Too Black to Fail

The first African-American and female president of the Harvard Lampoon, Alexis Wilkinson, talks comedy, race, and hugging it out with Henry Louis Gates.

alexis wilkinson

Photograph by Jesse Burke

Is it possible to smile and wince at the same time? It must be, because that’s what my face is doing against Henry Louis Gates’s blazer. He’s on a stage, and I’m standing on the floor below, but it’s not much of a stretch—short stage, short man, tall me—and my face is smushed into his jacket. “I’m so proud of you,” he tells me, squeezing. “Another Negro first!”

On the one hand, it feels great to be recognized by one of the nation’s preeminent African-American scholars. On the other hand, let’s be real: All I’ve done is become president of a college humor magazine.

But people keep telling me that this is a big deal—because the magazine in question is the Harvard Lampoon, the 138-year-old institution that has launched luminaries like Conan O’Brien, Andy Borowitz, and B. J. Novak. And I am its first president to be both female and black.

My election may have seemed like an even bigger deal because it happened just as the blogosphere was going nuts about comedy, gender, and race. Back in January, Saturday Night Live hired its first black female cast member in more than six years. Meanwhile, Jerry Seinfeld told a reporter he didn’t think diversity in comedy was important. Oh, and then Black History Month happened. It was a black-girl-comedy perfect storm, and I was in peak position to be swept up in it.

In all the dialogue, it seems there are three distinct roles people expect me to play as the first woman of color to lead this historically very white, very male organization. Some folks envision me as a glorious radical, Afro two miles wide, burning down every relic of white male patriarchal comedy. Other people are afraid I’ll come in as the PC police, turning the Lampoon into a humorless, Soviet-style-gulag. On the flip side, I could be a race traitor: Auntie Tom, a cog in the comedy machine, shucking and jiving my way to the top with no intention of shaking up massah’s status quo. The idea of taking up any of these roles is utterly unappealing.

It’s not like I’ve never faced these paradoxes before. As a comedy writer, I’ve been called inauthentic when I write about people who aren’t black or female. I’ve been accused of being too focused on race or gender when I write about people who are. It’s a sort of Catch-22 that lends itself to insecurity and, oftentimes, failure. I am both limited and liberated by being different, and it is that fact that makes navigating my new role all the more confusing.

But right now I’m still in the crushing grip of Professor Gates, and, despite the half wince on my face, I’m not a cretin. I have manners. If Skip Gates thinks I’m an exceptional Negro, that’s a goddamn compliment and I don’t want to get so far into my own head that I can’t appreciate it. So I’m going to step back, look him in the eye, and say my sincerest “Thank you.” Just as soon as he lets go.