Not many conversations can cover everything from current politics to blackface and still leave everyone smiling. But that's exactly what happened Monday during Race: A Laughing Matter? a class hosted in the first week of Common Ground on the Hill.

Richard Smith, an associate professor of sociology at McDaniel College, said he picked this topic for the class because he appreciates the power of comedy to bring divided groups together and learn. This was Smith's third time teaching a class for Common Ground, a two-week series of classes focusing on art, music and culture that is held annually at McDaniel.

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"No question is a dumb question," he said at the start of the class on Monday. "And for the purpose of this class, no question is a racist question."

He then showed a skit performed by Dave Chappelle on "Saturday Night Live" shortly after the 2016 election. He said that the class would include watching many skits and sitcoms as examples of racial comedy.

"My hope," he said, "is to utilize these comedians to jumpstart discussions."

Common Ground hosts community concerts and artistic events for those not participating in classes

For the next two weeks, the grounds of McDaniel College will be taken over by participants in the annual Common Ground on the Hill Traditions Week courses,

Students were initially hesitant to talk about the skit unprompted. But after Smith asked a few framing questions, the discussion picked up and participants discussed reasons why they laugh even when comedians discuss topics that are frustrating and painful.

Some said they felt laughing is a release of discomfort. Others said that wrapping uncomfortable topics in humor makes the lesson more likely to stick with them.

Smith summarized the history of racial comedy in America and how it started as a tool used by the rich white majority to mock racial minorities. He cited blackface — makeup used by a nonblack performer playing a black role — as an example. After the Civil Rights Movement, comedy became a tool for minorities to mock oppressive forces and "speak truth to power," Smith said.

Many of the best comedians use humor to teach their audiences something, Smith said. Chris Rock, for example, reads several newspapers a day to make sure that his material is well-informed.

Jan Gilles, a songwriter and former educator, said she hoped to learn skills from the comedians covered by the class in her own work.

"Comedy is a powerful tool to say uncomfortable things that need to be said," Gilles said.

She was also interested in the "fine line" between gender issues and racial ones, and she hoped to look into that more over the course of the week.

Many of the students in the class were educators and school administrators, like Brian Booz, an administrator with Carroll County Public Schools. It was his first time participating in Common Ground, but he said he'd heard good things from word of mouth. He hoped the class would teach him things he could take back with him in his work.

Smith named that as one of his goals also.

"I hope the end result is that students can learn more about racism in this country and also ways to deal with it," Smith said.

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