Black Joy is Not a Crime and We Will Continue #LaughingWhileBlack

by Altheria Gaston

They were not in church. They were not in court. They were not in class or in any other setting in which laughter might not have been inappropriate. On Saturday, August 22, 2015, they were on a wine train through the Napa Valley wine country. It was a social, perhaps even celebratory, occasion for Sistahs of the Reading Edge Book Club members who were taking their annual trip. According to the members and other passengers, the women were simply having fun and exhibiting behavior consistent with individuals on a wine tour. A few passengers allegedly complained of the Black women’s joviality, and the manager asked the women to quiet down. When they refused to stifle their cheerfulness, they were removed from the train — singled out and reprimanded for talking and laughing too loudly.

It didn’t take long for the group, made up mostly by Black women, to realize that their ejection from the Napa Valley Wine Train tour was racially charged. By Monday, August 24th, the hashtag #laughingwhileblack was trending on social media as a way of calling attention to the ridicule to which our sisters were subjected when sharing in the most innocent of acts — laughing. This occurrence was disturbing on several levels.

First, there is a mostly unspoken belief in this country that certain kinds of people belong in certain spaces, resulting in a prevalence of “exclusionary spaces.” Homeless people don’t belong in the touristy areas of our cities, children of color and poor children don’t belong in private schools, women don’t belong in board rooms, and Black women... Black women don’t belong on wine tours. Exclusionary spaces like museums, country clubs, ballet theaters, and classical performance halls are all designed and operated to shut-out people of color and people who are poor or working class. Increasingly, Black women from all walks of life are refusing these outwardly imposed barriers and asserting our multi-hued female bodies into traditionally segregated spaces. Perhaps the patrons on board the train were not accustomed to seeing Black women on Napa Valley wine tours and feared that the presence of these women would “ghettoize” this privileged space.Those who continue to resist our inclusion into exclusionary spaces are fighting a losing battle. We will not retreat from these spaces to appease their discomfort. We refute any rhetoric suggesting that there are certain spaces where Black women’s bodies belong. We belong anywhere we choose to be, and we won’t be convinced otherwise.

Second, Napa Valley Wine Train released a statement on Monday containing false accusations against the members of the book club women. Their recanted statement accused the women of “verbal and physical abuse towards other guests and staff,” a characterization that feeds into commonly held stereotypes and myths of Black women—that we are incorrigible and prone to violent behavior. In her book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, Melissa Harris-Perry found that Black women are subjected to myths suggesting that we are overly demanding and argumentative. Surely, these deeply embedded stereotypes and myths led to the company’s hasty, unfounded Facebook post describing the women as having been abusive. The company’s exaggerated fear of potential problems with the Black women even led them to summon police to control the supposedly unmanageable guests. Several book club members described the experience, particularly the involvement of law enforcement, as humiliating. Stereotypes are not innocuous, internalized characterizations that we hold in secret. As in this case, they manifest themselves in ways that cause harm to marginalized populations.

Last, this unnecessary and unjustified incident is an example of the ways the behavior of Black women is too often policed. Whether the actions are related to our sexual choices, the way we dress, or how we discipline our children, powerful others are eager to mandate how we should act. In Saturday’s incident, the women were told that #laughingwhileblack is problematic. One might argue that laughter symbolizes not only joy, but freedom and self-assurance — attributes that Black women are not supposed to possess. As is the case with intelligence, talent, and tenacity, Black women’s happiness is seen as threatening to insecure others who try to limit our possibilities and our capabilities. Maya Angelou, in “Still I Rise,” captured the anxiety experienced by others when Black women move from sadness to laughter:

“Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.”

Just like the wine train, laughter appears to be forbidden terrain for Black women. When we dare tread this terrain, we face politicized policing. But, just as the members of Sistahs of the Reading Edge Book Club did, we will resist being policed. Their efforts, mainly through the #laughingwhileblack protest on social media, countered the train company’s policing and resulted in an apology and an offer of another tour for them and their guests.

Try as they will, our laughter/ambition/talents/joy... cannot be contained.

Photo: Shutterstock

Altheria Gaston is a regular contributor at For Harriet. You can find her on Twitter @altheriagaston.

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