Nun Riddle


Q: “What’s black and white and black and white and black and white and black and white and red all over”

A: “A nun falling down the stairs” 


My aunt describes hearing this on the school bus riding to and from middle school. She mentions that sometimes the joke was preceded with the well known riddle, “what is black and white and red all over”, to which a classmate would answer, a “newspaper”. Then the asker would propose the above question. 


The above text is a cross between a riddle, and a dark joke in my interpretation. Going off of Oring’s argument, riddles question reality, disrupting the rigid categories we use to control the world. They transcend our perception of reality, which is an act of rebellion in itself. This riddle could certainly serve this purpose. An important factor beyond this interpretation, is that the joke/riddle was circulated among children. It’s a widely held folkloric idea that children’s folklore often rejects institutions. This is because children are so highly institutionalized on a day to day basis, especially in a school setting, where this joke/riddle was told. Another societal function that riddles serve in some cultures is to aid in education. Their structure is helpful for practicing memorization, and they provide an exercise in logical thought, as well as language manipulation. Interestingly, this joke subverts a well known riddle, to which the answer is “a newspaper”. I could see this subverted riddle emerging partly as a way of rejecting the institution that is public school, and its education tactics. Additionally, the subject of the joke/riddle is a nun. Nun’s are representative of yet another institution, one of Christianity. Of course there is also the basic factor of this joke being slightly gruesome and dark, referring to blood and injury. This could be an example of Narvaez’s idea of rebelling against societal pressure to mourn foreign tragedies. But it is also likely that children would gravitate towards gruesome or dark humor simply because it is not what the institution deems “school appropriate”.