Humor and Violence in the African-American Imagination

deadline for submissions: 
September 30, 2017
full name / name of organization: 
Northeastern Modern Language Association (NeMLA)

This session welcomes papers that will investigate the range of comedic forms embedded within African American literature. On the heels of the twentieth anniversary of the release of Saidiya Hartman’s seminal monograph Scenes of Subjection, this panel’s exploration of the use of humor in black literature offers a new critical framework for exploring the ways that spectacles of violence have continued to undergird representations of black performance in contemporary critical thought. From the auction block to the jazz stage, “blackness” manifests epidermally and externally, often through public articulations of shared racial grief. As such, recent critical work has often framed humor as a tactical response to racial violence. Current discussions of the use of humor in black literature often rely on Ralph Ellison’s configuration of black humor as subversive, defensive, and tacitly barbed. Black literary subjects do frequently leverage humor as a mode of political critique, but these characters also often seem invested in the sheer pleasure afforded by laughter, farce, and “playing the dozens.”

This panel will seek to re-focus current critical thought to account for and accommodate the ways that a black literary or political subject might experience joy. By framing a discussion of black performance around humor, we aim to re-think and move beyond configurations of black literary production as purely (or most authentically) tragic. What is the relationship between humor and violence in African American literature? How might discourses about violence in black literature be reimagined through the influence of comedic traditions like trickster narratives, minstrelsy, and other forms of what Paul Beatty terms “black literary insobriety”? Can black comedy ever be fully disarticulated from explorations of racial violence? In what ways might humor be employed as a critical tool or as a discursive mode? The papers in this panel will address these questions by exploring how comic expression (fictional, performative, visual) is constitutive of black critical thought.

Please submit 300-word abstracts by September 30, 2017 through the NeMLA online submission system using the following URL: If you have any questions, please contact me at