This is a love letter.
My favorite story about Black people laughing involves my grandmother and grief. I was deep into my 20s when my grandmother passed away, but I’d nursed childlike fantasies that she might live forever. (I was wrong.) At her wake, I spied younger cousins in the corner of the room. One tiny voice rose above murmurs and quiet chitchat. “Grandma’s body is base,” the voice said to co-conspirators. Then I heard the phrase that starts all games of hide-and-seek: “Okay,” the voice declared, “You’re it.”
Before adults could contain what was happening, these kids rushed toward hiding spots, ducking behind chairs. Others raced up the aisle toward my grandmother’s open casket. It was obvious now. Hide-and-seek at my grandmother’s wake. Parents yanked kids by their church clothes, and mourners’ eyes widened in shock. Me? It was funny, so I laughed. I tried to contain myself (this was a funeral, after all). But my brother and I caught each other’s glance, and stifled snickers became hysterics. We leaned back. Then leaned forward into each other—a mix of shrieks, giggles, and throaty coughing escaped our bodies. We caught our breath and closed our eyes for a moment. “Grandma is gone,” “these kids are wild,” our laughter seemed to say. “Grandma is gone, and we’ll never be kids again.”
In the midst of a pandemic, when Black people are dying, grieving, and grappling with 400 years of state-sanctioned violence, it feels trite to say that we should laugh right now. Every Black person I know is fighting—protesting in the streets, battling at work, feuding on social media, donating resources, or trying to keep anxiety and sorrow from swallowing them whole. Many are caretaking for and burying loved ones, as the new coronavirus outbreak has disproportionately impacted Black communities. Public and private conversations are filled with anger, skepticism, sadness, and exhaustion. Then someone tells a funny story or shares a thread of Beethoven-was-Black memes, and we’re laughing at a funeral—finding solace despite ourselves.
In two popular compilations of Black people laughing that Instagrammer Kayla Robinson shared on her account, it’s clear that Black laughter is a life force all its own. Even when there’s no pandemic or international outrage over our suffering, laughter is a reliable form of resistance. It bubbles up near the gut and rolls out of open mouths. Black laughter propels you forward; it’s not uncommon to keel over. It might push itself through your limbs, present itself as dancing. Laughter can make your shoulders shimmy. You might stomp, clap, or swat your neighbor’s back. Black laughter sounds like wailing, panting, gasping, supplication, and surrender. It’s celebration and lamentation. It’s release.
It’s also a battle cry against everyday anti-Blackness. It rejects the whispers to crouch down, fold into ourselves, or cover up.
It refuses orders to be serious, to tighten our tongue. It resists pleas to be less vocal, less childlike—to be smaller, to be quiet. We laugh and invoke Black teenagers on street corners, told to scatter because their love languages are roasting each other and healthy debate. We laugh for Black women and femmes who are pummeled for being too smart, too vibrant, or too unapologetic when communicating uncomfortable truths. When Black laughter vibrates walls, lights up theaters, howls at screens, it expresses empathy with the imaginary—with characters and performance. It connects us to each other without trying. Black laughter helps us resew the frayed fabric of our own resilience.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about how vital joy and laughter are for Black people. Yes, there’s evidence that, because of stress-relieving effects, laughter can help support your immune system, aid circulation, and decrease blood pressure, among other benefits. But beyond science, what I know is this: In a world where we are treated as commodities instead of people, laughter costs nothing and provides value no one can steal.
If nothing is funny to you right now, you don’t have to laugh. If you can’t find joy, that’s okay. If you want to flip a table, I celebrate everything that shakes, cracks, shatters, and topples over. If you are sad, exhausted, or numb, I affirm your need for rest. But if something is funny, please go ahead and laugh. Then continue the longstanding work of unapologetically and relentlessly being yourself.
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