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Author ORCID Identifier



Open Access Dissertation

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program

Afro-American Studies

Year Degree Awarded


Month Degree Awarded


First Advisor

Steven C. Tracy

Second Advisor

John H. Bracey, Jr.

Third Advisor

James Smethurst

Fourth Advisor

Lisa Green

Subject Categories

African American Studies | Literature in English, North America, Ethnic and Cultural Minority | Performance Studies | Television


When Kegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s sketch-comedy show Key & Peele took Comedy Central by storm in 2012, the perceived need by the comedians to “adjust their blackness” to gain social recognition became a recurring theme. Throughout their comedic performances, language becomes a proxy for identity, and Key and Peele’s parodic employment of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and linguistic variation serves to challenge notions of black authenticity, while emphasizing the absurdity of racial essentialism. An embodiment of Jonathan Rossing’s concept of emancipatory racial humor, Key and Peele’s comedy creates nonthreatening spaces that facilitate the contestation of cultural authority by interrogating how social categories are constructed via linguistic practices, revealing the interconnectedness among the ontology of the black body, epistemic authority, and linguistic authenticity. This dissertation examines the adoption of identity tropes by Key and Peele through their use of AAVE in relation to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s dialect musical comedy and the poet’s struggle to represent black subjectivity and folk culture without lapsing into minstrelsy. Particular attention is paid to how Dunbar responded to the political dynamic of subordination and resistance that defined linguistic conflict at the end of the nineteenth century and the inability of his critics to recognize the subversive and resistive nature of much of his work. Exploring the dialect comedy of Dunbar alongside Key and Peele in the context of controversies surrounding linguistic minstrelsy in mediatized performances of AAVE from Amos ‘n’ Andy to The Boondocks, I conclude that far from lapsing into minstrelsy, Dunbar’s dialect musical comedy catalyzed resistive ideologies, resulting in the emergence of a new black modernism. Like Key and Peele, Dunbar engages in meta-parody by placing himself in the performance, deliberately showcasing the richness and complexity of AAVE as a medium for conveying social commentary in which the audience comes to appreciate the intellect of the person telling the joke. The knowing and strategic inauthenticity in their performances invites audience interpretation of a deeper message, positioning Dunbar, along with Key and Peele, as tricksters who employ sophisticated vernacular masking to contest racial stereotypes, even as they enact them.