What’s So Funny About Being Black?

Photo: Getty Images

The past few weeks have been a … trying time for Black America, to say the least. But even in times of tragedy, Black Americans have historically striven to find a lightness. And despite so much focus on the hardships we face, Black joy is omnipresent and worthy of highlight.

Even as a satirist, it’s admittedly not the easiest (or the most helpful) thing for me to find humor in police brutality, white supremacy, and the seemingly endless fight for Black people’s rights. It can feel hopeless, inappropriate, and sometimes even damaging to use comedy to bring attention to something so serious and so urgent. But at the same time, I think that using humor is an effective way to highlight the hypocrisy and cast light onto blind spots that even the best-intentioned allies can perpetuate. It’s also something that Black people are good at. We always have been. Finding joy under circumstances that could break anyone has been an aspect of Black American culture for centuries. We’re all comedians. So who better to talk to about Black joy than Black comics?

With my personal favorite holiday, Juneteenth, rapidly reaching the Zeitgeist, it seemed fitting to celebrate the efforts that Black people have taken to find a reason to laugh in this particular moment, in the face of an ongoing fight for civil rights. So I reached out to some of my favorite Black comics for their perspectives, and asked them the question: “What’s so funny about being Black … if there is anything funny at all?”

Quinta Brunson: What’s funny about being Black? We thought we were so tired from white people not understanding racism. Turns out them understanding racism is just as tiring. I never knew I could be this tired.

Nicole Byer: I don’t know if there is anything funny about being Black. This question is literally insane. I think Black people are good at finding the humor in the wild ass shit that goes with being Black.

RuPaul’s Drag Race is a lovely thing that I love to watch and is so much fun and is funny. Twitter is very funny, specifically Black Twitter … Again we are good at being funny in hard times.

Kyle Harris: I have a habit of spending a lot of time on Twitter looking for laughter and tweeting stupid jokes, and of course things are different now, but between the constant horrible news, I will always laugh at seeing outspoken white people get dunked on for their terrible takes or ideas. I haven’t seen any family in a while, so seeing Black people collectively laugh online at the same thing sometimes feels like laughing with my cousins or your friends in the back of the school bus.

Jay Jurden: First of all, I’m so happy a Black person is asking this. Secondly, tension and release create comedy, and that’s the story of Black people in America. The brutalization of Black people isn’t funny, but the ability to not only survive but thrive is awe-inspiring. Black people have the neuroplasticity to protest but also crack jokes while we do it. Twitter is so terrible but does wonderful when it comes to the highs and lows of this. The Shake Shack Diarrhea Cops Saga? The po-po poo-poo’d and we all got to witness a lie unravel in real time.

Black people laughing at how ill-equipped yet well intentioned some white folks are when they try to help. It sucks that it’s such an old comedy trope, but it’s also so damn funny. Michael Jordan and Shaq both got huge laughs at Kobe Bryant’s funeral. To me that’s a microcosm of Black people finding joy in the depths of sorrow. Every Black comic I follow on Twitter has found a way to make me smile during this. That’s a gift! In part because we don’t have the ability to distance ourselves from any of this. I also laugh at pop culture, or at least the remnants of it during this.

The easiest part for me is laughing at parts of this because I traffic in comedy. It’s my currency. I have to consciously choose to be less receptive to laughs sometimes because shit ain’t always funny. But in the same vein, I was at a protest organized by very young people, of which I’m not, and one of the speakers asked the crowd, “Can you hear me?” And the best response was just a very honest and possibly tired Black woman saying, “No, baby, speak up!” I laughed my ass off. It was hilarious but also affirming. And right now, that combo, that’s what is making me laugh.

Charla Lauriston: I just finally don’t feel crazy. Like before the world was just chugging along like everything wasn’t on fire. Now at least America’s finally being honest with itself. That’s funny, to me at least.

Edgar Momplaisir: I saw a poem comparing being Black in America to the same adrenaline rush you get from extreme sports. I think it works the same with our humor. It’s almost our way of breaking tension, which I believe we have so much of. I think we developed a sense of humor to add levity to such an intense life.

As for what I’m doing to laugh? Talking to my Black friends. Whether it’s on Zoom or a phone call or finding out the max number of people that can be added to FaceTime (I found out and Apple has asked that I neither say nor attempt to reach that number again). I think it comes back to the whole idea of tension. Only Black people can share a cathartic laugh with me about this tension. Anyone else, I’m either passing the stress onto them or they are ignoring its existence. But a Black person understands why seeing two guys drive through the Hollywood protest playing “I’m in Love With the Coco” is so fucking funny.

Ify Nwadiwe: I feel like there are two main feelings and thoughts I have about what’s so funny about being Black. The first is that knowing the history of Black people — the struggle that we’ve been through and how much work white supremacy has put in to oppress us — it’s funny that we can still find the comedy in the struggle. The fact that we can build SpongeBob memes out of a whole system built to destroy us is really funny and inspiring. My second thought piggybacks off of that idea, and it’s that knowing all of this — all the things that are stacked against us Black people — comedy, laughter, and joy is an act of resistance. We’re basically saying that no matter what you throw at us, you won’t steal our joy, and I love it.

So what’s making me laugh? All of that. The jokes, the memes, and how completely stupid racists look trying to keep up the façade of their “We didn’t do anything” mentality. Every move white supremacy makes now is so transparent, and I live to watch every racist get dragged on the daily. Anime is still really funny, too, when it gets a li’l too heavy and I need to escape.

Becca O’Neal: Other Black people are making me laugh right now. Subversion is always funny. And no one’s better at subverting the status quo than people being actively oppressed.

Jasmine Pierce: This is the first time we’re getting to expose the absurdities of our daily life and everyone is listening. Being Black in a white world is the joke; we just have to write it down.

What’s So Funny About Being Black?