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Smithsonian Folklife Festival
Giving Voice

Humor

"Laughter is our emotional salvation," wrote the African American author Jessie Fauset in the 1920s. It arose "from the very woes which beset us." Simple yet complex, multifaceted but at times direct, humor is an important tool with which African Americans have long challenged, undermined, and overcome the effects of racism and oppression in American society.

Black comedy is partially drawn from African trickster tales and rooted in a kind of coded wit developed by enslaved peoples as a safe way to secure some psychological power and freedom despite their condition. As a result it often takes a subversive and sometimes outrageous form. Like Black speech, Black comedy

  • changes shape according to its venue—such as barbershops, street corners, clubs, concert halls and festivals,
  • responds to the character and complexion of its audience, and
  • provides an important lens into the resiliency and improvisatory qualities of African American culture.

Featured Participants

James Hannah, Coppell, Texas
Hannah is a comedian and writer who got his start in Chicago. He has written for or appeared as a stand-up comic on numerous shows, including Def Comedy Jam, Comic View, P. Diddy Presents the Bad Boys of Comedy, Jamie Foxx's Laffapalooza, The Steve Harvey Morning Show, and My Wife & Kids.

Royale Watkins, Encino, California
Born in Washington, D.C., Watkins is a comedian who began honing his craft in church. Much of his material comes from his experiences growing up as one of fourteen children. In addition to comedy, Watkins has appeared in a number of feature films. He is currently producing "Urban Comedy Cabaret."

Cedric Antonio Kyles, better known as Cedric the Entertainer, has presented his comedy on film, in live performances, and on television. Photo © Adam Knott/CORBIS OUTLINE.