Although I generally like Chris Rock as a comedian, one of his jokes has always rubbed me the wrong way.
Rock told the joke back in 1999 as part of the Kennedy Center’s program honoring Richard Pryor as the first recipient of its first Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. According to the Chicago Tribune’s account:
Chris Rock wondered what would have happened if Mark Twain had ever met Richard Pryor.
“(Pryor would) probably say, `I really enjoy your work,’” Rock surmised. “And what would Mark Twain say to Richard Pryor? He’d probably say, `N—–, pick up my bag.’”
It’s not surprising that the report goes on to note that the joke was met by “an underwhelming mix of nervous laughs and low-key applause.” It isn’t that Rock’s joke wasn’t funny and more than just a little biting (which, on one level, makes it a fitting tribute to Pryor). The problem with the joke is that based on what we know about Twain’s racial attitudes, Rock’s punchline is entirely false (a trait that Pryor’s truth-telling humor certainly lacks).
Twain is no doubt something of a mixed bag when it comes to race, as demonstrated by ongoing controversies surrounding his classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Shelley Fisher Fishkin points out in Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices that while Twain “recognized the intellectual or artistic aspirations” of a number of young African-American men and “provided financial aid to these individuals in all these endeavors,” he nonetheless “retained a lifelong affection for the minstrel shows he recalled from his Missouri childhood.”
There’s no evidence, however, that this fondness for the gross racial caricatures of minstrel shows in any way resulted in the ugly racist behavior Rock’s joke suggests. In fact, the example of Warner T. McGuinn, one of the men Twain financially assisted, indicates the opposite is true.
In the 1980s, Fishkin authenticated a letter that Twain sent to the dean of Yale’s Law School offering to help pay boarding for McGuinn, who was the school’s first black student. Interestingly, Twain wrote the letter in 1885, the same year that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published. In it, he confesses:
“I do not believe I would very cheerfully help a white student who would ask a benevolence of a stranger, but I do not feel so about the other color. We have ground the manhood out of them, & the shame is ours, not theirs; & we should pay for it.”
Fishkin told the New York Times that “Twain’s brutally succinct comment on racism in the letter is a rare non-ironic statement of the personal anguish Twain felt regarding the destructive legacy of slavery.”
Unfortunately, Twain would not live to see the far-reaching impact his generosity had on dismantling that baneful legacy. McGuinn graduated from Yale and went on to become a lawyer in Baltimore, where he helped found a branch of the NAACP, was elected to the city council, and won a major civil rights victory in federal court.
Perhaps most significantly, McGuinn acted as patron and mentor to a young African-American attorney named Thurgood Marshall, who would argue the case, Brown v. Board of Education, that overturned the doctrine of “separate but equal” in the United States and later became the first African-American Supreme Court justice.
As Juan Williams recounts in his biography of Marshall, McGuinn refused to hire Marshall into his own small firm in 1933, insisting that Marshall would learn faster by being his own boss. He told him,
“I have carefully watched your progress in law school. It is unbelievably good. And you want to let me have your beautiful, great brain, and I am not going to accept it. You’re going to practice by yourself and get your brains kicked out.”
McGuinn did supply Marshall with offices, secretarial staff, clients (particularly when they had especially difficult cases), and ample advice. Marshall recalled that “He was the only one who helped me,” offering his insights into the procedures, personalities, and peculiarities of the Baltimore court system, and making sure Marshall never went out of business, even though, as McGuinn had predicted, he lost much more often than he won. In 1936, McGuinn’s son, Robert, collaborated with Marshall in his first investigation into the condition of segregated schools.
One can reasonably speculate that without McGuinn’s assistance, Marshall may not have survived as an African-American attorney in Depression America, and that if McGuinn had not encountered Twain at a railroad station in Connecticut many years earlier, he might not have succeeded in becoming an attorney himself.
Based on the impact this serendipitous encounter would have on history, I think it’s safe to say that it didn’t begin with Twain gruffly snapping a racist epithet at the young law student and ordering him to carry his bags.