Penny For Your Thoughts: An Ode To Black Women’s Laughter

August 28, 2015  |  

Couldn’t you hear them laughing?

When I read about the group of women who were ejected from the Napa Valley Wine Train, I (and just about every Black woman I know) turned to another Black woman and said, “Girl, that could’ve been me.” So, in the wake of the country’s first #LaughingWhileBlack scandal, I want to say one thing: The audible cackling of Black women must continue to go forth.

Surely, Black women do not own the patent on laughing loudly. And, for the record, no one laughs quietly. Other people’s laughter always seems loud if you’re not laughing, too. Julia Roberts and Roseanne Barr, for example, are two famous White women with two famous chuckles. Over the years, I’ve known several White women who laugh like Black women. My old boss at Redbook, Stacy Morrison, has a riotous laugh. You always knew that someone at a staff meeting was scoring major bonus points if you heard her riotous chortle echoing from the conference room.

Laughter is the human voice in concert. Where two or more laughs are gathered, there’s an orchestra. The way I see it: All laughter is music, most laughter is a symphony, and some laughter is soul. Black women’s laughter, however, is almost always scat. It’s the difference between a doo-wop show at the Apollo and an all-night jam session at a juke joint.

A Black woman’s laughter is the offbeat clap that Mahalia Jackson would syncopate with her hands in the middle of a song’s verse whenever she got happy. It’s ill-timed but on time.

When a Black woman feels her laughter ascend, she doesn’t always know what it will sound like (tone, volume, cadence) when it arrives. Will it quickly smack against the air in a high-five “Hot damn!” or will it hover for a while like Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” note in perfect pitch?

There is no one way that Black women laugh, but you always know Black women’s laughter when you hear it. (And, like I said, some non-Black women do have it.)  For some of us, it’s a two-note shout (“Huh-HA!”). For some of us, it’s an engine humming in the back of the throat. For some of us, it’s a sing-songy cackle interspersed with fussing. (“Hahahahaha! Shoot. Hahahahaha! Please. Hahahaha! You must’ve lost your damn mind.”)

Then there’s the guffaw: That’s what you’ll hear when I get together with my friend Mari. We keel over in “Stop! Stop! I can’t take anymore!” discomfort from the persistent tickling to our funny bones, and then we cry out in an almost painful roar. There’s also the chortle: That’s what you’ll hear when I get together with my friend Atiya. Those are the gasping-for-breath giggles that feel like happy hiccups in your soul.

I get my laugh from my mother. It’s loud. Very loud. And it’s gnarly in places. It’s chuckling mixed with singing mixed with shouting. It’s the kind of laugh that might make someone run into the room and ask, “Are you OK?” Whether we inherit the exact laughs of our mothers, aunts, cousins or grandmothers, our laughter still tells our family’s story.

I imagine my great-grandmother Penny (for whom I was named) in Louisiana, standing with other Black women in a kitchen or the field. In my mind, I hear Gran Penny saying something clever that makes the entire group of women holler out like church bells, but they quickly become self-conscious, and one of them says, “Hush, girl! He might hear us.” And “he” could be a boss man or any ol’ man (or woman, for that matter) who is threatened by hearing, seeing or even sensing a woman’s self-actualized joy.

In laughter, there is too often a “Hush, girl!” paranoia in effect. So what if you laugh so loudly from the kitchen that people can hear you in the back bedroom? There’s something quite wonderful and powerful about having a laugh that amplifies your earthly presence. And when your earthly self hails from a long line of folk who serviced this earthly country despite not being paid, acknowledged or fairly rewarded for their work–well, laughter is liberation.

When a Black woman laughs, she’s free for a moment that feels like a lifetime. Like the moment in a Sunday morning sermon when the preacher begins whooping with excitement, quoting from the scripture in Jeremiah about “fire shut up in your bones,” and the church mothers in the front pews suddenly catch the Holy Ghost.

Call it spontaneous combustion.

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