“Laughing barrels” and the defiant spirit of Black laughter
We collectively, instinctively know how to allow moments of elation to take over us and fill our bodies.
Seems like every year I learn some new factoid about how plantations operated during the time of chattel slavery of African peoples in the Americas. I inevitably come across another unfortunate piece of knowledge that I wish I never had to know. At the same time, I always understand how it’s of vital importance that these things be remembered, because white supremacy is always in the business of “forgetting” and deals exclusively in lies.
This week, I learned about laughing barrels. Enslaved Africans were not allowed to laugh on some plantations, and so, in an act of defiance and as a mode of survival, they often stuck their heads into barrels in order to laugh out of sight and out of earshot of white slavers. This, apparently, is where we get the term “barrel of laughs.” After quite a bit of research, I am still unsure of whether or not this is a myth, but I will proceed here with the understanding of laughing barrels as literal rather than figurative.
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Great. Here’s yet another way that White Devils oppressed and dehumanized our people, I thought. Here’s one more way they were deprived of very basic human needs and experiences, forced to find countless ways to better survive under the conditions created by white supremacist delusion and sadistic cruelty. But, as I realized after some consideration, it was also a good and timely reminder that our enslaved ancestors laughed, too.
Their forbidden laughter is just as potent a reminder as anything else that happened on the plantation of how white people tried their best to dehumanize Blackness. How white slavers and their accomplices actively strived to snuff out any reminders of the humanity of Black folks and took pleasure in being abusers.
12 Years A Slave was the last slave film I ever watched. When Lupita Nyong’o admitted recently that she still hasn’t gotten over the trauma of it, I felt some kind of relief, and then I felt guilty for feeling that relief. Let me be clear. I do not want this for her. She shouldn’t have to carry the trauma with her, and I wish like hell that she didn’t have it. I only felt that moment of relief because haven’t gotten over the trauma of the film either.
Now, I know damn well my trauma doesn’t stack up to hers. I was merely a spectator, while she was a participant and an actor. She embodied the experience of gendered violence on the plantation in a way that I will never be able to even comprehend. And I feel nothing but resentment and anger for the fact that the film industry seems determined to keep recreating these traumas for us. Spectators and participants, alike.
We need more reminders that our enslaved ancestors felt more than just anguish. Because they were fully fucking human. Our people found ways to laugh, even when it was dangerous for them to do so. I like to think about how they might have giggled or even guffawed. How their bodies might have quaked with their forbidden laughter, shaking until their abs were sore and tears were in their eyes.
I think about this and it’s a reminder that they also felt lust. They kissed, they fucked to feel the pleasure of touch, closeness, and orgasms. And they also played with little children, bounced happy babies on their knees, sang songs, told stories, and shared intimate moments of braiding each other’s hair. They loved and showed love in whatever ways they could, stealing seconds of togetherness and amusement that they were never supposed to have.
These are the moments and the truths I wish we could excavate, observe, and hold space for in media and beyond. These are the things I wish we could be reminded of and dwell on more often. The humanity and aliveness of our ancestors is not located in their pain or the memory of it. I want to meditate more on their laughter, seemingly small defiances, and modes of resistance on the plantation. These acts were so much bigger than we can know. It’s important to remember this, too, not just their suffering.
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I’m so glad and relieved to have learned of laughing barrels, and to have been reminded of the tradition of Black laughter as resistance and survival. We no longer need laughing barrels, but we have kept that same defiant spirit. That same refusal of silence and arrest, and honestly it feels so fucking good to see Black folks throwing back our heads and showing all our teeth to loudly, boisterously, obnoxiously laugh in the face of all this shit white supremacy keeps throwing at us, even as we acknowledge its violences.
“Black folks never take anything seriously” is a valid assessment of the fact that we can find hilarity in almost anything—even in our own traumas—and we often do it as a way to just be able to get through the day. I’m thankful that #ThanksgivingWithBlackFamilies trends on Black Twitter every November. I love when social media threads veer into friendly roast sessions with memes and gifs shared to punctuate the jabs, brimming with all manner of signifyin’ and shade.
I’m pleased that Black folks are known for running a mile in the opposite direction when something is funny to us. And I’m proud that we collectively, instinctively know how to allow moments of elation to take over us and fill our bodies, sometimes until we fall all the way out or knock each other over in our state of euphoria.
I’m just so goddamn glad for Black laughter.