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Daryl Cumber Dance, ed. Honey, Hush!: An Anthology of African American Women's Humor.

New York: Norton, 1998. 712 pp. $17.95.

Nikki Giovanni's "Foreword" to Honey, Hush! invites all possible readers by asserting that anyone can qualify as a "Black woman" who has "the indomitable spirit that is determined to love and laugh" despite all instances and forms of oppression. Whoever accepts the invitation will find that Daryl Dance has served up hundreds of examples, grouped into twelve thematic chapters, of just that courageous humor. This is not a read-through book; the selections are too numerous, many too short, for that. It is very much a pause-and-ponder book, especially if one is not, in literal fact, a black woman, but is striving to learn the sisters' realities.

The twelve chapters cover a wide range of black women's experience: the special strength of the black woman and of her motherly advice, the impact on her of physical image and of the black community and church, the joys and problems of loving black (sometimes white) men, black self-denigrating and self-correcting humor, and the ways of dealing with oppressive white society by ludicrous imitation or fierce opposition. Each chapter begins with a socio-historical essay by editor Dance; these explanations are invaluable learning tools, especially for those who cannot claim direct experience of the history and culture described. Selections then present the best and worst of black feminine realities in a variety of formats, and also in a variety of the tones humor can take. The chapter dealing with the post-Civil Rights era may be the most painful to read, the hardest for many readers to laugh at; it cuts so close to recent experiences and failed hopes.

The wealth of this collection is largely in the variety of its sources, fruit of Dance's labors as both literary critic and folklorist. The selections are drawn from earliest to latest written accounts and from the rich lode of black folk tales and sayings. Writers include women as early as Linda Brent, Harriet Wilson, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, born into antebellum slavery or "freedom," and as recent as the many novelists, poets, journalists, and critics still actively publishing. The "Biographies of Contributors" list is a veritable "History of African-American Women." It ranges over women who told their stories to WPA interviewers, those who made their names as singers, actresses, psychiatrists, social workers, and politicians, the less known and well known, and those who made no public name at all but were found to share their stories, jokes, and homely sayings.

As various as the sources are the formats of the selections: short stories, poems, song lyrics, essays, excerpts from novels and autobiographies, cartoons, and simple, biting or wise "sayings." Each chapter contains pure folk materials; perhaps the richest part of each is its conclusion with a section of "Mama Sez" and "Sister to Sister." Regardless of format, the persistent theme is that African American women have been rankly abused, occasionally self-abusing, yet have always survived by "laughin' to keep from cryin'."

When one pauses to ponder while reading this book, one must inevitably face the question of what is truly humorous. In her fine introduction, Daryl Dance explains that humor for black people, especially women, has not been typically "the cute, the whimsical, and the delightfully funny." Rather, it has been a way to stay alive and let another live, to hide shame and grief, to trick or to strike out, to "speak the unspeakable," and to educate about the otherwise incomprehensible. In this understanding of humor, every chapter presents a topic about which black women have displayed their mother wit. The meanest people, circumstances, and actions can be, have been both causes of their misery and objects of their salvific humor. Indeed, the capacity of these black women to survive by humor such a range of horrors is hugely, morally instructive to any reader.

Yet topic and tone are two different things. In every chapter, certainly, many selections are richly provocative of laughter by their piercing insight and exposure of all sorts of moral and emotional discrepancies, by their witty expression and plays on language, and by their irony, which is not less amusing for being biting, satiric, or even sardonic. Other selections are delightfully humorous by their warm appreciation of human goodness, no matter how infused with foibles and annoyances. But there also comes a point (at least it came for this reader) when the inevitable question is, "Is this meant to be funny? Even slightly amusing? Can it be?" There comes a point when cruelty, exploitation, promiscuity, infidelity, dishonesty are so intense, so reprehensible, that anger or disgust, deep distress or compassion seem to be the overriding, if not only, emotions possible. Indeed, the tone of some selections seems to be dominated by the author's intent. In the excerpt from Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, when Jody attacks Janie and she retaliates, it is said that "a big laugh started off ... but people got to thinking and stopped. It was funny if you looked at it right quick, but it got pitiful if you thought about it awhile." That may describe the reaction of some readers to some selections in Honey, Hush!

Yet one knows that, in Hurston's story, the people "had laughed, would keep on laughing." Perhaps this reader and others must acknowledge that our lack of direct insiders' experience renders us only partially able to grasp the humor that has caused many black women to tell Dance that they keep this book handy for a quick smile, laugh, and moment of relief from stress. Perhaps if we all keep reading and rereading it, as it well deserves, we will come to enough common understanding, intuitive or learned, to find ourselves sisters--or brothers--under the skin.

Mary Ellen Doyle

Spalding University
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Author:Doyle, Mary Ellen
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
Words:959
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