The Essay and Satire: How to Be Black

Baratunde Thurston’s How to Be Black is a work of nonfiction. For the purposes of our course, we are also considering it as a type of book-length essay. It is an essay that deals directly with race in America, as we saw Frederick Douglass do in his Narrative, and as we will see Claudia Rankine do in her lyric essay, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. But Thurston’s writing also engages us very directly with humor. (As he puts it in establishing his ethos, he has been black for over thirty years). One of the questions I want to ask and to explore: what can we, as essayists, learn from Thurston about humor? What rhetorical and poetic and even philosophical purposes can humor play in the work of an essay? In what ways can the rhetoric and poetics of humor and comedy be meaningful and purposeful (an expectation for any essay) as a way to engage the rhetoric of race?

Thurston shows us early on that his essaying will be humorous. But he also tells us that there is a complication he wants to pursue, or as he puts it, a “re-complication” of the idea of blackness for the purpose of “exposing the challenges, the fun, and the future of being black” (11). Why pursue this exposition by way of comedy? What’s the purpose, the rhetorical project, within this use of comedy?

One of the ways we might then think of humor in terms of the rhetoric of essays is satire. Though this genre of literature is more familiar to fiction and poetry, there is a famous example in nonfiction, perhaps the first version of journalistic/nonfiction/essayistic satire: Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”  Swift engages thoroughly in the rhetorical tropes of hyperbole and irony. This is one way to think of satire’s more serious use of humor: the edge of irony, directed toward a kind of reductio ad absurdum. There is also the rhetorical figure of litotes, understatement, that works effectively and prominently as a comedic scapel. The Onion (see below) puts this to great use. Thurston, who wrote for The Onion, uses both figures, hyperbole and litotes, in his essay. Another rhetorical trope related to irony is paralipsis: when the writer claims to pass over something (saying she won’t/can’t discuss it) yet speaking about the matter in the process of saying otherwise.

Satire generally means a text that critically explores social follies by way of ridicule or sarcasm or humor or parody. The origin of the word–coming from the Latin for medley, literally a dish of various fruits–helps us to see that the satirical often works by way of medley, variety, juxtaposing various elements, ranging among them seemingly loosely, but with an underlying purpose. Think of a comedy routine, or “The Daily Show” (worth noting–prominent places where satire in America is nonfictional); or the ways Thurston ranges in his essay, while keeping the focus on the meaning of racial stereotypes. It makes me think of Frederick Douglass at the end of chapter 2 in his Narrative, discussing the complexity of the songs of the slaves. Recall that the audience can’t fully understand the meaning of the songs (so we are warned) if not “within the circle.” And yet, the author couldn’t fully understand their rude meaning either until he got outside the circle.

Another way to consider the contexts for the use of humor or wit for rhetorical purposes: classical rhetoric included in the focus on “refutation,” the part of a discourse where the speaker/writer refutes or counters opposing views, refutation by wit along with refutation by appeal to logic, emotion, and ethics (logos, pathos, ethos). The ancient Greek rhetorician Gorgias advised speakers to “kill our opponent’s seriousness with our ridicule and his ridicule with our seriousness.” Wit, like all things rhetorical, remains dependent upon one’s audience. And it was cautioned that using wit to hide a weak or specious argument would damage one’s ethos. I think of this in regard to a sketch by Louis C. K. on “The N-Word,” where he refutes the hatred conveyed by this well-known racialized term, but does it through wit–and also through irony, arguing that the phrase “n-word” has become itself (for him) as troubling (more troubling?) a form of racism as the word it stands for.

Another rhetorical structure and trope of importance to Douglass, chiasmus, or relation through the reversal of structure, might be extended to comedy. In Douglass, such reversal (chiasmus thus is also a type of irony) is thoroughly serious. Its most succinct formulation comes in the sentence that refers to his encounter with Covey: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.” The “you” should remind us of the stakes of this reversal: the reader is put in the position of the slave, undergoing the reversal, and then counter-reversal, with the narrator. This chiasmus is an extreme form of pathos–making the familiar strange in order to defamiliarize covnentional or stereotypical views. Is not this what comedy can, or does, do? I think, for one telling and vivid version of this reversal, Dave Chappelle’s skit on “The Niggar Family.”

What about wit, comedy, satire that goes too far (as is always a potential with irony), or is a joke that isn’t funny? How do we know? Consider this image regarding the death of Trayvon Martin. And note all the commentary around it–I worry about who is and isn’t “within the circle,” as Douglass puts it.

Speaking of satire as medley or mixture, here is a medley of links for thinking and reading further about the rhetorical work of satire and humor in contemporary American culture.

The Onion: an example of its brand of satire. What’s the difference between this, what Thurston is writing, what the various comics are doing with their bits on race, and the sort of irony that Douglass pursues rhetorically and philosophically in his narrative? In other words, how might we think of similarities with regard to the rhetoric of race, exploring racial and cultural identity and difference in writing? [an earlier piece from The Onion that features Thurston]

Example from The Onion of the rhetorical scheme or figure (think of it as a lens) of litotes, understatement: Mom’s Got her Thing Tonight.

The website “Stuff White People Like,” an inspiration for Thurston’s writing and rhetoric of racially-focused satire.

Comedy routines about race: link here for a brief story and links to clips from a variety of comic sketches and bits exploring race.

Louis C.K. on being white

Eliot Chang: Things Asians Hate

Key and Peele: Substitute Teacher

Dave Chappelle: Stereotype Pixies: Black; White.

And finally, we might also consider the ways Thurston’s writing merges with, one could even say, emerges from, the world of social media. In his new venture, Cultivated Wit, Thurston calls this “digital storytelling.” Think of the essay as Ted talk. The idea for this book, as he tells us, began with a tweet. Link here for the How to Be Black on Twitter.

As a point of comparison (and possibly contrast), here is a recent social media project that has been in the news, I, Too, Am Harvard. This project doesn’t use humor in the way Thurston does. Does it nonetheless pursue a similar argument, a sort of essay through digital imaging?

What about the essay in new media forms: what are its possibilities, its limitations? This is something we will explore further when looking at the poetics of new media essays.


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