Wednesday, October 22, 2008

If you don’t laugh you will cry: two 'jokes' about the upcoming American election

In a comment on my last post, “Why imagination is necessary for governance,” jdid said, referring to the recent Canadian election: “lol, all I can do is laugh.” When I remarked that he must be “a man of extraordinary courage for [he was] clearly… laughing in the face of enormous adversity…” his response was “Clarabella, if I don’t laugh I would cry.” I owe him an apology. I should have recognized the backdrop of sobriety, the typical Caribbean modus operandi of “taking serious ting make joke”. I should have twigged to it because it’s the MO I employ in my own writing, whether prose or poetry. I've more than once explained that it’s not just possible but necessary for me to infuse humour into serious subjects because this is what we do in the Caribbean. “If we doan laff, we haffi bawl!” Since Whappy was a bwoy, laughter has been our strategy of survival in the midst of grief, pain, devastation, ruin.

That brings me to two ‘jokes’. I owe the first to fsjl, who passed it on:

So a canvasser goes to a woman's door in Washington, Pennsylvania. Knocks. Woman answers. Knocker asks who she's planning to vote for. She isn't sure, has to ask her husband who she's voting for. Husband is off in another room watching some game. Canvasser hears him yell back, "We're votin' for the nigger!" Woman turns back to canvasser, and says brightly and matter of factly: "We're voting for the nigger."

I can’t remember where I saw the second, and so reproduce it from memory.

Obama is at the pearly gates, and St Peter says to him, “What makes you think you deserve to enter here? What did you do on earth to distinguish yourself?” Obama replies: “Well, I was the first black President of the United States.” “Oh!” replies St Peter. “And when did this take place?” Obama replies, “About twenty minutes ago.”

I have to admit that these are ‘jokes’ in the tradition of – what? Black humour? Dark comedy? (The ironies here are so numerous that I’m finding it hard to breathe.) “Black humour” according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “often uses farce and low comedy to make clear that individuals are helpless victims of fate and character.” [In the case of joke number one, character, and joke number two, fate?] We should remember that it was traditionally the clown in the king’s court, the one playing the ‘fool’, whose job it was to “speak truth to power,” as the popular lingo now puts it, and that clowns and their comedian progeny have always been serious folk, tellers of unpalatable truths – witness, in modern times, Pryor, Gregory, Goldberg, Carlin, among many others.

The Democratic presidential candidate and those who surround and advise him, and see to his security, are obviously well aware of these truths.

Consider the second matter first. Senator Obama was given a heavy security detail very early in the campaign and Christian prayer warriors – another kind of security detail, if you will – ‘cover him with the blood of Jesus,’ both groups acting out of the recognition that what he is doing is something that puts his person at risk. Coming to terms with this must require a deep, continued and abiding courage on the part of himself and his family, knowing as they do that throughout American history, harbingers of change, both white and black, have paid the ultimate price.

And consider the first tale, a slice of life so convincing, I think it’s precious – a promise of willy-nilly perception so madly possible, it’s exhilarating! If those who conceive of black people as niggers will nevertheless vote for a nigger as president, then there must be a means by which understanding can well up in people, never mind that their attitudes are confused and conflicted and wrong-headed and deeply offensive. Believers would say it’s the Spirit Wind, blowing “where it listeth.”

So I do not find either 'joke' offensive. They present boldly and baldly contemporary realities that the American public ignores at their peril. By having them presented as jokes, people are jolted into facing what is, terrible as that prospect may be. And Americans, many of them, perhaps most of them, either won’t be able to laugh, or won’t be able to stop laughing, for fear of being overwhelmed by tears that leave them beyond being comforted.