Educating America on Race: Absurdist Humor as Critical Public Pedagogy in the Works and Performances of Kara Walker, Dave Chappelle, and Jordan Peele

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Racial humor has been a highly popular means for African Americans to address the racial inequality and racism that they have been facing in the United States. This thesis uncovers what makes humor so appealing a tool in the struggle for racial equality and lays bare how racial humor—as used in the works and performances of contemporary African American humorists Kara Walker, Dave Chappelle, and Jordan Peele—can intercede in the negotiation, contestation, and distribution of power to destabilize those conditions that perpetuate racism and sustain social inequality. I focus specifically on the absurdist qualities of Walker’s, Chappelle’s, and Peele’s racial humor as well as on the absurdity of the African American condition, which together comprise the overarching theme of this thesis. I approach Walker’s visual art, Chappelle’s sketch comedy, and Peele’s films via Henry Giroux’s ideas on “critical public pedagogy” to argue that racial humor may possess critical, oppositional, and, above all, pedagogical qualities that may help audiences develop a deeper understanding of the ongoing racialization of American society. I maintain that Walker’s, Chappelle’s, and Peele’s absurdist humor-as-pedagogy—found in seemingly incongruous visual juxtapositions, the topsy-turvy humor of inversion, and absurdist humorous narrative structures—exemplifies the provocative and disruptive force of humor to destabilize racial certainties and emphasize the incongruity between the promise of the lofty ideals of equality, wealth, and prosperity in American culture and the failure of the United States to fulfill those promises, particularly for African Americans. While Walker, Chappelle, and Peele may not see themselves as public educators, nor might they have created their works with the education of the general public in mind, their humorous and widely circulating works nonetheless have pedagogical qualities that may stimulate a critical engagement with the reproduction of today’s American racial society.
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