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Hood Humor

The various hardships of ghetto life and general ethnic otherness experienced by minority communities in America have inspired an off-color humor all its own. Across the country, people of the ghetto have connected their own stories and realities of racial difference. Performers have channeled these experiences and facts of life into the comedic arts. This type of light-hearted engagement with one’s own living conditions provides a creative coping mechanism. They say that laughter is the medicine, so it should be no wonder that the resilience of ghetto residents nationwide has taken to it.

Issues of race, wealth, and history come into play as comedians, jokers, and corner orators alike parody the facts of their own existence. Ghettoness and blackness have been stigmatized by the upper class in America to the extent that retaining either of these qualities can make mundane aspects of life more difficult. In being honest with these facts and facing reality with a sense of humor comedians like Paul Mooney, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and even the extremely pale Louis CK have been able to communicate succinct points about how our contemporary society views history and racial relations.

How do we define ghettoness and where exactly does it come into play for a comedic setting? This is a very important question for those who attempt to poke fun at the ideas and facts of life behind being black and from the ghetto. Knowing the socio-economic constructs of ghetto neighborhoods and the politics that go down there are central to anyone’s understanding of what makes it so “ghetto.” Project buildings, graffiti’d walls, stoop dwellers, corner stores, and other physical traits like these that can be found only in the urban ghetto are what come to define it as a place. Ghettos also seem to have token characters by which they are defined and differentiated from other places. Representations of characters such as the drug dealer, the crackhead, the single mother, the unfaithful boyfriend and the vindictive girlfriend, the tough nigga, the righteous brother, and a slew of others have been elemental to picturing what the ghetto experience is like. The widespread reliance on welfare, a proclivity for fried chicken, living beyond one’s own material means, and the makeshift quality of bootlegged or knock-off accessories – which have appropriated the very word “ghetto” as an adjective – have become commonplace bits for humorous remark on ghetto communities from within, as well as, from outside.

These are observational bits that aid in painting a portrait of ghetto life to those outside observers who do not have empirical knowledge of what “ghetto” is or means. These facts of life, meager as they are, have inspired comedy as a way for those living in the struggle to find a lighter side to conditions that are deeply entrenched in the groundwork of modern urban life and the social caste system. Black humor is not simply a construct of the mind that helps to illustrate one’s own feelings, it is based off a longstanding racial reality that has only recently been alleviated of injustice and has yet to be alleviated of social structural duress.

Along with depictions of ghetto life come a diversity of comedic identities, some more fabulous than others. In each of these identities lies a different imagination and perception of what one is to their ghetto world as well as to the outside world. A comedian like Katt Williams, for example, is flashy as hell and focuses most of his explosive energy on his delivery. His jokes deal with black stereotypes in ways that are accepting of them, almost as if to confess to being one big stereotype himself. His comfort with his level of blackness and ghettoness is outward and he glorifies his “inner-pimp” persona. For Williams it is as much about outward appearance of one’s own cultural identity as it is about his anecdotal description of it.

Katt Williams represents, like many of his fellow black comics, a subcultural identity that is specific to the ghetto: the ratchet. Now, my use of this term is a bit more generalized than its original meaning, however, it does help to make a distinction with regards to the many black entertainers in show business. Ratchet is a term that is usually descriptive of a woman who is so caught up in her appearance and the belief that she is the eye candy of everyone around her that she fails to realize just how false this notion is. In other words, a ratchet is a mistaken diva. Although, I believe it is just as accurate to describe anyone who is so deeply absorbed with their outward appearance as ratchet. Williams’ comes on stage looking like the grandchild of Don “Magic” Juan; his minute height apparent, his hair straightened or permed, sometimes topped off with a wildly colored pimp hat to match his outfit, which is as gaudy and vibrant, and his jewelry just the same. He presents himself as a stereotype and, whereas it is a part of persona, it is also a part of his act. Comedians such as Eddie Griffin and Sinbad, whose routines revolve mostly around similar themes of blackness and ghettoness, have styles akin to Williams’, though not quite as ostentatious.

On the flip side of this type of ghetto-centric personality there are comedians whose routines revolve mostly around issues of race, class, and the divides between communities, but do so with a less emphasized approach. Comedians like Dave Chappelle, Richard Pryor, and Eddie Murphy are known just as much for their controversial subject matter as they are for their sincerity and authenticity. Their persona’s reflect ghetto identities that are not so caught up with outward demeanors, rather they come off as slickly intelligent observers who are able to run through a range of perspectives on their chosen issues. They do not emphasize their blackness as much as they use it as lens through which they are able to perceive the rest of the world.

Richard Pryor’s humor was always known for its crass subject matter and raw delivery, which was inspirational a slew of comedians who came after him. One of his greater observational bits came from a trip he took to Kenya, in which he realized that no one there used the word “nigger” and for that reason alone there were no niggers in the entire country. The word was used to describe “our own wretchedness,” as Pryor puts it. “We perpetuate it now, cause it’s dead,” he says “we men and women. We come from the first people on the Earth… the first people on the Earth were Black people.” He then goes on to chalk this discovery up to the work of white anthropologists, which is a fact that allows white people to believe too. “We was the first people to have thought,” Pryor says “we was the first one’s to say: ‘where the fuck am I? and how do you get to Detroit?’.”

It does not require black skin to see these issues of race and class for what they are. The fact remains that being a Black man or woman in our society, even today, presents far more problems and disadvantages than being anything else. The racial stigma and stereotypes attached to Black folks are by far the most harsh. At this point they are probably among the most deeply embedded in our social and cultural perceptions. The differences between white and black folks are constant themes in many routines. The racial divide is a very real and very relevant aspect of contemporary society and it warrants satire and commentary. In fact, some of the most appreciated Black humor is that which imitates the white man or woman. Some of the most memorable moments in the routines of comics like Chappelle or Pryor are those in which they vocally mimic the “honky.” The compulsion to parody white folks is apparent in even the acts of white comics. Louis CK has an entire bit dedicated to admitting the wonderful privileges of being white and that he has pretty much no reason to complain. “I’m not saying that white people are better,” he starts, “I’m saying that being white is clearly better!” Although, he does predict a future in which white folks “pay hard” for their privilege.

Perhaps the most accurate description of the phrase “ghetto fabulous” is that it is both a mentality and a lifestyle that attempt to convey an affluence that is not altogether there. The term “ratchet” has certainly arisen from this notion of self-perceived wealth and importance, however, mostly from the standpoint of its blatant fallacy. “Ghetto,” however, is a widely used term in our society that has become a description of all things scant, unpolished, and barely sufficient. Its collision with the perseverance of folks to be fabulous – whatever their means – truly makes for an illustrious product. The styles, slang, humor, and overall culture that has spiralled out of this mixture is an incredibly influential force in our society today. This ghetto fabulous subculture has provided for the emergence of white kids who have created black identities, aptly known as “wiggers.” It has enabled the hopelessly tortured hipster-fashionista to put on platform shoes, a weave, and a Fubu jersey and live a lifestyle of self-proclaimed ghetto fabulousness. It has inspired people of other nationalities to appropriate the street styles of Harlem and South Central in their own environs; wearing baggy clothing and bandanas to the side and rapping in different languages. “Nigger” has become a word in the casual vocabulary of countless young suburban kids who emulate the vernacular and cadence of street talk. It has generated an unprecedented cultural syncretism that has muddled opinions and identities to a point where all people can do now is realize a few absurdities here and there and have a laugh at it. However, no matter who consumes the culture the proprietors of the ghetto fabulous lifestyle will always be those who are in or from financial difficulty, those who are on the less fortunate side of an ethnic/racial divide, and most importantly, those who are willing to cope with it.

Lifestyle | Humour


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