It gives them the capital to be able to speak to you as well. When we are laughing, we’re saying that we understand what the person is talking about. It becomes this nice way of forming kinship.
That kind of in-group is what I think we’re all looking for—to feel like we’ve got people who understand our perspective and understand it so well that they can kind of play around with it. One of the points I make in my book is that satire subverts the status quo. But to do that, you have to understand what the status quo is and why it’s worthy of subverting.
Comedy gives us that sort of lens to think about: This is what the world looks like. What would the world ideally look like for somebody like me, and that’s where the joke emerges.
SCM: In Laughing to Keep from Dying, you talk about how creating that friction between what is and what could be creates a space for people to have their own identity. When satirists push back on stereotypes, they make room for an authentic person—what you call the kaleidoscopic Blackness. How does that work?
Morgan: I think that comedy allows us to think about all the different ways of being through the lens of the expectations of what “Blackness” is supposed to be. These stereotypes are such a part of our national conversation and national consciousness that we all know what these stereotypes are.
Satire then creates a space where you’re either completely rejecting the stereotypes or playfully accepting the stereotypes to show that they are unsustainable or that nobody really is fully like this idea.
This idea of kaleidoscopic Blackness is really useful for me in thinking about it because it’s just a way of looking at Blackness as having all of these different sides.
There are all of these different facets, and what Black people already know is that there are many ways to be Black. There are tons of ways to perform your Blackness, feel your Blackness, and be a Black person in the United States, even if we don’t see that as frequently in the mainstream.
SCM: So, where did this use of satire as a way to reclaim identity begin for Black Americans?
Morgan: When I started writing the book, I didn’t really want to talk about slavery. In the 21st century, does slavery have to be this kind of overdetermining thing? Do I have to talk about it if I’m talking about the 21st century? And when it came to the ideas of satire and comedy, ultimately what I realized was yes, I do.
Number one, I have to make that historical grounding. I wanted to make myself aware and make readers aware of the kind of humanity and bravery that enslaved people had. It becomes easier for many of us to look at slavery as this thing that happened in the past. And that the enslaved are very stoic, they persevered, and it was a very serious time. All of that is true.
But also I needed to underscore the bravery that came through different kinds of forms of resistance. I think that’s really, really critical. If you think of the enslaved as having moments of laughter, where they are using in–group comedy as a survival tactic, that’s important—in understanding the way you laugh with your friends and your family. Enslaved people were doing this too. They had to find that joy because, in the way it helps us to survive, it helped them to survive, too.
Comedy during this time was used as a broader survival mechanism against out-groups. You could prove your own cleverness. You could sort of talk back with plausible deniability.
That’s what we do now. That’s all political satire is, right? It’s this punching-up move.
Within the context of my in-group, we’re all laughing at powerful figures, and we’re figuring out ways to overthrow them, too. So it becomes this really, really powerful way of resisting couched in the plausible deniability of saying: Oh, it’s just a joke. I don’t really know what I’m talking about. It doesn’t mean anything because it’s just a joke.
SCM: Sort of a protective cloak of I’m not saying, I’m just saying… Black Americans still point out—and poke at—power structures through satire. What does that look like today?
Morgan: When you have limited mechanisms for mainstream self-actualization, you use what’s available to you. And part of what gets utilized is humor.
I think about the way comedy has been sort of naturalized in Black communities. And what I mean by that is that there’s a sort of assumption that comedy is just something that some people naturally are able to do. Dave Chappelle is a great example, and he plays into that to the great benefit of all of us.
I always tell my students Dave Chappelle’s persona is that he is the funniest guy in your dorm. He’s supposed to be kind of this pothead slacker. That’s his whole shtick, “I, you know, I was smoking weed, and I thought about this.” But, obviously, Dave Chappelle is incredibly smart. He’s working really, really hard and trying out jokes and spending all of his time writing these jokes and revising these jokes. But the performance and the persona is as though it’s casual. It’s a way to sort of signal to the audience that the things he’s saying are common knowledge. What comedians, I think, in particular, are able to do is to use that as the foot in the door to talk about much more critical social issues. During the past four years, when the pendulum of progress for African Americans was swinging back so hard, comedy provided a way to continue having those conversations relatively safely.
SCM: A safe but powerful way to point out problems with society or leadership, right?
Morgan: It demonstrates to me the power of comedy that former-President Donald Trump would get so angry that he’d not come to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. He would take to Twitter and yell about Saturday Night Live. Trump spent so much of his time attacking entertainers and, in particular, comedians because he knows that comedy reaches the masses very quickly and very convincingly.
And it is not just one person; it’s also structures. Within the context of really thinking about white supremacy, it’s so pervasive that it is what we’re raised under. Even for those who resist and refuse it, it becomes the frame through which we examine things. What comedy is doing is trying to make us bear witness to that frame. It’s done by either highlighting the absurdity of it in satire or imagining an entirely new status quo in comedy.