You Got Jokes: #BlackTwitter and the Truths Said in Jest

#BlackTwitter is notorious for setting the creative tone of modern popular culture—especially when it comes to comedy. Take the possibility of WWIII, for example. In early January Donald Trump launched an unauthorized attack on Iran that killed one of the country’s military leaders, Qasem Soleimani. Almost immediately #BlackTwitter took to the feeds in a frenzy and let the jokes and witticisms fly.

Some people complained about the jokes, claiming that the possibility of war should be taken seriously. Obviously, everyone takes war seriously, but sometimes you really have to smile and laugh through the fear and pain. Think about it this way: the people who were joking were likely coming from a place of angst and frustration because, well, they told you so. We’ve been warning about the potential for disaster as a result of the current political climate. So, these so-called jokes weren’t entirely fun and games. The truth is often said in jest.

Sometimes, when it seems as if #BlackTwitter is taking nothing seriously, we have to dig deeper to see where the jokes are coming from. Often, pain is the root of a punchline. There’s a common phrase, “the tears of a clown”, which means that sometimes people are hiding hurt behind a smile. Historically—and presently—Black people have endured their share of pain, so it’s not surprising that we’ve become quite adept at using humor to cope.

Black Americans have used art as a way to deal with trauma and PTSD for as long as any of us can remember. There’s our music, particularly the blues and negro spirituals, that contained coded language for freedom or coded messages that dissed the oppressors on plantations where slaves couldn’t blatantly express distain. There’s also comedy. Richard Pryor, for example, has an entire routine,  N—ers vs Police (1974), about the tense relationship between Black people and law enforcement. There’s nothing funny about it, but Pryor related stories of how racist policing negatively affects Black people. Through his artistry he created a space for catharsis—lamentation through laughter.

Even Frederick Douglass infused humor into his work. According to Glenda Carpio’s Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery (Oxford University Press), the iconic abolitionist utilized mimicry in some of his speeches. He would sometimes imitate slaveholders while illustrating their hypocrisies and the mockery they made of marriage and family by fathering children out of wedlock that they would also own.

Comedy evolves over the years and reflects how the times change. In the digital age, sometimes irony can get lost in translation, or perhaps people are too reactionary instead of first thinking critically. So, the next time it seems like #BlackTwitter is not taking a serious situation seriously enough, dig a little deeper. Think about the historic and folkloric traditions of our humor as a survival strategy—see if you can follow the punchline back to its tragic root.