Brighter in Hindsight: Black Humor by Charles R. Johnson

Posted by on January 18th, 2010 at 9:00 AM

While researching material for a course I was to teach on gag cartooning, I came across a drawing in The Players Book of Cartoon Humor, a 1975 paperback collection of cartoons culled from Player magazine (an African-American answer to Playboy), which was one of the most hilarious and shocking images I’d ever seen. It was a variation on the guy-on-street-corner-checking-out-pretty-girl setup: it showed a Ku Klux Klansman leaning against a wall, smoking a cigar and smiling idly to himself as he ogles a passing black lady with a lush body and big Afro. In his thought balloon, he imagines her: 1.) naked and 2.) lynched.

The collegial admiration I felt for this artist was as intense and pure as love at first sight, untainted even by envy. At first my mouth just dropped open in shock, slowly cohering like a Polaroid into a sloppy, lopsided grin of appalled delight. I wanted to applaud the cartoonist across the decades, buy him a drink and say: “Well done, sir.”

This cartoon cuts through about 3 million years’ worth of geological layers of accumulated socio-political bullshit to expose a dark unacknowledged truth: the illicit attraction at the heart of hatred. In his still-revelatory 1974 book Cannibalism: Human Aggresion and Cultural Form, anthropologist Eli Sagan discusses at length the deep human ambivalence between affection and aggression evident in many cultures: the eating of deceased family members or honored warriors, the psychic power imputed to human trophies like bones and heads; the reverence displayed toward the victims of ritual sacrifice. (And lynching is, among other things, a form of ritual sacrifice.) You can see this confusion of impulses at work in the animal kingdom: the great blue herons who live around my cabin on the Chesapeake Bay have needle-thin heads with tiny brains, and their instincts for sex and aggression often get cross-circuited, with the socially embarrassing result that they occasionally attack potential mates. (I will just observe that, in this rural county of Maryland, this kind of behavior is not confined exclusively to the heron community.) Johnson’s thesis is borne out by three centuries’ history of the rape of slaves by their owners.

I’m explicating this one carton at such length to illustrate how elegant, compact and crystalline an example of the art it is. It was one of those works of art that says something so perfectly that there’s no point in trying to rephrase it yourself—in the future, you just allude to that work of art, as when we call someone a Don Quixote or say it was a Rashomon situation. Recently I wanted to describe this cartoon to make this same point in an essay, and I was eager to give appropriate credit to its creator. Not that being cited in my next book was likely to do much to increase anyone’s fame or critical standing, but still, I figured, it was incumbent on me to give this artist, who’d toiled in obscure niche-market magazines and was doubtless long forgotten, his due. Having lost access to the original collection, I had only a relatively low-resolution digital photo of the cartoon to work from, in which was visible a rather scribbly, squished-up signature, barely legible: Jameson? Jaimeson? Jamison?

It took me less than 20 minutes’ trial-and-error searching on the Internet to find that Charles R. Johnson was rather less well known as a cartoonist than as scholar, novelist, short story writer, essayist and critic. As a MacArthur fellow, recipient of the National Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature, and winner of the National Book Award for Middle Passage, he probably didn’t need the additional benefit of a tip o’ the hat in my upcoming collection Twilight of the Assholes. The guy’s on a freaking stamp. I felt a little as if I’d been earnestly struggling to give a magnanimous little career boost to a struggling young unknown cartoonist named Wolfe or Fellini.

Even putting aside his literary and scholarly renown, Johnson was pretty successful just as a cartoonist, certainly more successful than I am; he’d published two collections of his work (Black Humor and Half-Past Nation Time) by the time he was 22, and his work has been included in several anthologies (Humor Me: An Anthology of Humor by Writers of Color, by John McNally and The Writer’s Brush: Paintings, Drawings and Sculptures by Writers, edited Donald Freidman). He even hosted a how-to-draw TV show called “Charlie’s Pad” in 1971.

Johnson’s said that cartooning was his first artistic love (as it was John Updike’s): “In my teens, my only burning desire was to be a cartoonist and illustrator.” (The M&C interview, montersandcritics.com, May 28th, 2007). As is the case with several of the authentic geniuses who’ve escaped the ghetto of comics and achieved fame in the broader cultural world (I’m thinking of the likes of B. Kliban, whose cats are imprinted in pop cultural memory but remains only a cult favorite among cartoonists) Johnson is almost completely forgotten within comics fandom. It’s as though achieving fame outside our insular field is reflexively punished by obscurity within it. Which, as trade-offs go, is hardly the worst deal you could ask for—it’s kind of like making millions in America but being forever exiled from Liberia—but it still seems unjust and regrettable that these prophets should be honored everywhere but in their hometown.

Johnson’s first collection, Black Humor, is still available—a friend found me a signed first edition for forty bucks through Royal Books, one of my favorite rare/used bookstores in Baltimore. (Anyone who finds a copy of his second collection, Half-Past Nation Time, let me know.) Alas, the image described above is not included in it, but you can see other cartoons that prefigure it: a plantation owner sitting on his porch, overseeing a field full of cotton-picking slaves, crowing, ”I never met a black man I didn’t like or a black woman I didn’t love,” and a nude black woman emerging from a cake only to find herself surrounded by klansmen and a big Confederate flag on the wall, asking, “It’s not the N.A.A.C.P. party?” All artists do this, of course, circling around the same elusive ideas with different iterations until they feel they’ve gotten it right. Johnson uses a lot of the same topes again and again in pursuit of his themes: watermelons and chitterlings, slaves and plantation owners, Klansmen and Black Panthers, feckless and condescending liberals. This collection tends to group these images by common elements—all the watermelon cartoons together, for example—which only makes them seem repetitive, whereas in my own collections I’ve tried to separate such superficially similar cartoons as widely as possible so as to obfuscate my own lack of invention.

The Klan hood turns up as visual shorthand for racist on babies, children’s dolls, a muse, mothers-in-law. There’s even a demented parody of the typical Playboy guy-catching-his-wife-with-another-man cartoon in which a black man clutching a gun finds that not only is there an adulterous dude hiding in the closet, but he’s a Klansman besides. (Everyone involved looks very disappointed.)My favorite of these is a reductio ad absurdum: a black astronaut landing on another planet abashed to encounter a welcoming committee of aliens with hoodlike pointed heads, beckoning him toward a structure in the background that very much resembles one of our Terran burning crosses. I have to admit that one reason this cartoon resonates with me is that it uncannily prefigures one of my own, drawn 30 years later, titled “Everywhere the Same,” which shows the Frankenstein monster in his spacesuit on another planet, being greeted by an angry mob of aliens wielding torches in their tentacles. Which coincidence suggests not that I, too, have felt the sting of racism but that Johnson is artist enough to have successfully universalized his experience.

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  1. [...] TCJ has increased their online presence. In particular I have enjoyed articles like: Brighter in Hindsight: Black Humor by Charles R. Johnson. It covers a comics artist, gag cartoonist really, who worked for black adult men's magazines in [...]