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One Woman's Opinion

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Redefining Humor

Mary Wakefield Buxton

by Mary Wakefield Buxton

Urbanna, Va.— Photos of Governor Northam’s graduation album from EMC Medical School in 1984, which included a pair of unidentified men in black face and KKK hood attending a party apparently in the last year of medical school, were both shocking and appalling. The future governor of the Commonwealth was turning 25 that year, far beyond the age of stupid college antics. All these months later, the memories of such images are still upsetting.  (see below hood or hoods?

It must be remembered that 1984 was not the Dark Ages. Civil rights laws of 1954 and 1964 had been in effect for over 20 years. Americans were acutely aware of the struggles of minority Americans to win respect, opportunities and equal rights in our society. The photos of goofy adults in such attire were wired all across the nation and world, making Virginia look like a colony of racist ignoramuses. It was acutely embarrassing and most everyone, even those who made excuses for the Governor because of partisan loyalties, found such “comic” pictures revolting.

The pictures remind us of the dark era of U.S. history; the tragic times in which Jim Crow laws instigated throughout the South for almost a century after the Civil War by Democrats. Thus, black face and KKK hoods are not funny. 

Who can laugh at any examples of human injustice and cruelty in history . . . maybe stabs at a comedy of Christians being fed to the lions, crucifixions, “infidels” being burned at the stake, garroted or otherwise tethered by the Inquisition, whippings, beatings, tortures, lynchings . . . even up to today’s date where in some parts of the world there are beheadings of Christians and journalists? 

Anyone laughing? I doubt it. Evil in any form is not subject for comedy. Rather such examples are tragic, heartbreaking and constant reminders of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.

Yet Southern white culture allowed some males to consider it hilarious to poke fun at the misfortunes of blacks. They also thought it was funny to poke fun at women and many high schools, colleges and other all-male groups, even into adulthood, enjoyed dressing up as women and laughing themselves sick over obvious sexual differences between the genders.

I once saw a photo of students who were competing in an annual “queen” contest that had donned wigs, makeup, dangling earrings and had even stuffed a couple of softballs in their sweaters. I was told this was a local tradition and such behavior was considered funny and innocent good fun. 

Yet much good has come from such comic photos from the past. They become an instant epiphany, a moment of sudden understanding, almost as if a light bulb in one’s brain has suddenly turned on. We simply can’t believe we ever behaved in such a foolish or insensitive way.

And it wasn’t just the South that laughed at black face. I can remember hearing Al Jolson belt out his wonderful “Mammie” when I was growing up in Ohio. He wore black face and he was immensely popular. I always thought he was African-American and didn’t learn he was white until I was an adult.

Then there was “Amos and Andy,” which was a comedy that began as two white men playing stereotyped black characters from 1928 to 1960. At that time the program moved to television and black actors took over the roles. The show poked fun at black mannerisms and speech and was well enjoyed by many Americans.

I well remember the “put down” humor of TV programs like “All in the Family,” “What’s Happening?” and many others that made fun of ignorance. Such humor not only poked fun of people for their opinions, beliefs and values but also depicted children insulting and disrespecting parents, teachers, friends and neighbors as humorous. It was all supposed to be funny. Fortunately, put down-humor has also gone out of style. 

It’s important to reflect on societal mores today and remember that generations that follow ours will also be critical of us and the subjects we found amusing. We are already hearing deep criticism voiced from millennials who aren’t amused by some of our forms of humor. They undoubtedly will develop their own ideas of what consists of comedy and future generations, in turn, will criticize them.

Times change along with our concept of humor. It’s always easy to laugh at others, but in my mind (and I write comedy) true comedy comes from only one source. To discover it, just look in the mirror.


posted 04.03.2019

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