Laughter in common, as Freud noted, demands a community of shared inhibitions. If black American humour has elicited a peculiar suite of discomforts, not only among white audiences but at times among black ones as well, this is undoubtedly due to the costs – not always merely psychological – of breaking the taboos that underlie it. The fumbling, chicken-thieving buffoon of the minstrel stage became the vehicle, however covertly at first, for the voicing of resistance and dissent, often through the revival of trickster archetypes rooted in African folk traditions. Much of the black comedic tradition has been shaped by attempts to render the grotesque distortions of black identity demanded by white American society amenable to authentic self-expression. The resultant tension is a crucial aspect of the work of many of that tradition’s canonical figures, from the anonymous authors of toasts like Shine and the Titanic to the hoodoo surrealism of Ishmael Reed. Fran Ross is a welcome addition to their ranks.
Ross was born in Philadelphia in 1935 to Southern parents who had travelled north during the Great Migration. A model student and varsity athlete, she graduated from high school early and studied communications, journalism and theatre at Temple University. In 1960, she moved to New York, where she worked