Dying Laughing: Black Fugitivity and Black Queer Precarity

Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston – Carl Van Vechten, 1938 (Library of Congress)

If, as Ralph Ellison writes, Black laughter is, as an expression of Black humanity, a threat to white social order and therefore to a U.S. democracy dependent on racial subjugation, then how do we live with the reality that Black laughter may contribute to the threat of Black SGL-AGL/LGBTQIA+ life?1 The everyday consequences of Black queer precarity result in greater incidence of unemployment, work discrimination, and healthcare disparities often contributing to disproportionate rates of poverty, homelessness, and death due to HIV-infection and cancer-related illnesses. And Black queers are more likely to suffer inequalities at the hands of the judicial and criminal justice systems, as well as being susceptible to violent hate crimes (cross culturally and intercommunally). In the past year, twenty-two Black transgender and gender nonconforming deaths have been reported, mostly women. And while recent studies show an alarming increase overall among Black children in the number of reported cases of attempted suicide and suicide ideation, evidence shows higher rates among Black queer youth, with Black transgender youth being the greatest at risk. Without the aforementioned information or despite it, some Black comedians accused of making homophobic jokes argue their first amendment speech rights and point to a modern profane tradition of comedy in the U.S. popularized by comedic legends like Richard Pryor, who in his lifetime unapologetically commented on his own bisexuality in standup routines. The difference is that Pryor, much like the writer/folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, lets his audience in on the secret behind the joke.

In her introduction to Mules and Men (1935), Hurston, explaining her sojourn to her hometown of Eatonville, Florida to collect folklore, elaborates on challenges related to doing fieldwork within Black communities. Abstracting from isolated Eatonville to depict a universalized Black condition, she observes that the smile and laughter preemptively guard against all too familiar experiences of backlash for truth-telling and soul-theft by white researchers expecting transcendence through Black life. Her point is that laughter in the Black American tradition is a sanctified event that gives meaning to the impenetrable veil of everyday racialized existence. This opening reality to future possibility, an epistemological rupture, engenders what Houston Baker refers to as “breakthrough” and Diane Davis as “shattering,” a destruction of the Cartesian landscape: self-reflexive rationalism instantiated as cohesively embodied subject, and reformulated in Kant’s transcendental idealism.

Throughout Mules and Men, as with much of Hurston’s work, laughter links sublime expression of feeling with embodied thought while simultaneously exploiting dialectical tensions between conceptual and aesthetic mind-body related binaries. This is a laughing to keep from crying, a common blues phrase Langston Hughes echoes in the poem “Homesick Blues” (1927). Hurston’s evasive “opened-faced laughter” does the hidden “affective labor” of life regulating power, “biopower,” as immanence generated from mutually recognized difference within a shared experience of social displacement.

In “The Sanctified Church” (1926/1938), Hurston, honing in on dissonance as reflexive technique (social and emotional feedback) functioning within internalized Black class struggle, presents an aesthetic breakdown of “neo-spirituals” as an affective style developed by elite Black institutions smoothing over those sonic cognates (“the jagged harmony … disharmony … and broken time”) inherent to the nondialectical poetry of spiritual folk art. The dissonant voice, “straining voice” (an antecedent of “the spiritual”), survives as part of a shout tradition which has been, as Ashon Crawley explains, already cut-off from “African forms of ‘possession’” and “stamped out of most communal practices” at the time of Hurston’s observations. Crawley identifies how antinormative decentering and redirecting dominating violence operating at the “ontological edge” of Hurston’s engaged anthropology and Frantz Fanon’s socialist populism affect the destabilization of hegemonic power. By seizing upon “centrifugitivity” — a simultaneous and indeterminate, potentially explosive “choreosonics” (cultural struggle) — “Blackpentecostal shouting” sets off a sonic movement of aesthetic marronage. I would go so far as to argue that both Hurston’s “audible breathing” — a violent expulsion of “remnant” breath actualized in life-death-entanglement permeating Black existence — and Fanon’s “combat breathing” — a total mobilization of the occupied subject’s vitality to survive life consuming state violence — imagine a destructive “somatechnics” (corporeal technologies) instituted through logics of state domination necessitating guerrilla warfare strategy.

In Mules and Men, Hurston explains “the theory behind” epistemological masking “tactics.” Black laughter is an attempt to get around “The white man … always trying to know into somebody else’s business.” Mocking anthropology as a genre of objective scientific scholarship to which she is expected to conform as well as the cultural ventriloquism whiteness anticipates from such formal knowledge production, Hurston’s rhetorical moves — code-switching between third-person indirect (“somebody else’s business”) and first-person direct (“I’ll set something outside the door of my mind”) — wittingly unmasks her own existential maneuvering to thwart physical and mental surveillance routine for a working-class Black woman artist/scholar exposed to the absurdly heinous and dehumanizing discrimination of Jim Crow misogyny.2 In the dedication and forward to the book I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…and Then Again When I am Looking Mean And Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, both Alice Walker and Mary Helen Washington call attention to the way Hurston’s two-faced genius, “subterfuge” and “survival” techniques, operate as biofeedback throughout her life and art, mirroring back to us “a reflection of ourselves” as fallible and complex socially interconnected persons capable of envisioning a world beyond the materialist and psychic binds imposed by refraining structural inequality.

Walker’s edited collection (largely responsible for recovering Hurston’s legacy from obscurity in the late 1970’s) explains that the book’s title is a quote taken from a December 10, 1934 Hurston letter to Carl Van Vechten (writer/photographer) in reference to a series of photographs he captured of her, two of which — one “laughing,” one “mean” — are juxtaposed in the first few pages. The juxtaposition makes apparent the boundary between Black female self-representation and racial iconography. Hurston is a Black Mona Lisa laughing at her own projection as an object of the mean gaze, an imagined Other (looking at herself being looked at). Here, laughing praxis for survival, self-distancing from the distorted imago, might be considered alongside Sylvia Wynter’s “autopoetic” (self-creating) turn in developing the destructive tendency of Fanon’s sociogenic cognition to affect “disalienation” (rerouting as dialectical rupture), and Hortense Spillers’ “interior intersubjectivity,” critical reflexivity across relations “in-flux,” to undo the “Du Bosian knot” (a sociohistorical-political axiology of embodied psychic life), dispersing subjectivity throughout intraconnected divisions of desire. Alexander Weheliye has made similar comparisons.

In terms of what Tina Campt refers to as “infrasonic frequencies of images that register through feeling rather than vision or audible sound,” Hurston’s photographic laughter, “a quotidian practic[e] of refusal,” transduces the camera’s capture. An intense laughter moving between “stasis and fugitivity …  inhabit[ing] colonization as an ongoing wound of dispossession, while at the same time refusing to accept the impossibility of blackness lived in dignity and with respect.” At this wounded place, where disciplined Black noise reinforces servility, an intensified Black laughter is a redirected energy weapon, a white supremacist militarized surveillance and assault technology harnessed as second-generation cybernetic function turned against itself.

Rhetorically traversing a knot of racialized sexual discourse overwhelmed with symbolic imagery, Hurston’s purloined letter to Van Vechten (notorious “dinge queen“) exploits her ritualized maternal role as a Black woman proxy and feminized portal for castrated Black masculinity. C. Riley Snorton, acknowledging the symbolically absent Black father emerging as a psychohistorical remnant of racial stratification regimes, which Spillers refers to as “interstices,” writes, “the black mother’s gender is vestibular, a translocation marked by a capacity to reproduce beings and objects.” The scene is primally charged with the eternal death instinct (drive), animated by a white heteronormative male fantasy identifying Van Vechten as “a long tall Angel with that Balsm of Gilead in [his] hips” and the look of “a red-hot spider man in the center of [his] web, looking for a sizzling fly.” Hurston’s multiple reversals — situating herself as a placeholder for surplus specious desire recognized in a castrated Black phallic object — turns the mask of Black minstrelsy inside-out, a kind of breakthrough or shattering hidden or secret totems to disrupt Otherness and reroute threats of self-harm, humiliation, and inter- intra-racial or intercommunal violence.

So how is it possible to laugh in the face of death? In the final scenes of Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1989), the Black transatlantic film turns from a bluesy jazz-filled speakeasy in 1920’s Harlem to the deep house of a predominately Black gay underground night club in 1980’s London. House music propels the frenzied montage of images moving between an armed mob of marching white men accompanied by uniformed police and the interior of the club where it appears that dancing Black men might die laughing at the hands of state-sanctioned violence. What I am trying to say, here, is that laughter is a sonic prism of cognitive-affective complexity along the lines of Amiri Baraka’s “peculiar referent” of music to show Black transformation “from slavery to citizenship.” In other words, we can laugh in the face of death inasmuch as laughter can become the face of death. Although the men at the club are gone when the lynch mob arrives, it is insolent laughter, as a remnant of audible breath or combat breathing generative of counterhegemonic struggle, that disallows gloom from dwelling permanently in the empty sanctuary — still captured by time and capitalism — echoing revolutions to come.

  1. SGL (Same-Gender Loving); and AGL (All-Gender Loving). I use queer synonymously for all identity groups, unless otherwise specified.
  2. Keith Walters, “‘He can read my writing but he sho’ can’t read my mind’: Zora Neale Hurston’s Revenge in Mules and Men,” 349-50, The Journal of American Folklore Vol. 112, No. 445, Theorizing the Hybrid (Summer, 1999), pp. 343-371.
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Keelyn Bradley

Keelyn Bradley is a PhD candidate in the Philosophy, Art and Critical Thought Division at The European Graduate School, Saas-Fee, Switzerland. He is currently writing his dissertation, “Suffering Neoliberalism: Searching for the Meaning of ‘the right to equal protection’ in an Era of HIV/AIDS and Terrorism.” This study intends to research Frantz Fanon and Hannah Arendt’s theories of violence and embodiment, and their dual relation to Karl Jaspers’ existentialism while addressing the social and historical developments between the aesthetic dimensions of disease, disability, race, and heteronormativity. His first collection of poetry, 'hunger,' is forthcoming. Follow him on Twitter @koal2k.