Laughter Is Powerful, Personal, and Political

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones’ newsletters.It’s no secret that laughter works miracles. It stimulates and relaxes muscles, reduces pain, and improves moods and immune systems. Laughter sustains us. But sometimes when we, women of color, need it the most, it’s hardest to come by. And we need it right now. More than ever, you might say—even if it is always right now, and always more than ever.
Laughter is my superpower. And it is loud. My laughter fills rooms, resonating and expanding from bass notes to mezzo-soprano. When I laugh hardest, it’s a full-body experience, my stomach rounded out, eyes shut, ribs shaking, and one arm reaching to cover my wide-open mouth. The truth is that my laugh is as essential to me as anything else. It’s a form of survival and catharsis in the face of suffering.
But I remember too many times and spaces in which, and people for whom, my laughter has been too loud. Elderly white ladies in almost every kind of setting, particularly restaurants; middle-aged white men in office spaces; extended family.
When I started a career in my mid-20s, I was both embarrassed and indignant at being told to laugh quietly or not at all. To make myself smaller. To take up less space. I would nervously apologize.
Now I don’t. Apology would justify the unjustifiable: the right someone presumes to have to referee my laugh, to tell me to take my place in the background. I might laugh when just a smile would do—but I see no reason to mute my joy or withhold its expression. The foreground is ours to claim by organizing, protesting, voting, running for office, hiking, writing, and laughing.
Comedians Sarah Cooper and Ziwe Fumudoh know it too. They get me laughing by using humor as an act of resistance—to racism and sexism and a culture of racialized misogyny that’s all too familiar in the United States. To laugh loudly is to reject the assumption that women of color must, at all costs, watch our place. Cooper and Fumudoh are in their place and out front. And they are really, really funny.
Photos of Kamala Harris are everywhere this week as we witness her historic rise as a vice presidential candidate. She is smiling big, unabashedly taking pleasure in the moment. I imagine she knows the power of vocalizing, whether she’s at the back of the room or holding the mic; at the edge of power or the center of it; in a moment of rage or a fit of laughter.

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