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Laughing Off White Supremacy, or: The Politics of Laughter in African American Modernism


“Laughing Off White Supremacy, or: The Politics of Laughter in African American Modernism” delineates a history of African American laughter directed at white supremacy, white supremacist discourses, and white supremacist beliefs in the U.S. in the early 20th century. I show that African American laughter was the foundation for vibrant debates about the strategic direction of black cultural and political movements during this period, including the Harlem Renaissance. I also show that the tradition of laughing at white supremacy developed in contrast to what I identify as the socially codified practice of “laughing it off” thus demonstrating that the practice of laughing at white supremacy was an ironic reaction to a dominant, bourgeois form of laughter in the early 20th century. Finally, I demonstrate that the variety of ways that black authors used laughter reorients longstanding debates about modern laughter and modernist form.

The variety of laughs that take white supremacy as their object and the set of cultural and political strategies that this laughter represents are what I collectively refer to as laughing off white supremacy. The phrase “laughing off” in no way signifies a lack of serious consideration of the threat of white supremacist violence or white supremacist thought. The variety of laughing reactions that I identify are attempts to animate the spectacle of racial violence by representing it as an aesthetic object open to a variety of aesthetic responses, each bearing their own history, ethics, and theory of or orientation toward political action. The deadly serious nature of white supremacy represented through the aesthetic experience of laughter prompts a deepening of attention to the political problems that are represented, the ethical stakes of laughing responses to violence, and a commitment to collective political action expressed through laughter.

“Laughing Off White Supremacy” deepens our understanding of the history of African American comedy and its relationship to political change in the period of American modernism. It also corrects the misconception that modern laughter evinced a retreat from collective political engagements. By showing how the laughter of individuals becomes a source of genuine feeling that is oriented toward collective action, I demonstrate how theories of affect can draw on historical and formalist methods to contextualize the development of feelings and discussions about the nature of changes to aesthetic experience. Laughing off white supremacy shows how for black authors, modern laughter did not represent a retreat from political engagement, but the renewal of a longer struggle for freedom.

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