I am stuck knee deep in midterm papers, grading furiously in an effort to make an escape (which explains the light tempo to my posts this week). In these moments I need a laugh. On a Thursday, the day before Friday, I suspect a laugh may raise your spirits too.
I remain surprised that the critical literature on African American humor and comedy is so underdeveloped. One would think that given how comedy is a voice for the subaltern to speak back to power (through satire, the carnivalesque, or the grotesque) that there would be many books and articles on the topic.
Save for Mel Watkin's book and Lawrence Levine's chapter-long treatment in Black Culture and Black Consciousness the scholarly work on African American humor remains thin. Thankfully, folks are starting to step up and fill that gap. Laughing Mad was released in 2007. Laughing Fit to Kill came out in 2008. I have just began working through the latter: it is a solid work with a nice balance between theory, criticism, and aesthetics.
Super Nigger moves me because Pryor's playful routine exposes the idea of black folks being written out of the script as superheroes by the white gaze, and one that some people of color internalize, where the very notion of being a "super human" is outside of the realm of possibility for a people judged by white racism to be anti-citizens (at best) and subhuman (at worst).
With Pryor's genius comes a comedy with multiple levels of tension, joy, and tragedy. Here, the character Super Nigger is still a "nigger"--even though the phrase and its power are ostensibly reversed through the use of code switching and black vernacular English--who is unable to "see through whitey." Moreover, he is still vulnerable to a little boy (that in the context of the routine is coded as white) who dares to call him "Super Nigger." This exchange is rich with double meaning and possibility because our protagonist is in fact named Super Nigger, but how dare one call him a "super nigger."
The appeal of Super Nigger is that he can enact a fantasy held by so many black folks historically, where grown adults were reduced to "boy" and "girl," or "auntie and uncle" as they worked as caregivers, maids, drivers, and Pullman car porters who had to feign deference to white folks of any age, be they older or younger, in the cradle or the grave.
Super Nigger is the very definition of the super hero as a projection and a fantasy figure for the collective subconscious: he can whoop that little white boy's behind and put him in his place without fear of retribution.
In all, Richard Pryor was the definition of genius. He made everyone before him obsolete; Pryor was the standard by which all comedians to follow would be judged. Richard Pryor was also amazingly self-reflective. For example, he was the master of the word "nigger." He manipulated it, exposed it, twisted it, and ultimately rejected its use as one of the most ugly words in the English language:
Many folks work "blue" for the sake of cussing and talking about sex. Pryor worked blue as a means of telling a story and being nakedly human.
What are your favorite Pryor routines? And is there anyone who comes close to taking his crown?
A bonus for the Age of Obama, Richard Pryor on the differences between black women and white women: