It was 1920, and a young white man, straight from college in America’s Deep South, had just been appointed deacon to a church in a small town. He arrived on a hot afternoon and decided to go and take a look at the church, where all the best white folk in the town worshipped.
He went in the door and was shocked to see an elderly black man inside.
“What you doin’ in here, boy? Don’t you know this is a white church?” he asked the man.
“Why sir, I come in here every week to clean the church.”
“Well that’s alright, then,” said the deacon. “But don’t let me catch you praying!”
While all black slaves in America were freed with the Civil War, African-Americans experienced discrimination in both northern and southern states long afterwards. In the decades following the war, and well into the 20th century, many moved to the northern states in search of work and a new and better life and where white prejudice was less overt.
Meanwhile, back in the south, states enacted various laws intended to keep the races separate. These so-called “Jim Crow laws” enforced segregation, ensuring that black people had less access to education, rights and economic opportunity. They even had to sit on separate seats in buses.
As so often happens with oppressed peoples everywhere, American black people in both north and south developed a tradition of humour and jokes about their lot that’s every bit as rich as, say, Jewish humour. “Don’t let me catch you praying” is a near-perfect capture of the surreal and petty nature of the discrimination that pervaded the Jim Crow states until well into the late 20th century.
When young student Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Alabama in 1955, it sparked the Civil Rights movement which would eventually see racial segregation in America done away with. The watchword was now “integration”, though many die-hard white people claimed that black people were simply “not ready” to take an equal place in American society.
This gave rise to new jokes, like the one about an elderly black woman who goes into a swanky restaurant which had previously been for white people only. She orders ham hock, black-eyed peas and collard greens – “soul food” stereotypically associated with black people. The waiter snootily informs her that such things are not on the menu at this establishment. The woman nods ruefully: “See, I just knew you people weren’t ready for integration yet.”