Author Danielle Fuentes Morgan answers questions about the inspirations, influences, and discoveries behind the writing of her new book, Laughing to Keep from Dying: African American Satire in the Twenty-First Century.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
I had long been a fan of the satiric mode but I became really interested in what I saw as a recent resurgence in African American satire. When narrowed the scope to think about the role of satire as self-making and as a form of social justice, it was critical to think about the real-life implications of comedy in a way that was accessible and demonstrated not just what happened in the past but in this particular cultural moment. I remember finishing the first draft of the book in 2016—Obama was still president and Dave Chappelle had made a few moves back to the comedic stage but was generally MIA. By the end of that year, Trump was elected and Chappelle made his first broadly public televised return as the host of Saturday Night Live in the first episode after the election. The end of 2016 and the start of 2017, to my mind, signaled an overt return to satire and raised the stakes for how we articulated our own identities. In that sense, I wanted readers to understand the trajectory of African American satire and why we return to the satirical mode again and again as a matter of survival in the face of potential bodily and spiritual deaths. In this post-Obama moment, it feels more critical than ever.
I can’t remember a time where satire wasn’t central to my life. On a personal level, writing about comedy and satire more broadly connects me to my Uncle Kevin, my mom’s brother, who passed away in 1997. He was always willing to talk to me and listen, really listen, even when I was a kid. He told me once that if he had 100 nieces I’d still be his favorite. Fortunately, I was his only niece, but he made me feel like it was the most obvious, logical conclusion; I still smile when I think of his sincerity in saying it. He was the first person to make me think critically about laughter—why timing mattered, the backstory of a joke, the foreshadowing and the callback in a story—and how all of these ideas influenced our understanding of what “funny” was. When he was 13 or 14 he mailed in (unrequested by the show and unbeknown to his family!) a full script to the sketch variety show, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, along with a note that they could have his entire script and the suggestion of a color television as fair payment. Unbelievably, the producers read his script, aired two of his jokes, and sent him a check! My mom, her other brother, and my grandparents were all watching the show with him and were stunned to hear, “Thanks to Kevin McMillan of Stockton, California!”. When he suddenly died, I was about the same age as he was when he wrote to Laugh-In. I struggled with his death and what I felt was his unlimited potential at age 13 juxtaposed against the fact that he was no longer there when I was 13.
He introduced me to the stand-up of Eddie Murphy and Flip Wilson (fast forwarding through the risque parts of the VHS). We would go to Blockbuster and get “Best of” The Twilight Zone—a series that brilliantly and intentionally enacts the satiric mode to address race in America through its use of otherness—and talk about the plot and its connection to the world around us. I have vivid memories of sitting on the kitchen counter while he did the dishes and talking about the latest (latest to me, but actually emerging from his childhood or young adulthood in most cases) comedy sketch or Twilight Zone episode. He taught me that popular culture matters—not only does the social realm influence the popular, but the popular is fundamentally important to our understanding of the social realm. So, I think my relationship with my uncle primed my interest in satire and the sociopolitical upheaval of this contemporary moment made analyzing our more subtle modes of resistance through satire feel necessary and urgent.
Q: Who were your biggest influences?
Certainly Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin were the two writers whose work is foundational in my own writing. Hurston’s unapologetic and insistent interdisciplinarity inspires me to take up all the lenses in my arsenal to formulate new ways of reading the world around me. She serves as a reminder that it is not only wise to engage with my own ancestral memory but it is necessary. Baldwin’s foresight inspires me to think critically about what this moment means for future generations of Black people. The emotional precision and exacting language of his prose is aspirational and encourages me to write about my current cultural moment with a love framed by accountability—accountability to myself, to others, to future generations. If we’re lucky, what we leave behind might encourage someone else to take up these ideas and answer the questions we cannot.
More contemporarily, I am inspired by the authors who merge the popular and the scholarly in conversations about satire today: Daphne Brooks, Margo Crawford, Dagmawi Woubshet, Darryl Dickson-Carr immediately come to mind. I am grateful for the contemporary frames provided by writers like Glenda Carpio and Mel Watkins. And, of course, I admire writers like Brittney Cooper and Tressie McMillan Cottom who remind us that there is a place for passion, for love, and for unflinching truth even in academia.
Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?
Two discoveries shaped the direction of this book. The first was coming across Jourdon Anderson’s letter written to his former master in 1865. The letter has been critically under-examined, and I believe it is one of the first written examples of overt satire in African American cultural production. It is brilliant and brave and it pushes back against the contemporary exceptionalism so many people hold as a protective measure when they think about the past. We often hear people disparagingly say about the enslaved, “That would never be me” or “I would’ve fled. I would’ve started a rebellion.” It’s comforting, I suppose, to imagine enslaved people as fundamentally weaker or lacking some sort of inherent revolutionary quality you imagine yourself to have but not only is it immensely disrespectful, it’s just not true. Anderson’s letter serves as a tacit rebuttal to this line of thinking in its sarcasm and revolutionary tone. In speaking to his former master, he couches his argument in terms that lean on plausible deniability in moments, but ultimately breaks through and unequivocally refuses to honor his former enslavers’ request that he return to the plantation to work. His language is so incisive, and demonstrates the myriad nuanced and bold ways the enslaved did in fact resist.
The second discovery was hearing Chris Rock talk about his decision to address and even criticize hip hop on the stand-up comedy stage in W. Kamau Bell’s documentary Cultureshock: Bring the Pain. Rock says he felt open to discuss and critique hip hop because he loved hip hop. In some ways, this was freeing for me and opened me up to feel more comfortable in critiquing comedy—I write out of a deep, abiding love of comedy and the belief that satire, at its very best and most precise, is world changing. I also feel an obligation to discuss ways the satire should be challenged or reframed. If I love satire and believe it can be life saving, as I do, then critique isn’t the same as condemnation—it’s ultimately hopefulness, a certainty in what satire can be at its best. It can be a challenge to think critically about subjects you love and people you admire. Hearing Rock talk about the same struggle freed me to write from a place of loving critique.
Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?
I hope readers will unlearn the belief that comedy is easy or natural, or that it emerges from a vacuum of “just jokes”. While writing, I became very interested in the public assumptions surrounding satire and this sense that comedy and laughter are sorts of naturalized for Black people—this assumption that Dave Chappelle’s comedy, for instance, must come easily to him, rather than that Chappelle works at his comedy and is skillfully designing jokes not only to make us laugh but to force us to interrogate the social realm. It’s precise and intentional. The mainstream has naturalized this idea of comedic ease, particularly in the realm of African American satire and comedy, in the same way the mainstream naturalizes the idea of African American athleticism or musical prowess—as if these are the terrain of inborn ability rather than the result of skill, effort, hard work, and calculation. This distinction is important not only because it’s critical not to essentialize Blackness into an inherent ability to entertain, but also because believing African American satire and comedy to be “just jokes” is a way to dismiss its significance—it rests on the same old antiquated “happy slave” mythology. If you imagine that African American satirists aren’t thinking critically about the sociopolitical realm, it’s easy to extend that and imagine that no Black people are thinking critically outside of “just jokes.” And then, of course, it’s a short jump to an idea that no one needs to think critically—least of all the people who would be otherwise indicted and convicted by the satire itself.
I also hope readers will unlearn the belief that the “post-racial” is attainable, or even desirable. In the twenty-first century, particularly after the election of Trump, very few rational individuals are holding tight to the idea of the United States being “post-racial.” Racial significance, let alone racial disparities, are all too obvious. However, I hope that my book makes clear that the “post-racial” mythology was never going to save us. What can be lifesaving, instead, is a better understanding of the multitudinous ways of being Black, of understanding Blackness, and of articulating Blackness that not only exist in the twenty-first century but have always existed in Black communities.
Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?
This answer is connected to what I hope readers will unlearn. I want readers to understand the continuing significance of satire in the context of Black communities. If readers unlearn the idea of “just jokes,” I hope it is replaced with a clear-eyed understanding of satire as life saving. African American satire is a significant mode of critique, and through this critique it is a realm of Black self-making, a realm for the opening up of Black interior space, and a realm for Black autonomy. In this way, I hope readers will also recognize that while this contemporary moment is certainly unique in many ways, it is also thanks to our ancestors and the frameworks that they’ve provided that we are able to resist, to protest, and to self-actualize in the ways we do—satire included. I bristle at the “I am not my ancestors” ideology because it is only as a result of our ancestors’s resistance that we have frameworks and templates and strength for our own resistance today. I hope one day to do enough and be strong enough to be worthy ofmy ancestors’s hard work.
Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?
With two small kids at home, I very seldom watch anything that’s completely frivolous—everything feels connected to my current or future research! I’ve been thinking a lot about the line between horror and comedy, our expectations and the uncanniness of this present moment, and so I’ve been watching a lot of television shows that investigate that terrain. I’m curious about where, if anywhere, Black women might go—in the past, in the future, or in another dimension—to be free and so I’ve been especially drawn to Lovecraft Country and I May Destroy You. Similarly, I finished the first two seasons of Jordan Peele’s reboot of The Twilight Zone and I return often to Rod Serling’s original series. The Twilight Zone in all its iterations is my happy place. I also find a great deal of comfort in shows about Black women and Black female friendships—Insecure and A Black Lady Sketch Show are two of my favorite shows right now. These comedians are absolutely brilliant. And I’ve been bingeing Living Single (again). I honestly don’t think there’s ever been a show as perfectly cast and as lovingly acted; you can see the camaraderie and trust among the actors—it’s Black friendship and Black love in action.