Modalities of freedom : toward a politic of joy in Black feminist comedic performance in 20th and 21st century U.S.A.
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Modalities of Freedom argues that comedy and the laughter it ignites is a vital component of feminist and anti-racist community building. The chapters of my dissertation analyze the work of three Black standup comedians from the United States: Wanda Sykes, Jackie Mabley and Mo’Nique. These three women have an outsized presence in standup comedy, but have been chronically underrepresented in academic literature despite their nuanced, complex and emboldening performance styles. I claim that their particular brands of humor are modalities of freedom. That is, under varying social, temporal and cultural contexts, Sykes, Mabley and Mo’Nique resist and expose marginalization and oppression. In turn, their comedic material and the act of laughter bond their audiences and generate anti-racist/feminist coalitions. The first chapter of my dissertation shows how Wanda Sykes employs comedic performance to “crack up” white supremacist historical narratives. That is, Sykes’ comedy functions as historiographical intervention that not only critiques history, but also moves Black lesbian women from silenced subjects to active (re)creators of United States’ collective memory. My chapter on Jackie “Moms” Mabley claims that Mabley’s legacy has been misremembered in both mainstream and scholarly texts. Employing Black queer theoretical frameworks, I trace how Mabley’s standup solidified important precedents for Black female comics in contemporary U.S. performance and generated specific modalities of freedom unique to Black feminist humor. The final chapter of my dissertation analyzes Mo’Nique’s 2007 documentary I Coulda Been Your Cellmate. This film is a live taping of Mo’Nique performing for convicts at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. Mo’Nique’s performance articulates the multiplicities of identity, and builds feminist community across difference. Mo’Nique and the women in the audience demonstrate how laughter is an intimate survival strategy and a freeing act even while under the restriction of state power. In short, my dissertation is an effort to validate how laughter can harness and express the complexities of Black feminist lives, and be a productive site for social change and stability.