Feet to the Fire
This winter, W. Kamau Bell will show students taking African American Literature: African American Comedy the power of satire on society.
The beautiful thing about comedy, Danielle Morgan says, is that it lulls you into a false sense of security. Then, it makes you uncomfortable. And that discomfort is where change can happen.
“Satire is holding up this mirror to society and a mirror to the world,” the assistant professor of English says. “It requires you to really think about whether you should be implicated in that reflection as well.”
Few people do this as skillfully as comedian and 2017 Frank Sinatra chair W. Kamau Bell, Morgan says. Through a breadth of projects and platforms, Bell lets America speak for—and sometimes tell on—itself, providing just enough guidance to hold the subjects and audience accountable.
“It’s not confrontational comedy, but it holds our feet to the fire nonetheless.”
Morgan, who teaches African American Literature: African American Comedy, will work with Bell in her class when he returns to campus for the Winter portion of his time as Sinatra Chair.
“I was sort of blown away at our good fortune at getting him at this critical moment,” Morgan says. “All the issues he’s been addressing for the last few years are really coming into play in popular culture with politics, race, with all of these kinds of things interwoven and overlapping.”
Students in Morgan’s English classes are well versed with his work. Morgan regularly uses comedy in her English classes as a means to teach rhetorical strategies and how to understand audience.
“Last year we watched clips of Bell talking about his children and all of these standup routines. Then we asked, ‘Why is this effective? Why do you think this is the way he’s structuring his argument?’” Morgan says. “Now we’ve got the guy on campus, and we can ask him that. We don’t have this opportunity very frequently with the people we study.”
Bell is also a reflection of the growing importance of and relevance of pop culture in academia. Morgan has long incorporated current works as a way of tackling topics rather than working solely from already-canonical works.
“If we buy the argument that social media is making our attention spans shorter, it makes sense that we want to write about everything as it is coming out,” Morgan says. “People are still using their scholarly frames to critique it. I tell my students all the time that a text is anything we can read, anything we can analyze and understand. So songs count, music counts, movies, tv shows, all these different ways of thinking, count."
Morgan is teaching this class on comedy for the second time at SCU. Her research is deeply rooted in African American satire and its impact. Comedy isn’t just an effective means to make a point, she says, but historically a safer medium for marginalized groups.
Her class covers comedians like Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock and, yes, Bell, but the foundation of satire in black communities goes back centuries. For example, the class starts with a satirical letter written by Jourdon Anderson, a former slave, to his former slave master who has asked him to return to work. The former slave explains he will, provided the slavemaster pay for the previous 32 years of unpaid slavery.
“In African American literature and culture there’s an idea of laughing to keep from crying,” Morgan says. “Where your situation is so grave and so terrifying that you have to turn to comedy to keep yourself sustained and alive and this goes back to slavery. This goes back to the critical inception of African American literature.”
Bringing an artist like Bell into the classroom invites another comedy expert into the classroom and allows for an opportunity dive deeper into these topics. It also encourages students to find their own voice in the path in improving the world around them—even if it’s non-traditional.
“There are a number of different ways to engage in activism and social justice movements,” Morgan says. “There’s no one size fits all way to engage with the world and you have to find the thing that speaks to you and calls to you. I think he’s such a great example of someone who’s found that. Even comparing him to other comedians, he’s got a style very much his own.”