Power, Pop Culture, and Drunk History


At a recent Berkeley Connect Ethnic Studies and African American Studies small-group discussion, students shared their thoughts on issues of power in pop culture. To kick the discussion off, graduate student mentor Christina Bush showed the class an episode of Comedy Central’s series “Drunk History.” The video presented a humorous rendition of Harriet Tubman’s military operation to free slaves, as told by an inebriated narrator. While very detailed and seemingly historically accurate, the contemporary, slang-filled language in which it was told made it quite amusing. Take, for example, “Harriet Tubman is coming with her army full of bad bitches.”

Once the laughter died down, the students began analyzing the video in the context of how power is portrayed in pop culture. A student asked, “Is it okay to be laughing when such serious information is being presented?” The response to this question generally seemed to be affirmative; while slavery is certainly not a topic to be made light of, the narrative seemed to be coming from a perspective of respect. Also, the video was educational, even if it was presented in a funny way. One student responded, “You’re not laughing at Harriet Tubman, but at the way the narrator tells the story – drunkenly.” She continued, “There is still potential for people to learn something from it even though Comedy Central audiences aren’t necessarily interested intending to learn.”

One student brought up how humor can be used as a tool of healing from historical trauma. In regard to the narrator’s language, another student added, “This was really well done because she expressed this history in a way that was unbounded.”

Many students agreed that the fact that the narrator was an African American woman gave the sketch a lot more validity. The narrator’s connection to the history she was telling due to her race and gender made the episode far more effective than if it had been a white man telling the story of Harriet Tubman. In fact, a white man was present at the beginning of the episode, but had few lines to say – he let the narrator have the floor. Students found it very important that the episode was presented in the context of a black woman teaching a white man something about her history, while he just sat back and listened.

However, one student pointed out that it was imperative to remember that the black woman narrating wasn’t the only one in charge of the skit. Many people go into the writing and producing of TV shows, so it is likely the influence of white men or women were also involved in its creation. Some students also thought that the fact that the narrator was presented as drunk undermined the validity of her history-telling.

This point led to a discussion of the general relationship between comedy and power. One student explained, “Comedy can be subversive and empowering, but it can also be racist.” While most students in the room found the “Drunk History” episode entertaining and well-done, they did raise some issues concerning the power dynamics present in pop culture – and their implications.

Posted by Madeline Wells, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant