In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section African American Humor

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Theories of African American Humor
  • African American Humor and Slavery
  • African American Humor and Folklore
  • African American Humor and Blackface Minstrelsy
  • African American Humor in Music and Radio
  • African American Humor in Film and Television
  • African American Humor in Literature
  • African American Humor in the Visual Arts
  • African American Humor in Theater and Performance Studies
  • African American Stand-Up Performance
  • African American Sketch Comedy
  • Reference Works and Anthologies

African American Studies African American Humor
Brittney Edmonds
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0124


The sophistication of the African American humor tradition testifies to its centrality in African American culture. Since its initial emergence in the contexts of enslavement, where humorous expression, especially humor at the expense of whites, carried great consequence, African Americans have turned to humor as an instrument of social, political, and moral sensemaking. African Americans use humor to make collective claim on the social world around them, to foster bonds of social and political solidarity, to make judgments about the material conditions of their lives, to express and encode feelings of contempt, aggression, and dissatisfaction, and to approach and mollify the emotionally challenging conditions of their everyday lives. Despite the culturally dominant tendency to depict African Americans as unlettered and foolish, African Americans developed a distinct strain of humor over and against traditions that targeted them as the butt of all jokes. This resulted in at least two dominant strains of African American humor: one reserved for private in-group expression, and one, a more public form, that engaged with and often departed from dominant distortions of Black personality. Despite such popular distortions, African American humor flourished and developed into a sophisticated modality for navigating the contradictions catalyzed by Black life in the United States. In the nineteenth century, African Americans flexed their comedic muscles in folktales, songs, stories, speeches, sermons, lies, and more. They satirized dominant misunderstandings of Black culture and combated the pervasive stereotyped image of African Americans that was popularized by the United States’ first, national mass cultural form, Blackface minstrelsy. But even private forms of Black humor had to contend with the image of African Americans as happy-go-lucky simpletons. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, African American performers donned the minstrel mask themselves, creating a complicated legacy—and an enduring strain of vicious irony—for the reception and development of African American humor in public. Across the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, African American humorists flourished across expressive cultures, creating novels, films, plays, music, and visual artworks that represented the complexity of African American life. African Americans used humor to communicate the truth of African American life in public, transforming the racial mask into a comic mask that used racist assumptions to their own advantageous ends. Toward the close of the twentieth century, African American humor offered a crucial site from which to articulate an autonomous African American identity and helped spur innovation across Black expressive cultures.

General Overviews

Understanding the significance of African American humor requires knowledge of its complicated origins and its broad manifestations in African American expressive cultures. These general overviews range from introductions to essays to monographs to encyclopedic accounts—all with the aim of introducing researchers to the rich field of African American humor. Beatty 2006 provides an account of the development of African American humor in in-group social spaces. Dance 1998 illuminates the distinct tradition of African American women’s humor. Dates and Ramirez 2018 provide a sweeping treatment of African American humor from the period of institutionalized chattel to the twenty-first century, prioritizing a media studies approach. Dickson-Carr 2001 describes the history of African American satire as it manifests in the novel. Dickson-Carr 2022 sketches the parameters of contemporary African American humor and satire in literature, sketch comedy, and stand-up comedy. Gillota 2013 traces major transformations in the expressions of African American humor at the turn of the twenty-first century. Maus 2014 defines and delimits post-soul satire, which springs from tandem shifts in African American identity and the organization of American sociopolitics and political economy. Maus and Donahue 2014 provides a comprehensive critical survey of current scholarship in the field of African American humor studies, with special emphasis on expressions of African American satire. Watkins 1994 presents an exhaustive and definitive account of African American humor across multiple genres of expressive culture.

  • Beatty, Paul. “Introduction.” In Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor. Edited by Paul Beatty, 1–12. New York: Bloomsbury, 2006

    This introduction presents an autobiographical sketch of novelist and poet Paul Beatty’s development as a humorist. Beatty presents African American social spaces, like movie theaters and barber shops, as integral to traditions of African American humor, and he additionally chronicles how insider knowledge and experience informs African American comedy and laughter. This introduction further emphasizes the dynamism of African American humor and celebrates its transformations across the twentieth century.

  • Dance, Daryl Cumber. “Introduction.” In Honey, Hush!: An Anthology of African American Women’s Humor. Edited by Daryl Cumber Dance, xxi–xxxv. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.

    This introduction recovers the distinct tradition of African American women’s humor and explains why it deserves specific attention. Dance highlights the ongoing absence of African American women from traditional accounts of American humor and demonstrates how African American women have historically used humor to facilitate gendered forms of knowledge sharing, to engage in political resistance, and to build and sustain community.

  • Dates, L. Jannette, and Mia Moody Ramirez. From Blackface to Black Twitter: Reflections on Black Humor, Race, Politics, and Gender. New York: Peter Lang, 2018.

    DOI: 10.3726/b13336

    This indispensable volume provides a comprehensive introduction to African American humor from the period of enslavement to the first decade of the twenty-first century. Written from a media studies perspective, this volume provides incisive accounts of African American humor’s entry into mainstream media spaces, with special focus on film, television, and social media. This volume also contains useful appendices that catalogue noteworthy African Americans in comedy.

  • Dickson-Carr, Darryl. African American Satire: The Sacredly Profane Novel. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001.

    This scholarly monograph provides an impressive overview of the African American satire as it manifests in the African American literary tradition. Dickson-Carr elaborates the unique role that satire plays in African American expressive cultures and charts it changing role over the course of the twentieth century. This indispensable volume is the first book-length study devoted to the study of African American satire.

  • Dickson-Carr, Darryl. “Introduction: Black Laughs Matter.” Studies in American Humor 8.2 (2022): 237–251.

    DOI: 10.5325/studamerhumor.8.2.0237

    This special-issue introduction describes the parameters and conditions of contemporary African American satire, emphasizing work that attends especially to the contradictions and paradoxes instigated by the enduring practices of anti-Blackness in the United States.

  • Gillota, David. “Black Nerds: New Directions in African American Humor.” Studies in American Humor, n.s. 3, 28 (2013): 17–30.

    DOI: 10.2307/23823874

    This journal article traces the provenance of new millennium African American humor. Gillota argues that African American comedic practice undergoes a sea change in the twenty-first century. Contemporary comedians eschew the popular cultural signifiers of Blackness that predominated in the second half of the twentieth century in favor of more heterogeneous and individualistic treatments of Black life.

  • Maus, Derek. “Mommy, What’s a Post-Soul Satirist?” In Post-Soul Satire: Black Identity after Civil Rights. Edited by Derek C. Maus and James J. Donahue, xi–xxiii. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014.

    This introduction provides a comprehensive account of post-soul satire. Maus argues that shifts in African American identity, the organization of American politics generally, and the increasing presence of African Americans in the entertainment and creative industries led to tremendous cultural shifts that were mediated in part by artistic engagement with satire.

  • Maus, Derek, and James J. Donahue, eds. Post-Soul Satire: Black Identity after Civil Rights. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014.

    This valuable edited collection features original essays from scholars across the humanities. The volume showcases the incredible variety of cultural materials produced by post-soul satirists and the range of critical approaches used to comment on them. This collection includes essays from disciplines as varied as art history, literary studies, cultural studies, comic studies, and sound studies.

  • Watkins, Mel. On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy from Slavery to Chris Rock. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1994.

    This encyclopedic volume provides an expansive account of African American humor. Watkins critically narrates the history of the African American comedic tradition. He emphasizes the parallel development of African American humor within and without African American communities and argues that the two developments coalesce. This book is easily one of the most comprehensive and exhaustive records of African American humor to date.

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