Through Suffering, We Laugh

Photo collages by Chiedza Pasipanodya

Photo collages by Chiedza Pasipanodya

By: Huda Hassan

It is nearly impossible to log onto Instagram, Twitter and Facebook without stumbling across footage of another murdered Black body. You’re met by desperate pleas, or hashtag movements urging for media and state intervention into what could be another overlooked Black death. Navigating the Internet-while-Black means continuously running into graphic reminders of the wretchedness of being Black and (almost) living.

Paradoxically, the places on the Internet that are home to the visuals of Black trauma are also spaces of Black joy and Black humor. What does it mean when Instagram sensation, Jay Versace, and his friend, Junebug—two young Black men—create a viral video of dancing carefree on the street with their friends, embodying a public, unapologetic Black joy in the same location, and through the same medium, that has centred visualizations of Black death? What does it mean when these young men call to mind Black boys in the streets of America, joyful and very much alive, again, and again, and again, the same week of Trump’s inauguration and thereafter? These moments instigate joy for their Black audiences in the same spaces that disrupt that possibility, making Black relationships with social media a perplexing one.

The public murder of Eric Garner marked a transitional moment in the relationship between social media and the visualization of Black death. Videos and pictures of Black men in the street have become notable symbols of Black suffering, state violence and the contemporary Black experience. Michael Brown Jr, Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Jermaine Carby, are some of the hundreds of Black bodies that we have had to collectively imagine—and sometimes actually see—as lifeless figures on public sidewalks, streets, and parks.

The urge to display Black death (a white logic that is not new) is an intentional and public reminder that Black humanity is to be understood as disposable, dehumanized, and a site of pleasure and indifference. The alarming reality of police brutality—and the subsequent cultivation of Black liberation movements, such as Black Lives Matter—has positioned public streets and sidewalks as a corporeal emblem of Black death at the hands of the state.

Social media has been its most used vehicle of exhibition.

Social media has also been a vehicle to create and share humour as remedy to moments of inferential, and overt anti-blackness. It is the virtual labour of Black teens who are continuously defining culture through the Internet, shaping the memes, dances, and songs that we consume, and sometimes, eventually, see become corporatized. As writer Doreen St. Felix argues, Black teens are often the ones who generate the culture we consume online, their “style and tastes are usurped by a corporate machine hungry for Black Cool" and uncompensated for it.  Black Twitter, Vine, and Instagram are corners of the Internet where Black people go to create the language, movement, and sounds that inevitably become centrepieces of a cultural cool.

Operating off of what James C. Scott calls “a hidden transcript,” spaces such as Black Twitter use online mediums to cultivate community, and often, to laugh at our collective pain. Most memorable was perhaps 2016, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced a slate of Oscar nominees on which white actors and actresses occupied all of the top four categories. It was Black Twitter that brought up a very real discussion about diversity in Hollywood with #OscarSoWhite, while giving us folders of memes and punchlines to remember.  

For instance, #NiggerNavy. In January 2017, Yahoo Finance tweeted an article about how much it would cost for Trump to expand the US Navy -- which included the typo “nigger” in place of “bigger." Black Twitter caught the error, subsequently using it to ridicule the possibility of Black people going to war at Trump’s command, call-out whether or not the typo was in fact an error, and generally make fun of what a Black navy (fighting for anti-Black US imperialism) would look like. Twitter, once again, became an online space for Black folks to locate and share joy after seeing triggering language at a particularly triggering time (the rupture, but also continuity, of white imperialism now temporarily called “Trump’s America”). When Shea Moisture, a Black-owned hair and beauty brand, centred white models in one of their 2017 campaigns, it was Black Twitter that took a conversation about corporate erasure of Blackness (for the sake of economic expansion) and made it into a moment of humour.  

It isn’t just hashtags and moments that exist in Black cultural corners of the Internet—there are personalities, too. Before she became recognized as a chart-topping rapper, Cardi B was known for her Instagram video rants about day-to-day life, as well as the socioeconomic realities of being a Black femme former sex worker from the hood, hustling and achieving her dreams. Some of her known viral videos included addressing the policing of black women’s bodies, the first time she smoked weed, or that a real hoe never gets cold. Even with her sudden fame, the rapper continues to utilize the Internet to poke fun at her observations, like when she exposed us all that the rich and famous steal lights and chargers, too. It isn’t just us regular, poor folk!

Before Cardi B, our famous Black woman Internet icon was Joanne the Scammer. Sporting a lengthy fur coat and a sultry medium-length wig, Joanne the Scammer sashayed her way through the streets of Miami in search of new recipients of her deceptive adventures. Extortion, fraud, and identity theft were some of the many methods to which Joanne—the online identity of comedian Branden Miller—utilizes in order to swindle and scheme for some quick cash to afford her lavish lifestyle. As she proclaims across her online profiles: she’s that messy bitch that lives for drama. A part of the appeal of Joanne was the specificity of her targets: from large corporations, like FASFA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), to men and patriarchy altogether. Nearly half a million followers observed as Joanne recounted her dine and dashes, her lies about her identity, or how she used love as a means for income. Every so often, she’d even engage with her adversaries, the lower class, for our mere amusement.

In Canada, some of our known Black content producers have included Senior Gum Boy, a content creator known for making jabs at intra-Black stereotypes about the various black diasporas that populate his city. Marlon Palmer, also known as That Dude McFly, has contributed significantly to cultivating Black content online that pokes fun at Blackness for Black people. One of his most viral videos was a “Shit Toronto People Say” that exemplified that intricacies of Blackness in Toronto as a hub for multiple immigrant Black diasporas. Beamer Walzack, also known as the6atsix, another Toronto native, does this similarly too.

The continuous Black content cultivated and reproduced on the Internet corroborates how laughter can serve as medicine. A 2014 study at Loma Linda University revealed that humour has the ability to result in lower levels of cortisol, the hormone that triggers stress, after 20 adults watched 20-minutes of funny videos. Studies have also shown that laughter relieves muscle tension, boosts the immune system, releases endorphins, improves blood circulation, and the function of blood vessels, while also increasing life longevity.

Laughter has the literal ability to physically heal us.

Studies have shown the real physical effects that day-to-day experiences of discrimination and state violence has on our bodies and lives. Racism structures an embodied inequality. It has the ability to increase depression, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, hypertension, and the common cold. This research shows how race fractures the future for some bodies (Black) over others (non-black) through state control, incarceration, surveillance, mental health, disease, or state-sanctioned death, all of which lead to the possibility of an immediate or steady death. When the state does not kill Black people immediately on the street (on in their homes, police stations, cars, and everywhere else), it kills us slowly. As George Jackson said “the future is a time those without a future cannot risk.”

With consideration of the health benefits of laughter, and the fragility that is Black life, laughter is as an act of resistance. Memes, videos, tweets, hashtags, and vines that are produced and reproduced on the Internet by Black people for Black consumption, exist to refuse that Black life is tragic. It is joyous, too, when we collectively laugh at our pain. When we laugh, we take our agency back.

It is to be noted, however, the fundamental difference and longevity between joy and happiness. Happiness is a moment that is externally triggered. It is temporary, fleeting, and dependent on other people, places, events, or things. Joy, on the other hand, is rooted in something more spiritual; it isn’t as fleeting or temporary of a feeling as happiness is. It requires making peace with who you are, how you are, and why you are. Black joy is resisting the hostility of white supremacy by actively locating and practicing joy for ourselves, and those around us.

Joy becomes a verb, and laughter is its primary tool. When we laugh and experience Black joy, we are reminded that we are alive, and can laugh, in continued times of pain.