On being a Black cynic when the world’s laughter is so loud
How can one find appreciation for the living world, if the world is entertained by the demise of you?
by Donnie Moreland
There is an old adage, from Black folk, which goes as follows, “We laugh to keep ourselves from crying.” It is strange that such a crudely simple sentiment could provide such a weighted testament to the trepidations, and fears, of an entire people. And yet I can think of very few words which describe the troubling ethos of the Middle Passages’ North American descendants. There is no escaping our histories of victimization, partly by the hands of parties unknown, and partly by the pen of parties billed to protect our person.
To put it plainly, there are those of our yolk whose memories include the aroma of a corpse, charred, whilst cutting the body down from the rope bound to the branch of an Oak Tree. Trauma is almost customary, it seems, amongst us and, for some, an initiation into the discovery of Blackness.
And despite how the evils of the world spill over into the community of others, we are almost, unequivocally, the only people implored to reconcile our suffering. A continued, suffering, might I add. We’re demanded to forgive, forget and dismiss more than four hundred years of abuses against our bodies, without reparation and with expedition. So what are we to do? We laugh.
From Bert Williams and Mantan Moreland to Richard Pryor to Patrice O’Neal and Dave Chappelle, we’ve established an emotional economy where pain is the product and laughter is the profit. And humor has managed to seal the wounds of despair. Look no further than the calm of a family reunion, when laughter infects the weary. But when the burden of agony becomes incomprehensible, the tone of our laughter molds into a haunting shape. And when all is incomprehensible, laughter no longer belongs to humor. It is the bride of cynicism and we have become cynics.
This draws great worry. Our protest anthem reframed, from “Black Power” to “Black Lives Matter”, as we witness our worthiness of being, beneath the Empire, stripped bare. Our aim is no longer to express identity but to remain a people able to be identified. Able to be counted, still. And the world watches us, in poverty and in death, as children do the inhabitants of a Zoo.
We remain mocked, our culture bastardized and our death’s for public display, and still we laugh. But laughter, we no longer weaponize to protect the sovereignty of our private fear. We laugh because our lives weigh little, and the hope for empathy is nothing but a pitiable fantasy. The horror of it is that if we do not shift course, we might laugh our way along the pathway to cultural genocide.
Black culture is a matter of Global obsession, and a determinant of Global culture. Our dance, garb, and language are curated by eyes, not our own, and commercialized; a digital economy for which we have little stake. But, more than culture, our lives are put to small screens, as we once were to stages, to be berated, belittled, and scrutinized. The world witnesses our private disputes, our shame, our lust, and our death, and finds entertainment in the sport of spectatorship.
The world watches as a major broadcasting network exploits the psychosis of a child predator, live, and is bemused by the behavior of both he and his victims. I am speaking of my loathing of the recently aired CBS Gayle King and Robert Kelly interview. I loathe the segment as the very real violence against the bodies of Black women and girls is used as bait for public interest. Robert Kelly should have never been interviewed, out of the wells of human decency that seem to only be possible in cases involving white survivors, specifically white women.
But Robert Kelly’s survivors are Black women. The lowest member of the American caste, though its mother. Regardless, their private pain is commercial. There is entertainment in the retraumatization of Black women. The mocking of Robert Kelly is infantilizing and trivializing, a very frightening participant in the institution of sex slavery. And yet, folks create, of him and of these moments, memes, digital images used to entertain via humor, sarcasm, or parody.
Black life is a rare synonym of sacredness. There is little valor in holding sacred the fragility of Blackness, as a fact. As evidence of continued wrongdoing and vulturous exploitation. It makes sense that so many of our own are burdened with toxicity and express it forward. How can one find appreciation for the living world, if the world is entertained by the demise of you? Is willing to profit from the destruction of you? How can you care? How can you not laugh? How can you not laugh when laughing is the only recourse per your public humiliations?
So many of us have become rigid cynics. A call for hope akin to a fantasy of faith. So we laugh. We laugh because, for the Black cynic, our suffering is a fact of this Universe, given its nature as seemingly eternal. Eternal in design. And if it is a fact, then there is little refutation. But I believe, that our cause is to love. Love, despite loss. In the memory of our Patron Saint, James Baldwin, I recall his observations, in The Fire Next Time:
“The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can. And if one despairs—as who has not?—of human love, God’s love alone is left.”
Baldwinian sarcasm against the church aside, what is left is trust within his profession. A trust in a resolution to despair, through the practice of affection, forgiveness, intimacy, and the affirmation of the other, and of the ego. This love, trust of love, is the foremost principle of absolution, not with the purveyors of evil, but of the memories of our self-hatred; the gift of their brutalities.
Reconciling our trouble will require a measure of faith that we can do just that, but faith is accompanied, more burdened, with very real danger. The danger of life and our relationship to that very life. But to despair is easy. It requires nothing of the despondent but despondency. The challenge is to trust that what lay ahead of each rising sun is enough to long for the turn of night to day.
That is our charge and our charge is great, but we must find evidence of contrasting facts, of us, for if the cynic is correct, and the only fact of us is unending and perverted struggle then as Billy proclaims about the Black cynic, in the face of Empire in Ernest Gaines’ In My Father’s House, “When they march them in the gas chamber niggers go’n still be playing.” Playing and laughing, to our end.
Donnie Moreland is a Minnesota based mental health advocate, writer and filmmaker.