If you don’t know what a lacefront is, says Tracy Clayton, get familiar, "if for no other reason than to increase your daily laugh quotient by roughly 22 percent. If something ridiculous is happening, chances are that there’s a lacefront not far away."
Clayton, a writer and humorist from Louisville, Kentucky, is the woman behind Little Known Black History Facts, a hashtag-among-friends turned Tumblr that’s sprung to life every February since 2008. And while Clayton produces both razor-sharp social commentary and straight-up absurdism at various portals across the internet, LKBHF gets the most clicks — and hate mail — by far.
It makes sense. After all, it’s the only site on the Internet celebrating such milestones as the first person to use the phrase "I will cut you" in an argument, and the first man to dance on stage after being declared "not the father" on the Maury show, and the first person to refer to a flavor of Kool-Aid as "red."
"Lots of them come from my own life and childhood," says Clayton. "I’ve absolutely put batteries in the freezer to make them last longer… My grandmother will tell you in a heartbeat that she don’t have to do shit but stay black and die. I can name for you, right now, 10 different women who won’t go swimming because they don’t want to get their hair wet.
"The problem is that when we laugh about these things in the public eye, we fear that we’re giving everyone watching permission to laugh at them, too."
Clayton honed her voice at the small private college she attended, a school she says had "three percent diversity, counting redheads and left-handed people."
An English major with a minor in Women’s Studies, Clayton also had a semi-regular gig at the school paper, which she mostly used when something pissed her off. And while she values that experience today, she’s selective about what gets her energy: "It’s easier to attack things like [the n-word] because they’re more accessible. It’s easier to say, ‘hey, stop using this word’ than it is to comb back through history and look at why the word exists. It’s a lot easier to treat the symptoms than the disease."
"As far as teaching the history of marginalized groups, I’d opt for integrating those histories (black history, gay history, women’s history, etc.) into the alabaster world of American history. Normalize them so that they don’t need special months anymore. … The intent [of LKBHF] wasn’t to lampoon Black History Month, but when I think about it, I feel like these goofy facts serve the plight of black folk just as well as the watered-down black history menu we get served every year does — refried ‘I Have A Dream’ speech topped with pureed ‘slavery is bad’ with a side of ‘Rosa Parks was really tired one day.’
"If I heard someone else say that, my response would be, ‘but if you’re displeased with Black History Month, why not do something to make it better?’ My answer to that question: I don’t want to, and I don’t have to. One of the most important freedoms we (should) have is autonomy, and it’s not in my job description as a black woman to never laugh about my history."
The usual defense of ‘edgy’ humor is to volley it back: if you laugh, you’ve got perspective, but anyone protesting too much at a joke must be fighting some secret shameful thoughts.
Bigotry, however, isn’t objectively absurd just yet. And the same qualities that make comedy an effective social justice tool have also made it a great way to plant stereotypes, to dehumanize, and to indoctrinate. And while the heyday of Al Jolson is behind us, there’s still a demand for catchy one-dimensional portrayals of black society — especially if they’re being said by black people.
Chris Rock’s career-defining 1996 "I love black people, but I hate n—-rs" routine has long been treasured by white people who also hate ‘n—-rs,’ seeking legitimacy and hipness. Bill Cosby’s criticisms of slang and single-parent households can’t even keep up with white populist demand; he’s had to denounce multiple racist chain emails written in his name. And in 2004, Dave Chappelle walked away from his own show, citing among his reasons a fear that his racially charged satirical sketches had become "socially irresponsible."
"Marginalized comics lose even more control over who is allowed, who has permission to laugh at potentially inflammatory material," says Clayton. "It’s common to feel pressure to represent the whole of your group or groups — darn that double-triple-quadruple consciousness — and that’s a heavy weight to have to lug around while trying to be creative.
"Today, I think the effort that we put into behaving in front of white people would be far better served elsewhere. … Anyone who’d use this site as ammunition or confirmation of their bigoted beliefs will think that whether this site exists or not. Being able to be myself and laugh when and where I want to is worth running that risk."
As the medium has changed, so has the dynamic between audience and entertainer. While the Internet has lowered the barriers of access — Clayton’s able to be funny without a studio exec’s signoff, and has fans all across the world — it’s also complicated issues of anonymity and identity. Clayton, a private person by nature, only recently attached a photo of herself to the site, and only then because "nearly every complaining email I got regarding Little Known Black History Facts referred to me as male, and many of them also assumed that I was white. That really annoys me, because the implication, as I read it, is that women aren’t funny, so a funny faceless person just has to be male.
"You can’t control who will respond or how they will do it. Expect that backlash from your own people is a definite possibility, throw it out there and hope it lands in a safe place. And be equipped, ready, and willing to step in and fiercely defend yourself and your art when someone steps out of line, whoever they may be."
Not that Clayton’s never stepped out of line herself. She becomes serious when I ask her about how she feels now about her jokes from a few years ago about 50 Tyson, a teenage rapper whose home videos went viral on YouTube. Clayton stopped making jokes when she discovered in an interview that he has autism — the rest of the Internet hasn’t been as gracious — and then became a fully vested fan upon reading about his advocacy work to change public perceptions of people with autism.
"I’m human," says Clayton. "I was talking to my best friend about the interview the other day, and we were talking about 50 Tyson and the evolution of our response to him. Both he and I reacted the same way; first humor, then admiration. And I told him, ‘you know, as awesome as you and I are, we’re still products of the same machine that everyone else is. Realizing and then unpacking our own privileges is hard for everybody, and we’re not an exception. But it is possible.’"
Reading through LKBHF and the rest of Clayton’s comedy, I’ve found myself, a white dude, reacting to each joke in one of a few ways. Half the time I spent giggling, or seeing something that my own family does (I thought the freezer-battery thing was legit!). And the other half of the time, I’d have to look up a word or a reference to get a joke, or I’d get the joke and wouldn’t feel comfortable laughing at it. The latter two reactions intrigued me. Part of white male privilege is being the intended audience for just about everything; it’s rare that we have to be invited anywhere, since we’re assumed to have been there already. So, if someone puts a joke on the Internet that I don’t get or don’t think I have the right to laugh at, it means someone’s doing good work to upset the status quo.
"That’s kind of what the Little Known Black History Facts blog is founded on," says Clayton. "The material there comes from the collective history and consciousness of a people who, generally speaking, have shared the same highs and lows, people who have had to laugh to keep from crying, people who have had to learn to look back on tough times and bitter pills and smile. After so many centuries of trying to prove to white people that we can be what they thought we can’t, it feels great, to me, to try and shake loose that skin and let my own get some sun."