It’s a day of literary birthdays: Zora Neale Hurston, Cornelius Eady, Michael Medrano and ME! So, the day was dedicated to thinking about Zora Neale Hurston’s legacy a bit and watching the beautiful love story (and the tragedy) that unfolds when Halle Berry and Michael Ealy play Janie Crawford and Tea Cake in the film adaptation of Their Eyes Were Watching God. I’ve been watching people stream quotes from Hurston on twitter and Facebook all day, as it is too cold to go out and celebrate, but I’ve also been thinking about how Hurston applied her sharp wit with humor.
This elegant skill requires timing, agility with language and its entendres, and a sense of the unexpected that can still relate everyday situations that the audience understands. So, it is not surprising to me when Whoopi Goldberg does a documentary on Moms Mabley. But my mother was surprised when I told her that for the first time in SIX years SNL cast a black woman. I heard the surprise in her voice when she said “Really?”
Saturday Night Live has been on television since I was a newborn. I cannot picture what life would have been like without it. It’s very much like creeping toward my darkened bedroom door and listening to my parents and their friends laugh hysterically at Richard Pryor records that they played after they thought I was asleep. I wasn’t. In fact, I listened to them all intently and stifled my laughter with a small hand tight over my mouth. This alone makes me love A. Van Jordan’s poem “The Night Richard Pryor Met Mudbone” included in MACNOLIA-a neo-narrative poetry collection on the life and discrimination experienced by child spelling bee champion Macnolia Cox.
MACNOLIA by A. Van Jordan
The notable SNL players that I remember include Garrett Morris and Eddie Murphy. Maya Rudolph (daughter of Chicago legend Minnie Riperton) and Jay Pharoah in the recent casts are particularly good, especially in collaboration with their fellow players. Unfortunately, Kenan Thompson pointed out the glaringly obvious absence of black women cast members in a way that I’ve heard people explain away the omission of women poets and poets of color: “We can’t find any qualified black women who know how to….fill in the blank.” Somehow, the response to Thompson included auditions where there were 25 hopefuls, and Sasheer Zamata has made it to her SNL debut on January 18, 2014.
Shasheer Zamata is the fifth black woman to join the cast of Saturday Night Live.
Sasheer Zamata is not the first black woman on Saturday Night Live and fortunately, there have been firsts in the poetry world: Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Walker, Rita Dove, and others come to mind. I see a stream of books that represent a range of voices publishing and getting reviewed (not often enough), but I still hear “Where are they?”
SNL alums: Yvonne Hudson, Danitra Vance, Ellen Cleghorne, Maya Rudolph. Rudolph left the cast in 2007.
Throughout SNL’s 40 years on the air, there has only been Yvonne Hudson, Danitra Vance, Ellen Cleghorne, and Maya Rudolph. Is someone trying to say black women are not funny? Are we too serious and didactic as poets? Of course, these are the sorts of questions that can seem like I’m imposing a heavyhanded approach to race in America, but let’s remember America has never looked like television, and America is looking less and less like the accepted literary canon today. On another note, I’ll just say that the other 24 hopefuls, are probably just as talented, if not moreso, and if there were 24, there were probably even more that were overlooked. I can name black women poets until I’m ready to take a nap. Some of the new poets who are beginning to make their mark include Kamilah Aisha Moon, Nicole Terez Dutton, Ruth Ellen Kocher, Duriel Harris, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Evie Shockley, Aracelis Girmay, and a great many others who could fill many, many blog entries.
Humor is a sort of release for many writers to retreat into comedy when poetry is an outlet for so many serious topics, or just to help people manage their gravity of everyday lives. Humor can serve as an escape just as much or as often as literature can, but the human spirit needs to laugh as much as it needs to cry. I hope Zamata avoids running like Kerry Washington did during her recent hosting of SNL. In the meantime, enjoy a bit of Shasheer Zamata’s reel and think about the last time a poem made you laugh.