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Review of Mel Watkins’ “On The Real Side”

The Chicago Tribune, March 6, 1994

On the Real Side ook coverOn the Real Side
The Underground Tradition of African-American Humor
that Transformed American Culture From Slavery to Richard Pryor
By Mel Watkins, Simon & Schuster

One would have to be deaf not to appreciate the enormous contributions African-Americans have made to contemporary music, whether through jazz, R&B, soul or, most recently, rap. From Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby through Elvis Presley and the Beatles, virtually all of popular music has been defined by black culture.

It has similarly been argued-first by Ralph Ellison and more recently by Toni Morrison-that African-Americans have been one of the most important influences on American literature, a presence that has touched the fiction of Mark Twain, Faulkner, Melville, Hemingway and many other writers.

As one generation after another of American artists defined their hybrid American identities, they have, consciously or not, drawn on the experiences of America’s quintessential hybrid group-African-Americans. And in recent years, we have witnessed a virtual deluge of corrective studies that confront our society’s reluctance to acknowledge the profound role of African-Americans in shaping mainstream culture.

“On the Real Side,” Mel Watkins’ fascinating and exhaustive history of African-American humor, ranges widely as it looks at American comedy through the lens of the African-American sensibility, documenting the delicate interplay between private forms of black humor and their public articulation. Rather than simply isolating and mining the rich vein of African-American humor, Watkins, a former editor with the New York Times Book Review and Black Review, chooses the much more ambitious project of tracing black humor’s complex meanderings through American culture-at-large and explaining how it was shaped by broader social and political trends.

A book that in less able hands might have been little more than a collection of colorful anecdotes, “On the Real Side” is at once a serious social history and an enormously entertaining reading experience.

Watkins argues that African-American humor has two distinct strains: the one we see in mainstream media (often appropriated, and usually distorted, by whites) and the authentic inside humor of black communities that has moved from slave shanties and street corners to cabarets and TV screens. “On the Real Side” is a detailed account of how these twin strands intermingle in minstrelsy, vaudeville, movies, radio and television. Then, as Watkins sees it, the strands fuse in the groundbreaking humor of Richard Pryor. Finally, after 200 years in hiding, the caustic, ironic take on the real lives of African-Americans was allowed to become public.

This ambitious historical narrative is grounded in equally impressive metaphysical musings on the study of laughter and humor. Drawing on, among others, Aristotle, Hobbes, Freud and W.E.B. Du Bois, Watkins explains how the covert communications used by slaves in order to survive in a white-dominated world gave birth to a distinctively black form of humor. A slave aphorism sums up this strategy: “Got one mind for the white folk to see/ ‘Nother for what I know is me.”

Based on the stereotypes created during slavery, minstrelsy was the first public expression of black humor as well as the first (but hardly the last) case in which a black form was appropriated and exploited by mainstream culture-for most minstrel performers were white actors in black face makeup. Minstrelsy waned after the Civil War, but its images continued to be used in black vaudeville, which, although performed by black actors, presented a caricature of African-Americans virtually identical to the one used by white minstrels.

Watkins argues that, despite those negative portrayals, black vaudeville actors served their race simply by being America’s first professional black musical and comic artists. But now that black actors were performing for black audiences, the dynamic of the humor changed as performers began developing a more subtle black style. Allowing for greater individual expression, this style was different from the one used by vaudeville’s white minstrels and blackface imitators, who still drew on antic, wildly exaggerated caricatures in their portrayals of blacks.
“Moreover,” Watkins notes, “blacks who attended minstrel shows apparently laughed as much or even more heartily at the performers’ antics than did whites. This reaction did and, in fact, still does confound some observers. . . . Most likely (the black members of the audience), like the crowd of people with whom I gathered in the privacy of a neighbor’s house to watch eagerly the adventures of Amos, Sapphire, and Kingfish in the late 1950s . . . took the performance at face value. They did not view it with one eye focused on white opinion.”

Nearly all the advances made on stage in the 19th Century were eradicated on the screen in the early 20th Century because of Hollywood’s insistence that blacks be restricted to servants’ roles. As a result, domestic jobs in Hollywood became coveted because servants were often allowed to play themselves on the screen; from 1915-1920, half the black roles reviewed in Variety were maids and butlers. It was Hattie McDaniel, Watkins notes, who “set the standard for the mammy caricature . . . by virtue of her charisma, massive stature, and even more massive talent as a comic actress . . . (adding) a patina of belligerence and surliness (to the caricature) that, in real life, was usually carefully concealed.”

Blacks were largely limited to retrograde stereotypes in Hollywood because they lacked the power within the industry to develop their own screen images and because whites believed they had no history other than slavery and minstrel portraits. As Stepin Fetchit once said, “Hollywood is more segregated than Georgia under the skin.”

One of the most interesting stories told in “On the Real Side” is that of Stepin Fetchit, the first black actor in a non-musical role to turn his own stage routine into a lucrative movie career.
“Fetchit diligently masked the ambition, demanding nature, and behind-the-scenes aggression that fired his climb to stardom,” Watkins writes. “Consenting to the studio’s strategy of convincing mainstream audiences that he really was a malingering darky, he selectively nurtured the stereotype in personal appearances (and) insisted that reporters amend his remarks so that they reflected the meandering, broken speech that had become his screen signature.”

Fetchit eventually became synonymous with the most degrading black stereotypes and was shunned by many black entertainers, leaving him a bitter, broken man when he died in the early 1970s. And because he was such a prominent performer, his “selection as the most reprehensible symbol (of racial stereotyping) was not gratuitous,” Watkins writes.

“(But) the denigrative aspects of his performances accrued more from context than from content. Fetchit’s stage darky . . . seldom overtly revealed the ironic thrust or underlying impetus for the character’s laggardness, (but) among black audiences in all-black settings, the running inside gag was instantly recognized. . . .”

Watkins concludes that ultimately Fetchit’s demeaning behavior was not in vain because “by his mere presence he did open doors for future (black) performers”-an argument the author uses a number of times to justify the collaboration of black actors in creating retrograde roles. One wonders, though, whether the success of figures like Fetchit may have done more harm than good by confirming society’s racist convictions in such a powerful medium-a possibility that Watkins doesn’t consider.

“On the Real Side” concludes with an excellent survey of recent standup comedy and shows how the efforts of Dick Gregory, Redd Foxx, Flip Wilson and Bill Cosby culminated in the uninhibited humor of Richard Pryor. Pryor is important for Watkins because he tore down the boundaries between private and public black humor, not only “challenging traditional show business assumptions about the viability of ungentrified black material and an unmoderated black voice, but also breaking with blacks’ long-standing tradition of subterfuge and concealment of inner-community customs.”

Drawing freely on the full range of black comic forms, Pryor is for Watkins an authentic embodiment of the African-American comic spirit, an American hybrid who brings the two strains of black humor together into a powerful vision of society.
“African-American humor,” Watkins concludes, “can be seen as a shadowy comic vision that satirizes and humanizes America’s main body . . . creating grotesque apparitions or comic shades that reflect the perfidy and concealed desires of the mainstream. Sometimes, as at high noon, it may coincide perfectly with the main body. . . . But usually it veers to this side or the other . . . ridiculing (the mainstream’s) . . . rigid and often absurd sense of decorum and propriety. The black humorist’s oblique light is not aimed at mainstream America alone, however . . . . As Langston Hughes suggested, humor boomerangs; things are often funny because we don’t know we’re laughing at ourselves.”