In this timely, encyclopedic, personable history of African- American humor, Watkins (journalist, editor New York Times) offers in his rich examples and unpretentious analysis a history of a culture through its entertainment and, in a wider context, an explanation of the functions of laughter among minorities. Starting in West Africa, the origin of over 50% of American slaves, Watkins follows the migration of black humor, its meaning, function, evolution in the South, and its influence on the white culture. An irreverent and aggressive private humor helped blacks survive, and Watkins contrasts this private humor with the public one—the submissive, naive, inept, ridiculous stereotypes that appeared in minstrel shows and later black comics. Thus Watkins offers a particularly potent example of how an endangered race survived by assuming the image created by its adversary: theories from Freud, Bergson, Langston Hughes, even Stepin Fetchit explain the gradual transformation of this public humor in various media- -black clubs, silent films, radio, TV, records, ``genre films''— and its new meaning to blacks and to their audiences. The public and private merge in the impious and outrageous style of the 70's, the cerebral Dick Gregory; the vulgar, slapstick, and power images of Whoopi Goldberg, Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby, and Richard Pryor, to whom a final and eloquent chapter is devoted. Watkins's style is personal and vivid, and his eye for human detail animates whole sections on Harlem and the Apollo Theater, folk and street humor, early television, the ironic and ambivalent fascination of whites with black life, and their love affair with black entertainers of all sorts, from Lena Horne to Flip Wilson. A careful balance of example and commentary—as filled with the voices and laughter of black humor as with the pain, injustice, indignities, and exclusion that gave rise to it.
Read full book review >