Humor in the Archive

Diego Millan, Ph.D. candidate in English, examines Black laughter in literature

By Ariana Hajmiragha

Diego Millan, Ph.D. candidate in English, traces the inspiration for his research to Chappelle's Show, with the moment Dave Chappelle walked off set and triggered a chain of events culminating in the voluntary cancellation of his show. Millan works in the subfield of laughter – particularly with respect to African-American bodies and representation – and his intuition told him there was more to the story.

Diego Millan, Ph.D. candidate in English.

He dedicated the summer of 2007, his final summer as an undergraduate, to researching the histories of black humor and gaining a more in-depth understanding of what Chappelle points to as the spark for his decision to leave: hearing a cameraman laughing as he was dressed in black-face for a sketch. “Chappelle’s discomfort inspired questions concerning how enduring histories of racial inequity inform cultural mappings of laughter,” Millan says, “which would later form the basis for my dissertation.”

“I get the question, ‘What is Black laughter?’ a lot,” Millan says, “Enough scholarship has been done on African-American humor and entertainment, it almost felt like to me a thing that just existed, but I have had to work on ways to explain this to non-specialists in the field.”

Millan looks at how understandings of laughter erase considerations of Blackness, as well as how laughter as a vocalization and embodied act plays into the development of Black social consciousness and political action. He points to traditional theories of laughter and humor, which draw lines about ‘real’ and ‘false’ humor that implicitly associate lesser forms of humor with Blackness. He says “Humor and laughter related to Black bodies is typically seen as uncouth, and thus contributes to situations when Black laughter is taken as disruptive.”

His dissertation builds on this idea, grounding itself in both a historical look at the depiction and sensory nature of laughter – particularly Black laughter – in 19th and 20th century literature. “It always comes back to the text, the way we read and the way authors get us to respond,” Millan notes. From the experience and depiction of laughter, historical understandings of race and humor, and political uses and implications of laughter, Millan explores the complexities of these issues through texts.

To enrich his understanding of these texts, Millan received funding from the Graduate Student Research Competition to travel to Fisk University, to look further into archival collections of two authors who he focuses on: Charles W. Chesnutt and Langston Hughes. For him, the experience of going to the archive and seeing the curation and care that goes into a veritable scholarly treasure trove was invaluable. While there, Millan discovered information that sparked important ideas and further questions for his research. For example, Millan came across a euphemistic reference in an unpublished journal of Chesnutt’s stating that he “wound up with a repertory of jokes,” in reference to interviews he conducted following the 1898 Wilmington Riot, in South Carolina, during which a number of African-Americans were killed. Millan is still exploring scholarly interpretations of this reference, but the implications of alluding to a massacre as a source of humor could shed light not only Chesnutt’s work but also on experiences and lived understandings of Black laughter as a mode of collective historical recollection, one that appears against the grain of traditional history.

While discussing his current research, Millan reflects on the unlikeliness of his current career trajectory. Born in Chile, he and his family immigrated to the United States while he was a child to secure the best opportunities possible for his older brother who is living with autism. As an undergraduate, Millan attended Bowdoin College as a Posse Scholar, and later as a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow, a national fellowship program with the goal of diversifying faculty in higher education. “I got into the track of academia, which isn’t a track usually chosen by first generation immigrant children,” he says.

Millan was particularly inspired by his English professors as an undergraduate. “While college was alienating at times, as it often is for non-white, bi-cultural students, my English professors not only encouraged my intellectual development but also exposed me to literature and ideas that fostered my personal development as well.”

Diego recognizes that English is not the only field in which his research would be at home. While he chose Tufts because he fell in love with the department and the university, he has kept his interest in interdisciplinary work. He does still intend to follow through on the goal he started while a Mellon Mays fellow – to pursue a career in the professoriate – and notes that his experiences at Tufts as a graduate writing consultant with the Academic Resource Center and an instructor of English I and II make him a strong job candidate.

Millan plans to adapt his dissertation into a book that he hopes will be appealing to those in the fields of literature, American Studies, Black studies, and Humor studies. While he is excited by the ongoing interdisciplinary nature of his work, he intends to stay within the field of literature. “I see my work as more of a bridge between disciplines, and I’m excited about that,” Millan says. “It’s important to think about how we, as young scholars, have an opportunity to develop a department by adding something new to a program that already exists.”

In the meantime, Millan is living and working in Baton Rouge, where he is finishing his dissertation and exploring post-graduation options. “In the end, my drive to become a professor is also fueled by a desire to be a similar role model and resource for students on campus.”