African American Satire in the Twenty-First Century

Edited by Danielle Fuentes Morgan

Introduction: Twenty-First-Century African American Satire

Danielle Fuentes Morgan

Awkward Prose and Satirical Didacticism

Keyana Parks

Black Millennial Satire

Brandon J. Manning

Stick to the Script?! No, Stick It to the Man!

Mari N. Crabtree

A Fugitive Strain: Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist and the Joke of Race

Brittney Michelle Edmonds


Tiffany Haddish laughs to keep from crying and, in many cases, to keep from dying: both literal, physical death and the spiritual death that comes with a denial of selfhood. The Black comedian's recognition of the ongoing absurdity of the world provides a mechanism for her survival. In her memoir, The Last Black Unicorn, she writes toward reclaiming herself. She takes a wryly humorous approach even to the articulation of overt trauma of physical and psychic abuse and violence, framing her experiences as satire. She wards off spiritual demise through introspective evaluation. She writes,

I didn't start out with the intention of writing about all this painful stuff. I just wanted to write a funny book . . . [But] [i]f something comes up, I'm going to talk about it. I'm going to tell you about it, and if it hurts, that's too bad. I'm going to be like, 'Yo, that shit hurt, but let me tell you though.'

That's who I am.

I feel like, honestly that's the only reason I'm still alive. Because I'm willing to talk about my stuff. Whether it's onstage, or with friends, or in this book.1

Haddish's articulation "if something comes up, I'm going to talk about it. I'm going to tell you about it, and if it hurts, that's too bad" names what the best satire does in the twenty-first century. It's what it must do to be effective, whether audiences like it or not. 

Contemporary African American satire blurs the lines between laughing and crying, catharsis and constraint, the real and the imaginary. When the world feels increasingly absurd, satire offers a way of understanding it. The satiric interest in the absurd destabilizes the mainstream acceptance and propagation of the racial status quo, offering cunning social critique hidden within supposedly innocent laughter. These texts and performances compel audiences to reexamine themselves and even ask if they themselves are the objects of ridicule and, in doing so, create a frame in which possibilities of justice might emerge, often through the depiction of its overwhelming absence. Despite the familiar claims that it's "just a joke!", satirists address the failures and limitations of their contemporary moment with clear intention even if that intention is disavowed. Jokes and the laughter they inspire open up a space for play, reimagining Black identity, and Black selfhood, and even Blackness itself where stereotypes and preconceptions can be usurped, rebutted, reappropriated, or exploded. Haddish here is once again instructive. She explains,

As an adult, when I was working at [an] airline, one of my coworkers called me stupid. I said:

Tiffany: "You call me stupid one more damn time, we're gonna have a straight-up fight in here."

Coworker: "You do realize I'm trying to tell you that you're funny. I think you're funny. That's why I'm saying that. Like, you stupid funny."

Tiffany: "Oh, shit. My bad. I won't fight you over no compliment."2

While the humor of this experience ostensibly derives from a misunderstanding, Haddish actually not only reminds readers of the lingering impact of childhood trauma her own continued sensitivity to having been called stupid as an adolescent but also the satirical reframing of the derogatory, where the satirist is called stupid in recognition of their comedic cleverness. Her retelling of this moment reveals her contemporary awareness of racialized absurdity; the idea of fighting over a compliment only makes us laugh because we recognize the potential marginalization Haddish was seeking to resist. The satirical impulse, then, instigates a process by which the potential trauma of marginalization or racialization might be undone by reclaiming the self in opposition to the oppressor's denial of humanity and hurt. If we accept, as we must, that satire not only highlights this trauma but serves to indict the traumatizer then we can begin to understand satiric self-making as a form of social justice, as a way to survive. 

The essays in this cluster incisively refute that strangely lingering notion of "just jokes," where comedy and satire are argued to be trivial because they offer their audience pleasure.3 Instead, these essays recognize satire as producing revolutionary laughter, where laughter opens into the terrain of Black interiority and in-group belonging. Laughing to keep from dying shows that the satirical impulse was, and continues to be, necessary for day-to-day survival because it reinforces the humanity of both the satirist and their audience while secretly, simultaneously constructing an in-group positioned with more knowledge than their oppressor. It is an act of self-affirmation and imagining yourself otherwise: imagining yourself outside of the terms that have been set up for you, despite the mainstream narratives that might try to diminish or appropriate your stories. Haddish says as much about the stage: "Everybody's anticipating what I have to say, and I have this power I don't have anywhere else. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but it feels so fucking good."4

Haddish boldly tells her own story. The essays in this cluster similarly show us that, even when solidly lodged in the realm of fiction or the absurd, twenty-first-century African American satire is founded on a premise of boldly telling our stories. If the line between the real and the fictive is blurry, then our real stories can be told in both spaces. While Black writers and performers have always agitated against the limiting parameters of racialization, in recent years joke-telling has worked more overtly to push back against ill-fitting generic expectations to seek justice on the levels of individual and communal identity. Satire unmasks, revealing Black identity formation in the twenty-first century. As Haddish notes, "If it hurts, too bad." 

These essays offer insights into the difficult task set before twenty-first-century African American satire: if we recognize that the line between the real and imaginary is increasingly unstable, what degree of absurdity is required to satirize in fiction a social realm that seems intent on a degree of absurdity that satirizes itself into oblivion in reality? Keyana Parks's analysis of Issa Rae's memoir The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl shows us that one way might be to move experience into the realm of fiction, upping the ante of the symbolic nature of personal recollections. Parks demonstrates that what she describes as the "satirical didacticism" of contemporary African American satire "subverts the idea that within the pages of their work one will come to understand or somehow 'know' Blackness" in this case, the real-life recollections of Issa Rae become one way to understand the many ways of experiencing Blackness, pushing back against common stereotypes and tropes. Brandon Manning agrees, noting that Black Millennial satirists "insist on moving beyond ambivalence, toward action. They name injustice toward its eradication" in their use of their platforms and the construction of their comedic voices and personas.

Mari N. Crabtree's and Brittney Michelle Edmonds's analyses move away from those identifiably real figures and show the continued usefulness of the expressly fictive as a way to make meaning of our experiences. Crabtree explains in her analysis of Boots Riley's film Sorry to Bother You, "To more skeptical viewers, the film may seem absurd and farfetched . . . until it's not. That is, it seems farfetched until they try to explain how the film exaggerates the perils of racial capitalism but find that the real world and the one imagined by Riley blend too easily around the edges." By imagining it out to its (il)logical conclusion, Riley reveals not only the unsustainability of capitalism but also its incompatibility with Black life. Likewise, Brittney Michelle Edmonds offers that in Colson Whitehead's Intuitionist, "a joke is a way of laying claim to the multiplicity of a vexxed social reality in flux, a way of saying that the world we live in is not inevitable and so, is vulnerable to change." Edmonds keenly notes that satire is not merely descriptive but can also be an active disavowal of the way things are, where even in its potential pessimism it offers hope in futurity.

These satires, while they might inspire laughter, use absurdity to compel their audience's consideration of the real-life ramifications of the topics being examined and their complicity within the establishments being satirized. And that's where the work of revolution, of reclaiming your own identity, might begin. As Brittney Michelle Edmonds rightly explains, "Critical jokes, quite simply, ask more of us. And it's always an us that they ask. That's their promise: a space to commune outside the organizing logics from which those hailed need relief."

Danielle Fuentes Morgan (@mos_daf)is an assistant professor in the Department of English at Santa Clara University. She specializes in African American literature and culture in the 20th and 21st centuries and is interested in the ways that literature, popular culture, and humor shape identity formation. Her research and teaching reflect her interests in African American satire and comedy, popular culture, literature and the arts as activism, and the continuing influence of history on contemporary articulations of Black selfhood. Her book, Laughing to Keep from Dying: African American Satire in the Twenty-First Century, was published in November 2020 by University of Illinois Press and addresses the contemporary role of African American satire as a critical realm for social justice. 


  1. Tiffany Haddish, The Last Black Unicorn (Gallery Books, 2017), 275.[]
  2. Ibid., 6.[]
  3. In particular, you might consider the prevalence of "Chill Bro, It's Just a Joke" memes on social media meant to gaslight and deflect from the impact of jokes on marginalized audience members."[]
  4. Haddish, Unicorn, 143.[]

Past clusters