Morgan Danielle Fuentes. 2020. Laughing to Keep from Dying: African American Satire in the Twenty-First Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 208 pp. ISBN: 9780252085307. E-book ISBN: 9780252052279.
Laughing To Keep from Dying: African American Satire in the Twenty-First Century is a must-read for anyone (like us) who has needed reminding lately why the risks of irony are worth taking. Touring a range of well-known recent performances and texts, Danielle Fuentes Morgan shows how satire, when it works well, unravels white supremacy and opens up the limitless possibilities of Black lives. Anyone interested in thinking critically about comedy, popular culture, literature, Blackness, or whiteness will find much to ponder and enjoy here.
At the heart of Laughing to Keep from Dying is a compelling new theory of post-post-racialism in the United States. Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and, with it, the increasingly public presence of his far-right supporters crushed the neoliberal fantasy that the country had moved on from racism and anti-Blackness. As Morgan points out in the book’s short sharp conclusion, Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock’s sketches on the Saturday Night Live show immediately following Trump’s election took aim not only at Republicans but also, significantly, at the shock of white progressives at their success. However, the book largely focuses on the period leading up to and during Barack Obama’s two-term presidency, the heyday of post-racialism in mainstream American media. Broadly speaking, Morgan seeks to expose and challenge late twentieth and early twenty-first-century post-racial ideology, which like its close cousin color-blindness, ignored or downplayed the systemic and ongoing impact of slavery and segregation. Yet the forthright anti-essentialism of this ideology lingers in Morgan’s notion of “kaleidoscopic Blackness,” a term she coins to encapsulate the great range of ways that Black Americans can and do embrace and express Blackness.
The book’s approach to satire is also original. Satire here is defined as an art of perceiving ironies, whether they were intended or not. Thus, alongside scripts and performances by comics like Wanda Sykes and Donald Glover, Morgan analyzes cultural objects that do not typically register as satire, including a letter written by Frederick Douglass to his former enslaver and the baggy “mom” jeans that Obama wore to throw the opening pitch at the Major League Baseball’s All Stars game in 2009. Whereas white scholars have usually viewed satire from the vantage of either white satirists or white audiences, Morgan’s approach elides the distinction between producers and consumers in order to center Black feelings and experiences across those roles. Though Morgan especially listens for moments when Black laughter bursts open the present into an as-yet-undefined future of racial equity, she is also fascinated by the many other entanglements of satire and race in American culture. Her readings of satirical efforts that reinforce kaleidoscopic Blackness and of those that produce less than empowering or empowered responses are equally thoughtful and precise.
The book’s organization highlights the variety of Black attitudes towards Blackness that have been represented in or received as satire. The first chapter lays the historical and structural foundation for the contemporary case studies in the chapters to follow. The original laughter “to keep from dying” surrounded the distinctive form of oblique rhetoric that Africans forced into slavery developed in order to affirm themselves and mock racial hierarchies while appearing to appease, and even amuse, violent white oppressors. Scholars of Black humor, including Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Mel Watkins, and Glenda Carpio, call this uniquely African-American mode of communication, which sets up competing inter- and intra-racial dynamics, “signifyin(g).” What is left unsaid is crucial to this style of irony: as Morgan explains, silences can “intensify meaning by… forcing audiences to consider what justice might look like in spaces where injustice cannot even be articulated” (34). Though Morgan doesn’t lean as heavily as other critics have done on the term signifying, she demonstrates throughout the book how this complex structure of comic indirection and self-affirmation continues to shape Black satire about race for multiracial but majority white audiences.
Chapter 2 zeroes in on the anxiety produced by the persistence of biological theories of racial difference into the twenty-first century. A touchstone in this chapter is a 2001 digital performance art piece by Keith Obadike. By posting his “Blackness” for sale on eBay, Obadike ridiculed the mainstream (white) view of Blackness as a marketable and extractible essence while also raising real questions about how, exactly, racial identity manifests inwardly. As the history of signifying, and the later tradition of Black minstrelsy, would predict, the lines separating ironies that reject anti-Blackness from those that reinforce it can sometimes seem impossibly fine. Morgan is brilliantly sensitive to these fine lines throughout the book. In this chapter, her sensitivity is especially in evidence when she contrasts Sapphire’s 1996 novel Precious to the 2009 film adaptation Push. Morgan argues that small details in the novel cut against the lure of essentialism and sensationalism, such as when the protagonist Precious calls Janet Jackson a “white bitch” (cited on 67) because she embodies the socioeconomic mobility that Precious both envies and resents, whereas the film leaves out these calls to revolutionary laughter to its detriment.
The outsized impact of apparently minor tonal differences—or “misfires,” as Morgan calls them—is the central focus of Chapter 3 on vulnerability. Here, Morgan considers how jokes referring to racist stereotypes invite antiracist laughter only when Black performers make the personal costs of these stereotypes just visible enough to their audiences. Echoing many other comedy critics and fans, Morgan finds that Richard Pryor had set a very high bar for later comedians in this regard. In her view Chris Rock, Whoopi Goldberg, and Leslie Jones are among the well-known comics who have, on occasion, most memorably failed to clear it. Though Morgan is generally attentive to the way various oppressions intersect and compound one another, her take down of Jones’s controversial slave draft pick sketch from the Saturday Night Live show in particular left us wanting a fuller acknowledgement of how racist and sexist projections may make Black women’s insecurity less legible or less credible than other people’s, especially (though not only) to white and male audiences. Morgan suggests that Jones should have realized that her fake yearning for a time when her size and strength would have made her an attractive mate could only land on a more intimate stage—that is, with an audience already more identified with her. We see Jones’s so-called misfire as above all a reflection of the limitations of a mainstream audience uncomfortable with her risky—and, to us, hilarious—expression of sexual vulnerability.
Jordan Peele’s film Get Out and Issa Rae’s TV comedy Insecure form an unexpected but ultimately convincing pairing in Chapter 4, which looks at kaleidoscopic Blackness as a source of joy and belonging for Afromillenials. In particular, Morgan is interested in how both works celebrate Black communities and especially same-sex friendships. Both writers approach the work of affirming Black relationships and spaces with sincere optimism and softer and less challenging forms of comedy. Yet satire remains an important undercurrent for Peele and Rae, Morgan observes, as it provides the ideal medium for confronting white audiences with historical and ongoing anti-Blackness: that is, for setting up harsh backdrops against which the promise and importance of Black collectives and connections can come into relief.
Since the United States were founded on the violent absurdity of white supremacy, there are bitter ironies woven into all aspects of American culture. Laughing to Keep from Dying shows that revolutionary laughter has been and remains a powerful tool by which Black Americans survive and thrive within them. Morgan’s argument is invigorating, and her writing is as accessible and appealing as it is rigorous. Moreover, the book’s lessons pertain beyond American borders as well. As we finish this review, we have both been noticing how our responses to current events have been shaped by Morgan’s expansive approach to satire as means of exposing and unravelling white privilege. Consider the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s visit to Jamaica to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee on Jamaican Independence Day. The reports and photographs were already rife with irony when the couple met with the country’s prime minister, Andres Holeness. But the visit became outright satire when, in a speech that was immediately circulating around the world, Holeness basically broke up with the royals before they could even sit down. To borrow a term from the African-American ballroom/drag scene, Morgan has taught us, among many other things, how to really “read” the news, and provided a welcome affirmation of Black interiority for one of us.
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