GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Humor has always been a recipe for healing for African Americans. For centuries, it has been a form of escape rather than just amusement.
“Early on during slavery, they used humor as a way to get through their days,” Ta’Les Love, assistant professor of American American studies at Grand Valley State University, said.
From slavery into the Civil Rights Movement, white audiences had their own form of comedic entertainment through minstrel shows. White comedians would paint their faces black to represent Black people in very stereoptypical ways.
Stand-up comedians like Jackie “Moms” Mabley, Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor are some of the Black comedians who rose above the stereotypes and injustices. They each struggled to be seen and heard, yet eventually became known to a wider white audience and made appearances on mainstream TV.
Mabley was the first female comedian to perform at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Gregory became the first Black comedian to perform for an all white-nightclub and Pryor was the first Black host of “Saturday Night Live.”
They developed their own style of telling jokes but often did so by highlighting what it meant to be Black in America. That continues with comedians today.
“Humor has connected us and allowed us to talk back to the structures that has impacted our lives. It allows us to release that aggression as well,” Love said.
Brandon Queshawn is a local comedian, actor and host who admires Mabley, Gregory, Pryor and other names in the comedy world like D.L. Hughley, Red Foxx, Wanda Sykes, Martin Lawrence, Jimmy Walker, Monique and Steve Harvey.
“Black comedy is beautiful. It is very beautiful and I love it because we speak what we know,” Queshawn said.
His grandfather introduced him to Richard Pryor and George Carlton in 1998. He opened up for Dick Gregory in St. Louis when he was about 20 years old.
“I never knew I could have a chance to do that, especially (Gregory) being a comedian of politics,” he said. “He’s not just a comedian but a person of perseverance, respect and truth.”
He believes Black comedians have led a legacy of courage and perseverance. He strives to do that when he steps on stage, leaning on the advice of those that came before him.
“I was always told try to be as diverse as you can,” he said.