Dr. Darryl B. Dickson-Carr: The Satirical Interview

Dr. Darryl B. Dickson-Carr
Darryl Dickson-Carr is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. He specializes in African American and Twentieth-Century American Literatures. His primary area of interest is the role of humor in African-American literary texts. This email interview marks the occasion the publication of Dr. Dickson-Carr’s African American Satire.

Bryan D. Wilhite: First things first: how came you to satire?

Darryl B. Dickson-Carr: I’ve always had a yen for the ironic or oxymoronic turn of phrase, and like much of the public, had been a fan of the more popular forms of satire, such as the material found on television or in Mad magazine. But satire’s literary branch was unknown to me until college, when I enrolled in a couple of courses devoted exclusively to wit and satire in English literature. I was hooked by the audaciousness of these ingenious minds and taken with their manipulation of the language. When I applied to graduate school, my goal was to study traditional English satire of the eighteenth century.

The initiation of my graduate studies, however, coincided with a rapidly budding political consciousness, one that was explicitly Black Nationalist for a while. I began to lose some of my enthusiasm for and interest in classic English literature, and investigated African American literature, culture, and history fervently. Although I retained great respect and admiration for the English satire I’d studied, I began wondering if African American literature had yielded works of similar quality and focus.

I should say that some of my interest arose from reading excerpts from Henry Louis Gates’s book, Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self. In that book, Gates traces the cultural and literary genealogy that led up to African American satirist Ishmael Reed’s masterwork, Mumbo Jumbo. It then occurred to me that Reed could not be the only satirist the African American literary tradition produced. That prompted me to engage in the research that would lead to my dissertation, which eventually became my book, African American Satire.

That’s part of satire’s difficulty: It often requires that the audience or reader be able to decode it based upon beliefs, knowledge, and values that the satirist and the audience supposedly share. If I don’t see the world the way the satirist does, or worse, if I hold values totally opposed to the satirist’s, I won’t get it.

BDW: What is satire? How do we know when we are experiencing satire? I think most people mistake satire for sarcasm. The satirist is trying attack ideas, social mores, …abstractions; whereas the sarcastic person is just trying to hurt personal feelings. Yes?

DBD-C: Close, but not exactly. Somebody speaking sarcastically may very well be trying to attack ideas, social mores, and abstractions. In spoken and written language, though, sarcasm depends upon the tone (or implied tone, in writing) of the utterance. For example, if I wanted to be sarcastic about a stupid person’s lack of intelligence, I might say, “Oh, he’s a smart one!” The person listening to or reading me would hear my emphasis and perhaps see other gestures I’m making. Add to that the context (the gentleman being discussed running into a brick wall, for example), and little doubt would remain that I meant precisely the opposite of what I said. Some satire uses sarcasm, but sarcasm is often too obvious. A satirical work that used nothing but sarcasm would quickly become boring.

In contrast, satire uses wit, irony, and humor to criticize people, institutions, ideas, mores, and so on. It does so to tear them down and, in most cases, to call for them to be rebuilt as something better. Irony is a crucial part of satire. It consists of saying one thing and meaning another. Sarcasm is a heavy-handed form of irony. A more ironic way of expressing the sentiment in my example above might look like this: “His mind is untroubled with the cares of most thinking people.” I have just called my friend a thoughtless, mindless twit, but what I said could be read either that way or as a compliment, but the only way you would see it as the latter is if you dislike thinking people. For the readers of most satire, that is certainly not the case.

That’s part of satire’s difficulty: It often requires that the audience or reader be able to decode it based upon beliefs, knowledge, and values that the satirist and the audience supposedly share. If I don’t see the world the way the satirist does, or worse, if I hold values totally opposed to the satirist’s, I won’t get it. You have to see what the satirist suggests as absurd. So when, for example, George S. Schuyler imagines what would happen if all African Americans were turned white, when Ishmael Reed imagines the consequences of a college run by Eurocentrists being acquired by a Japanese group, or when Paul Beatty imagines the outcome of a young black poet with no natural leadership skills becoming the de facto leader of African Americans, you know in each case that something is afoot.

My litmus test for satire is to ask the text, “You don’t really mean that, do you?” If the answer is no, it is usually satire. If the answer is yes, it’s probably an inane, straight work that needs a good revision.

To this day, I have a difficult time imagining why so few African American women write satire, given that satire may be found on either side of the gender line.

BDW: I am sure that the majority of us (of Generation X) know satire through television re-runs of Monty Python’s Flying Circus or perhaps Saturday Night Live. Not much color there. I am thinking of a character called “Homey the Clown” from In Living Color but… anyway: In African American Satire what satirical works did you find and were there any common threads among them?

DBD-C: One notion I discuss in my book is that satire is found throughout the language and cultural practices of the African Diaspora in general and African America in particular. The opening chapters examine how certain bits of African and African American folklore offer satiric commentary not only upon the adversity of life in general, but also the oppression of slavery, peonage, segregation, racism, and so on. Many of these tales also act to police behavior within the group. In one tale, the slave Pompey uses verbal indirection to call his master a jackass. He tells his master that he looks noble like a lion. When the master asks him if he had ever seen a lion, Pompey claims he saw one on the plantation the previous day. The master points out that that was a jackass, to which Pompey responds, “Was it, massa? Well, you looks just like him.” This tale would show its audience how clever use of language via irony makes it possible to speak truth to power even while deprived of most other forms of empowerment.

This same type of indirection might be found in other cultural practices within (but not unique to) African American communities, such as “signifying,” playing the “dozens,” “woofing,” “snapping,” “capping,” all names for similar uses of language to direct or redirect aggression. In African American Satire, I don’t argue that all literary satire by African Americans necessarily contains or features these practices, but I do argue that they form the basis of a satirical tradition in African America that relatively few scholars have studied at any length.

To return to the gist of your question, though, I found many works that easily qualify as satire, and just as many that contain satirical passages or that have satirical subtexts. A short list of my findings (but not necessarily the books I study closely) would consist of Charles Chesnutt’s “Conjure Woman” stories; Rudolph Fisher’s The Walls of Jericho; George S. Schuyler’s Black No More and many of his columns for The Messenger and American Mercury magazines and the Pittsburgh Courier; Wallace Thurman’s Infants of the Spring, Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain, Langston Hughes’s The Ways of White Folks and his many Jesse B. Semple stories; Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; John Oliver Killens’s The Cotillion; Douglas Turner Ward’s Day of Absence; Fran Ross’s Oreo; Hal Bennett’s Lord of Dark Places; Toni Morrison’s Jazz; Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle; Trey Ellis’s Platitudes; Darius James’s Negrophobia; and every last one of Ishmael Reed’s novels, with my favorites being Mumbo Jumbo and his most recent, Japanese by Spring.

These works are extremely diverse in tone, content, technique, and subject matter. What they do have in common is scorn for those forces within and outside of African American communities that attempt to limit the ways African Americans can and do define ourselves. They satirize individuals, groups, and ideologies that limit possibilities for black progress.

To use the example you provided, one purpose of figures like Homey the Clown on In Living Color is to act as the voice of one type of Black Nationalism speaking truth to American racism and to those individuals within black communities who, in Homey’s estimation, have abandoned those communities. You might recall that at one point, Homey appeared to be selling out to white racists, then used his position to get close enough to ‘bop’ them, as he did all people he satirized. Homey is just a revision of the type of trickster, found throughout African American cultural traditions, who uses his or her wits to trick or overpower those who possess something she or he wants, whether power, food, or other material items.

I should note, though, that some of the authors I study would satirize Homey or at least his form of Black Nationalism, as too narrow. Again, most of the works I study share a disdain for any ideology that restricts or attempts to dictate the direction of black cultural and political development. One of the implicit ironies, though, is that satire tends to be a controlling force itself. In many cultures, the satirist is feared because he or she possesses the ability to use language to tear down and criticize. Normally the satirist does this to push his or her society toward change and reform, but that is not always the case, and it is possible to tear down with no attempt to rebuild. We see that in the way some of the authors I study have been criticized for being either too harsh or too pedantic, but that is frequently part of the satiric enterprise.

Finally, I have to point out that what these works don’t have in common is a substantial number of women satirists. To this day, I have a difficult time imagining why so few African American women write satire, given that satire may be found on either side of the gender line.

BDW: We all have to pay our respects to The Great Satan that is commercial television. Since we are talking about Homey the Clown, I must mention Homer the Clown—of what I consider the greatest satire American television has ever produced, “The Simpsons.” Apart from the genius of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Matt Groening literally cornered the market on popular comedic satire. Any dream that I might have had to “bring to the masses” an “alternative message” (that isn’t overtly African) has already come through the auspices of Rupert Murdoch. Once “the truth” got out I would expect the world to change. I don’t see much change. Any comment?

DBD-C: I think you might be expecting too much of satire in this instance. The satirist would likely point out to you that it is perfectly predictable that the world hasn’t changed in the face of the wisdom and subversion “The Simpsons” offers. For that to happen, humanity would have to possess common sense, basic intelligence, and a desire to improve its condition. Needless to say, we fall quite short of that mark, being the selfish, suicidal, and cynical beings that we are.

This is to say nothing of the fact that a substantial portion of “The Simpsons’” audience probably either misses most of the jokes or is already in Groening’s ideological camp. A better question might be to ask why the latter group of people haven’t changed the world, if they’re as wise as Groening? As far as “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” is concerned, I think it’s safe to say that good, old-fashioned, British left-handed humor is well above the heads of all but a tiny percentage of the American public.

I like to think of the satirist as the person who intervenes in a drug addict’s or alcoholic’s life. In virtually all cases, the addict cannot get well until she or he admits that a problem exists.

BDW: Now this is quite an “off-color” (or actually OF color) question. I am going to ask it because I was shocked to find the work of Bob Kaufman preceding, coinciding and perhaps inspiring the works of Jack Kerouac and other European Americans of the Beat generation. I am wondering if the same thing exists in the world of satire as that of poetry: Is there a Black Mark Twain? Or is Mark Twain a genuine original?

DBD-C: I can think of only a few African American satirical authors who might come close to inspiring Euro-Americans of various stripes in a way comparable to Twain. Ishmael Reed would be the most obvious choice, since vestiges of his work might be seen in Pynchon, Gaddis, Vonnegut, Barthelme, and perhaps others. Langston Hughes’s prose works were also prolific enough to become widely known, and Ralph Ellison has been essentially canonized.

I wouldn’t say, though, that any of these authors has achieved the same sort of universal influence and reverence that Twain has, although Ellison and his Invisible Man are on their way. I am convinced that Reed’s oeuvre, especially such earlier works as Mumbo Jumbo, will eventually be given their full due. Hughes has a jump on both of them, however, since he has earned his own journal, the Langston Hughes Review. In academia, that’s usually a sign that a substantial critical community believes your work merits regular commentary.

BDW: Do you teach this subject?

DBD-C: Yes, I get to teach a course on satire—usually African American—about once every other year. Otherwise, I teach other African American and American literature courses that frequently include satirical works.

BDW: How do you design the course?

DBD-C: The last time I taught a general course on satire was about five years ago. Its focus was on both the history and theory of satire. I started with Juvenal and Horace, continued with Erasmus, then moved on to Swift, Pope, Voltaire, Twain, Pynchon, and Reed. I also included the theoretical essays some these authors had written to accompany their works, as well as the theories of such luminaries as Booth, Kierkegaard, Paulson, Guilhamet, Kernan, Elkin, Weisenburger, Hutcheon, and so on. I normally have my students read the theory alongside the literature to put it in a helpful context.

BDW: Now we can’t just let these names go by without some exposition for guys like me in the cheap seats: Juvenal and Horace… Erasmus, Swift, Pope, Voltaire, Twain, Pynchon, and Reed all represent some milestone on the road to “modern satire” do they not? We don’t just assume that satirical writing was created spontaneously, right? These names mark major “epochs” of evolution?

DBD-C: Yes, each is considered one of the leading lights in the history and development of satire. Juvenal and Horace were ancient Roman satirists who usually commented upon the morality—or lack thereof—within Roman social and political circles. Desiderius Erasmus was a 16th-century philosopher whose In Praise of Folly was one of the great satires of his time. Jonathan Swift was an 18th-century Irish clergyman, pampleteer, and author, whose Travels to Several Remote Nations of the World (better known as Gulliver’s Travels) has become a classic of British satire. One of his quasi-contemporaries was Alexander Pope, best known for his mock-epic poem The Rape of the Lock, as well as many other satiric verses. Jean-Marie Arouet de Voltaire wrote Candide,or Optimism, easily one of the best satires to emerge from France. Mark Twain was the author of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,Pudd’n’head Wilson, and many other gems of American literature. He is arguably the godfather of American satire, best known for excoriating the stupidity and mediocrity of middle America.

Thomas Pynchon is the author of The Crying of Lot 49,Gravity’s Rainbow, and most recently, Mason & Dixon, all award-winning novels. He and Ishmael Reed represent different sectors of the “postmodernist” phase of American satire. Their works are extremely skeptical of traditional constructions of American history, especially those that place people of color in abject, inferior positions in history. Reed’s most famous novels, Mumbo Jumbo and Flight to Canada, practically rewrite American history to demonstrate how a cultural conspiracy of sorts might emerge to make African Americans look like objects, rather than subjects of history.

Each of these authors, as you might expect, do not cover the same subject areas at all, but their insightful perspectives upon their respective societies and times have rarely been matched by other satirists. They are giants of their times, in terms of their artistic achievements, even if not all of them are well known to the layperson today.

BDW: Would you mind terribly performing a parlor trick for me? Now, you say that Ishmael Reed’s work rewrites American history. I see Kurt Vonnegut doing a similar thing at the beginning of Breakfast of Champions. Will you knock down the artificial barriers of racism and its American culture to intimately associate Ishmael Reed’s work with Kurt Vonnegut’s? Are there more incidental or premeditated examples of this cross-cultural exchange?

DBD-C: Reed and Vonnegut arose out of the same era, the 1960s, in which the American national consciousness was really beginning to allow for a broader perception of the nation’s history. That’s why you see the similarity here. I’m not certain how much contact Reed has had with Vonnegut, but in terms of literary themes and certain aspects of their styles, they’re blood-brothers. It’s worth noting that one of Reed’s and Vonnegut’s other kindred spirits, Thomas Pynchon, makes an explicit reference to Reed in his masterwork, Gravity’s Rainbow. On page 588 of the Penguin edition, Pynchon defers to Reed’s knowledge of Masonic mysteries, which Reed explored in Mumbo Jumbo (1972).

The only other cross-cultural exchange that was more premeditated would be the collusion of George S. Schuyler with journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken in the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, Schuyler was widely known as the “Black Mencken.” Schuyler wrote a number of essays for Mencken’s American Mercury magazine, including a few satiric ones.

BDW: We have already talked about the relationship (or confusion) between satire and sarcasm. I sense that there is a similar interaction between satire and cynicism. If you see a relationship to satire and cynicism, can satire be healthy for the general public?

DBD-C: Satire does indeed tend to be cynical. Moreover, satirists tend not to put forth the most viable solutions to the problems they criticize. To that extent, satire may not be as helpful to the average reader; it offers him or her little hope unless humanity undergoes a radical change that causes everybody to act as if they have sense.

I like to think of the satirist as the person who intervenes in a drug addict’s or alcoholic’s life. In virtually all cases, the addict cannot get well until she or he admits that a problem exists. If we are all addicted to or lost in our own folly—the United States’ national elections should provide sufficient evidence of that—then the satirist is the one who stands up and tells us so, hoping that by pointing out the problem, we will make some feeble attempt to cure ourselves. Of course, we always fall short as far as the satirist is concerned. He or she believes that the solutions are right in front of our faces, but we’re too caught up in our misery to act upon them.

I also like to think of the satirist as being the equivalent of any other critic. The only difference is that the satirist uses humor, wit, and irony in his/her criticisms, and has relatively little hope that we will answer the criticisms posed to us.

BDW: Thanks very much for the interview. I know you have to handle the business of your book coming out and I appreciate the time you have taken to move through the kinté space! Do you have any parting words? Some healthy satire perhaps?

DBD-C: Thank you for taking the time—and patience—to conduct the interview!

In parting, I’d like to repeat some of the wishes I wrote into my book. First, I would like more people to take a close look at satire’s function within all aspects of the African Diaspora and their collective experiences.

Second, it would be great if more women published extended satirical works and had them read widely and studied.

Third, I would be more than happy to discuss anything related to my work with those who read this interview. I recently attended symposium that focused upon such recent, younger satirists as Darius James, Trey Ellis, and Paul Beatty. From that gathering, it became quite clear that each of these authors has a steadily growing fan base and significant scholarly interest. In my dreams, they’d be as well known to readers and scholars of African American literature as Toni Morrison. They need not be accorded the same reverence and interest she generates, of course, but people should know of them.

As for healthy satire? Well, perhaps I’d better walk away from that temptation. Juvenal was right; it’s difficult not to write satire. This is especially true when the world is full of folly. After being at the epicenter of last fall’s elections, I’d say that satirists, especially African American ones, have more than enough material to last them for several careers.