive and well in America.
Black comics use slavery for material
In her book Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery, Harvard professor Glenda R. Carpio explores this idea by reviewing the long history of slavery as a source for black comics looking for a joke and wanting to make a social point.
According to Carpio, consciously or not, many African-American comedians have a sense that, “black art must have a utilitarian function, one of celebrating the African Roots of African American identity and culture and more generally of distinguishing these from European American concepts of self and art.”
In other words, if I can be funny, and use that to speak truth to power and point out the conditions that black folks live in today, all the better.
Slavery-themed humor helps these comical social critics do just that.
Take the first question Lizzie Mae takes from a caller on her Ask a Slave show:
Caller: How did you get to be a house slave for such a distinguished founding father. Did you read the advertisement in the newspaper?
Lizzie Mae: Did a read the advertisement in the paper? Why yes, it said, “Wanted: One house maid. No pay. Preferable mulatto, Saucy with breedin’ hips. Must work 18 hours a day, seven days a week, no holidays. But you get to wear a pretty dress and, if you’re lucky, you just might get to carry some famous white man’s bastard child. So you better believe that I read that , and said sign me right up!
Sarcasm masked by deference with a cold hard history lesson rolled into one. But this isn’t new. Slave comedy has seen a resurgence in the last 20 years or so as African-American comedians have become bolder and gained more control over outlets to express their views.
Consider the 1991 In Living Color sketch, Timbuk the Last Runaway Slave. Timbuk (played by Damon Wayans) suddenly finds himself in modern times and he quickly realizes that while the clothes are nicer and the hunting dogs aren’t as big, things haven’t changed that much for the black man in America in 150 years.
Slavery is also the backdrop to critique modern culture in the Chappelle’s Show, Roots Out-Takes sketch from 2003. Chappelle illuminates in these routines how the commodification of black culture has gone so over the top that even the once sacrosanct Roots mini-series can be re-packaged as a bloopers DVD in a late night infomercial.
Or more recently Key and Peele’s Auction Block sketch in 2012 on Comedy Central. The two leads play slaves on an auction block — but hilarity ensues when the black man’s desire to show that he can “stand up to the man” comes into conflict with everybody’s need to be chosen, even if the work ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Flawed slave humor narratives
Mind you, not all slave humor works as well as it does in Ask a Slave, on In Living Color, or on Chappelle’s Show.
Slavery was dehumanizing, rife with sexual violence and brutality, and steeped in white supremacy. If attempts at slavery-based laughs ignore the brutality of slavery, or worse regurgitates it without criticism, the joke falls flat and people get pissed off.
That’s why The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer crashed and burned so hard in 1998. The UPN show starred Chi McBride as a displaced black nobleman serving as a house slave for Lincoln during the Civil War.
Diaries was a lame attempt at merging Benson and the U.K.’s Black Adder, and it failed because slavery as an experience was either watered down or merely used for jokes, not as a backdrop for criticism or subversion.
“Slave humor” requires engaging and attacking the subject matter and its modern vestiges, not making light of it or playing with its tropes. That’s why the offensive Harriet Tubman Sex Tape from Russell Simmons sent people through the roof.
Vestiges of oppression explored through slavery
Yet, Harriet Tubman: The Sexiest Abolitionist by Second City Comedy group executed the exact same joke of playing on Tubman’s alleged sexual wiles used to manipulate a white slave master. It was extremely funny, and nobody complained.
It’s not a coincidence that Lizzie Mae’s first answers deal directly with the sexual abuse and work hours of slaves. Azie Mara Dungey did not avoid the real issues of slavery when she created this character. There’s no such thing as “too soon” when making jokes about the systematic sexual assault of an entire race of people.
Slavery-themed humor, and any humor that explores the denial of human indignity, will always have a role in African-American culture as long as vestiges of physical, mental and financial oppression exist.
Ask a Slave is just the most recent successful attempt to tap into the violence of slavery from 150 years ago to highlight the challenges blacks face today