September 10, 2009

Bad T'ings Mek Joke: Jamaican Humor

An elderly Jamaican man lay dying in his bed. While suffering the agonies of impending death, he suddenly smelled the aroma of his favorite Jamaican pastry, Gizzada, wafting up the stairs. He gathered his remaining strength, and lifted himself from the bed. Leaning against the wall, he slowly made his way out of the bedroom, and with even greater effort, gripping the railing with both hands, he crawled downstairs. With labored breath, he leaned against the doorframe, gazing into the kitchen.

Were it not for death's agony, he would have thought himself already in heaven, for there, spread out upon waxed paper on the kitchen table were literally dozens of Gizzadas.

Was it heaven? Or was it one final act of heroic love from his devoted wife of sixty years, seeing to it that he left this world a happy man? Mustering one great final effort, he threw himself towards the table, landing on his knees in a rumpled posture. His parched lips parted, the wondrous taste of the Gizzada was already in his mouth, seemingly bringing him back to life.

The aged and withered hand trembled on its way to a Gizzada at the edge of the table, when it was suddenly smacked with a 'dutch-pot' by his wife......

"Move yu back-side," she said, "Dem ya a fe you nine-nite!"

There is something quintessentially Jamaica in this joke that I suspect some North American readers, even if they got past the language, would not understand or even think was funny—it transgresses political correctness that attempts to shield us from harsh realities. Others would recoil in horror: how could the death of a spouse be funny? But the more I think about the joke, the more I howl and hold my belly—as I am sure many other Jamaicans are doing. For only a people who have endured the Middle Passage, slavery, and colonialism could have the resiliency to find humor in the dukkhas of life.

And isn’t that the essence of humor? As the Yiddish writer Romain Gary (somewhere there is a paper that should be written about the similarities between Yiddish and Caribbean literature) once said, “Humor is an affirmation of dignity, a declaration of man’s superiority to all that befalls him.” Or as we say, "Tek kin teet kibba heart bu'n"

Yet, this kind of gallows humor is not particular to Jamaica. In fact, in the Eastern Caribbean the comical banter, picong, that is played out in the streets and in calypsos frequently engages the fine line between humor and insult. (see Derek Walcott’s “The Spoiler’s Return”). And it is only a gifted comic, aware of the material and the audience, who can successfully navigate the boundaries (Omo ode, koni kosi Ibara ago, ago moyuba Eleggua Eshu Lona) or else become the butt of the joke with serious injuries!

In reggae, too, this awareness of the simultaneity of ecstasy and despair, the double-edgedness of existence is evident even in a seemingly innocent song about universal brotherhood, “One Love” by Bob Marley, which contains this apocalyptic warning:

Let's get together to fight this Holy Armagiddyon (One Love!),
So when the Man comes there will be no, no doom (One Song!).

Have pity on those whose chances grows t'inner;

There ain't no hiding place from the Father of Creation

But what
nurtures this tragicomic (some would say macabre) view of life? As the dean of Jamaican comedic writing, Anthony C. Winkler, states in Trust the Darkness: My Life as a Writer: “Humour has an element of the absurd in it, but there is always also present an undergirding of logic” (381-382). Winkler knows this. He knows funny. His many books, which include The Lunatic and Dog War, share a common premise: a sane person in an insane situation. The insanity is usually manifested by an antagonist who follows a rigid code despite all evidence to the contrary that the system s/he supports does not work. Or as he further explains in Trust The Darkness, the difference between the Jamaica and American outlook:

I would point to the theatricality that dominates the practice of everyday business in America. The poor kid behind the counter cooking hamburgers is expected not only to do the job but also to reflect his employer’s corporate image with all its virtues. It is not enough to merely get the job, you also have to put on a uniform and act as if you have been transformed from an individual into a spear carrier in a corporate army…Tied in with this theatricality is a strong characteristic of the American outlook to see everything in ideological and abstract terms. Jamaicans, on the other hand, are more pragmatic than ideological (428).

In these kinds of situations, much like many circumstances that seem insurmountable, the only alternative, the only weapon of the powerless against the powerful is humor. (Nation Language and Anancy stories share this common root of resistance.) The protagonist refuses to succumb to the madness that surrounds him, no matter how logical it seems. And what was more logical than a system that needed enormous amounts of human capital in order to sustain itself? Or an immigration system that caused the kinds of dislocations that Sam Selvon wrote about in “Waiting for Aunty to Cough”?

Writers such as Selvon, Winkler, and Naipaul (before his wit became savage) have long discerned the secret of humor: there is an undeniable bond and truth in laughter. If your oppressor laughs with you, then s/he has recognized the human connection. None of the guns, rockets, and IEDs can eradicate that link, and the opportunity for change becomes apparent. You can't laugh and curse in the same breath. And even if the oppressor is as implacable as death, humor asserts that it is how we live our lives--joyously and fearlessly--that matters.

If death is the closing parenthesis on the fiction of every human life, then humor is the asterisk that proclaims the dignity of human life despite the many absurdities. It produces the kind of humor that my history teacher at Jamaica College, the late James Carnegie, reveled in as he punished us: “It hot, but hush” [trans. “It hurts, but hush”]. This is humor that heals.


This post is part of a group write project “What I Learned From Laughter” at Middle Zone Musings and Pamela Mordecai’s post, “Writing Out of the Culture.”

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Robert Hruzek said...

"... even if the oppressor is as implacable as death, humor asserts that it is how we live our lives--joyously and fearlessly--that matters."

Very good statement, Geoffrey! I'd have to agree wholeheartedly that it's how we live our lives that dictates how we'll face... well, whatever. I'd much rather go with a smile on my face, wouldn't you?

Hey, a tip o' the hat for the WILF entry, Bubba!

Geoffrey Philp said...

Thanks for stopping by, Robert. This was a great topic.


FSJL said...

Picong is something I engage in with a Trinidadian colleague, mainly in self-defence. He has a a sharper wit than mine.

A lot of it is a means of dealing with grief by deferring it, I think.

FSJL said...

Isn't the expression "Tek serious t'ing mek joke"?

Geoffrey Philp said...

Fragano, yes, definitely by deferring.

I would not want to mess with your friend. A wit sharper than yours? Such a person does not exist!

Geoffrey Philp said...

Fragano, I've also heard "Bad t'ings mek joke" and given the headline space, well,...

FSJL said...

Headline space is a relevant factor, true. There's the story of a Gleaner headline during World War II, which celebrated an Allied victory by proclaiming "Russians' Push Bottles Up German Rear" (or, alternatively, "Russians' Push Bottles Up 10,000 Germans," I've heard both).

There are lots of people with wits sharper than mine, several of them are my colleagues.