Black Women’s Humor: Sass and No Sass

by | February 1, 2018 |

This week J Finley of Middlebury College gave a fantastic talk entitled “Yaaas but no. Black Women’s Sass as a Discourse Genre.” It got me thinking about black women’s humor in general.

First, J Finley defines sass:

  1. It is a response to pressure to stay in one’s place. It is a way to speak back to power.
  2. It is agentive. It is purposefully deployed as a strategic tool for asserting one’s humanity.
  3. It occurs in particular contexts, those involving oppression, mistreatment or other kinds of disenfranchisement. As such it is ephemeral, enacted only in the moment.
  4. It is a discourse style, not an identity or a personality trait.

Finley’s first example of black women’s humor involving sass is Whoopi Goldberg, playing Sister Mary Clarence, and the rousing rendition of Hail Holy Queen (Salve Regina) she leads in Sister Act.

Although in this scene Whoopi herself is silent, she is in control. She has hijacked the convent choir and is showing how black vernacular style can have a place in the Catholic church. Mother Superior, played by Maggie Smith, is highly disapproving of the performance – and performance it is with Whoopi transgressing the bodily norms in a Catholic church, shoulders and hips gyrating, twirling and rocking to the beat of what she has turned into a Gospel choir.

Black Women’s Humor: Historical Notes

J Finely went back to the roots with Jackie “Moms” Mabley (1894-1975). For her performances Mom dressed in “Granny drag,” emphasized her deep Southern drawl and took our her dentures. This way she could act the literally toothless and harmless granny fool … and get away with her biting, power-critiquing comedy.

black women's humor

Here’s a wonderful video overview of Moms Mabley- presented by Whoopi Goldberg!

I’ll add LaWanda Page (1920-2002) who was best known as Aunt Esther in the 1970s sitcom Sanford and Sons.

black women's humor

Black Women’s Humor: Modern Day

I’ve always loved Wanda Sykes. I didn’t know until her interview with Conan in 2012 that her genealogy in the US goes back to 1650 and her white great-great-great-(I don’t know how many times)-grandmother in Virginia – a white woman, likely from Scotland.

Check out her “that’s why I’m so uppity” line for a nice bit of sass. It breaks up Conan and the audience.

Laura Hayes, one of the Queens of Comedy, is best known for her “wig bit” (couldn’t find the exact video I want for it). As J Finley analyzes it, Hayes snatches off her wig to reveal her bare and bald humanity so she can speak her truths.

Karinda Dobbins shows her sass in: You Can Say It

Then there there are those black comedians who are not interested in performing sass.

See Marina Franklin on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Her humor is more general and not particularly focused on black issues or race and more on dating and being a cougar.

Neither is the humor of Naomi Ekperigin. See her on Late Night with Seth Meyers where she is more interested to tell jokes about eating and drinking and women who jog alone.

During the Q&A of J Finley’s talk, some debate arose whether Maxine Waters‘ intervention in the House Financial Services Committee meeting with Steve Mnuchin is an example of sass or not. Check it out:

“Reclaiming my time”

Is Water simply invoking normal meeting rules or is she, in words and tone, trying to strip Mnuchin of his authority? Either way “Reclaiming my time” went viral.

For more on humor, see Harith Iskander – Malaysian Stand-Up

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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