Not funny.

April 12, 2021

Not funny.

Not funny.

Yet in the late 1970s, a trickster comedian, Richard Pryor (the Trickster Force was strong with him) made us laugh while describing this very crime against humanity, against unarmed Black Americans. Pryor’s seemingly amoral humor made an impact on the American psyche, such that forty years later, our perspective and our behavior, our demand for justice and our reckoning, found a higher moral ground. This is how Pryor tricked power into performing an act of love, even if it took several decades. And here is the relevant excerpt from my new book, which you can expect to see in early 2022:

Hard times and dangerous, risky struggles go hand in hand with the magic of humor, the respite and finesse of not taking things too seriously, or of laughing to keep from crying. It seems that the more painful the struggle, the more uproarious the joking about it. Despair, discouragement, and the frustrations and suffering of the Black experience become the stuff of the comedian’s punchline, and when a comic makes declarations of racial pride, it can energize and electrify an audience. Trickster gave Black America a shot at redemption and Black tricksters took it. Here’s an example from Richard Pryor:

“We come from the first people on the earth. You know, the first people on the earth were Black people. ‘cause anthropologists, white anthropologists (so the white people go ‘that could be true, you know’), yeah, Dr. Leakey and them found people remains five million years ago in Africa. You know them motherfuckers didn’t speak French. So Black people, we’re the first people that had thought, right? We were the first ones to say ‘Where the fuck am I? And how do you get to Detroit?’”[1]

Pryor gets deep into Trickster magic in Richard Pryor: Live in Concert,[2] taped in 1979 at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, CA. Pryor enacts getting revenge on the tree from which he had to pick a switch for his grandma to whip him with. The hilarious tale conjures the most ancient of Trickster myths, those of the Winnebago god Wakdjunkaga, who had his own frustrating confrontations with blameful trees.

Pryor states a raw, painful fact more than 40 years before the general American population began its reckoning with it…he states truth to power in the context of a joke and the safe space that surrounds the jester comedian. He tricks power so as to psychologically and politically prepare Americans for power’s act of love.

Pryor describes how, in drunken anger and distress over his wife leaving him, he shot his .357 Magnum at his own car. And here’s the no-joke joke:

“Then the police came. I…went in the house. ‘Cause they got Magnums too. And they don’t kill cars. They kill “nigg-gars.”  [loud applause]

Police got a choke hold they use out here, though. Man, they choke niggas to death. That mean you be dead when they through. Did you know that? Wait, Niggas goin’ “Yeah, we knew.” White folks, “No, I had no idea.” Yeah, two grab your legs, one grab your head, and snap. [Cop voice]: “Oh, shit. He broke. Can you break a nigger? Is it okay? Let’s check the manual. Yep, Page 8. ‘You can break a nigger. Right there, see?’” [laughter and applause].

Why does this mostly white audience laugh so? Not because the murder of Blacks by cops is funny, but because it’s so wrong, absurdly wrong, and that’s what Pryor’s signifyin’. Pryor’s performing Trickster magic, knowing that the laughing crowd is now with him, and that a cessation of such treatment of Black people is the act of love Pryor is preaching.

Thus opens the portal. Trickster enters. Says Henry Louis Gates Jr: “…on a deeper level, Black reflections on the human condition in this land of sentimental aims and romantic dreams injected tragicomic sensibilities into the American experience.”[3]

[1]    Layton, J. (Director). (1982). Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip [Motion picture on DVD]. United States: Columbia Pictures, Rastar Pictures.

[2]    Margolis, J. (Director), & Pryor, R. (Writer). (1979). Richard Pryor: Live in concert [Motion picture on DVD]. United States: See Theater Network / Special Event Entertainment.

[3] Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Cornel West, The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Country (New York: The Free Press, 2000), p xv.


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