y’all having a good time out there?
Sometimes, I make myself cry. No, like really. I do it on purpose. It’s actually quite cathartic...I imagine what life would be like, if I experienced some earth shattering tragedy, like… getting the call, “Is this Jesse Walker? Are you sitting down?” The news is always horrific, like, “There’s been an accident… Your husband is dead” with just a flair for the dramatic, “He was decapitated… by a shark… he fought hard until, well, he no longer had a head.”
When I’m needing an extra kicker, I imagine snorting thick lines of xanax, then sitting down our future, unborn children, and telling them, as bravely as I can, that daddy, “won’t be home for supper… ever again.” The littlest one asks, “What’s supper?” and I bark back, “IT’S DINNER, GOD DAMN IT. YOUR FATHER IS DEAD. GO TO YOUR ROOM YOU MERCILESS SON OF A BITCH.”
Then… sometimes my mind gallops to sitting shiva, the Jewish mourning ritual, that involves a lot of luke warm cougel and davening. I’m sitting in my living room; the mirrors covered in Brooklinen sheets; blood-red roses everywhere. I’m in a problematically appropriated black, silky dolce & gabana kimono that I got on sale from the RealReal.com. A dark veil cascades over my face. Picture: Fenty-Rihanna meets Beetlejuice-Tim Burton. Friends and family gather round me for seven days straight, concerned/amused expressions on their faces, as I wail every morning and night at 4:20 sharp, then spark up a j, in my beloved’s honor.
From a young age, like any good Blewish (Black & Jewish… duh) girl, I was taught to use humor as a weapon against tragedy. My Dad loves to tell the story of his step-father’s burial. Al, like many a Jews before him, requested to be buried in Florida, next to his late wife, my paternal grandmother, Ruth. So… a rabbi, the gravediggers, two brothers, and a dead body arrive at a Florida bar/graveyard. As the gravediggers begin their diggin’, my Dad ventures see his mom’s grave site. He walks along the pebbled path, past plastic purple peonies, soggy teddy bears, and mardis gras beads strewn over marble graves. Finally, my Dad arrives at his mother’s grave site.
My Dad: “Hey mom. It’s me, Johnny. I’m here with Seth… well, he’s arranging everything with the Rabbi. We’re all good. Al’s here now, actually. He’ll be right next to you… He’ll be… right…next…to…you……….. oh my god, he’ll be right next to you. WHY IS HE NOT BEING BURIED RIGHT NEXT TO YOU???????
It had just dawned on my Dad that the gravediggers were diggin a grave for his late stepfather, Al, about a quarter mile from where he was supposed to be buried — next to his beloved late wife.
My Dad at this moment of reckoning to his mother’s grave: “Uhh… hold on Mom. Be right back.” He briskly walked back over, past the plastic purple peonies, the soggy teddie bears, and the mardi gras beads strewn over marble graves, finally back to the site where his brother, the rabbi, and the gravediggers were a diggin.
“Uhhhhh guys, we’ve got a bit of a problem,” my dad stammered. have a bit of a “You’re digging here…. but our stepfather is supposed to be buried over [he points] THERE!”
The five men looked at each other, speechless. I imagine the thought going through each of their minds, for but a split second, “I mean…. would it kill anyone to just…. you know… keep him where he is?”
Finally, the rabbi, with God’s voice ringing louder in his superego spoke:
Rabbi: “Jon, thank GOD you realized this before we actually put your stepfather’s body in. We can re-dig as long as there’s no body in, but once it’s in, believe it or not, it’s a huge pain in the ass to remove a buried body from a grave site. Close call, phew.”
P H E W
Humor is one of the most effective ways to confront adversity and cope with terrible situations, especially those we have little control over. By finding a reason to laugh, we gain the ability to transcend the circumstances, which are often the cause of our anguish. Spoiler: life is filled with tragedy and sadness. Hate to be the bearer of bad news! What’s the worst place you can think of? Mine’s a concentration camp. As a… Black Jew with no hand-eye coordination. Wouldn’t expect to be LOLing too much there, and yet, psychiatrist Victor Frankl, a prisoner in the camps himself, noted in his book, Man's Search for Meaning, that humor was one of the things that helped people survive in the camps. Finding things to laugh at helped maintain a sense of meaning and purpose in life—even as prisoners saw others dying all around them.
Frankl noted, "I would never have made it if I could not have laughed. Laughing lifted me momentarily . . . out of this horrible situation, just enough to make it livable . . . survivable."
Laughter is embodied. Laughter is a visceral bodily reaction to humor. Therefore, it’s important to consider humor and embodiment as going hand-in-hand. African-American and Black humor —within the context of the U.S. — is intimately tied to the historical experience of slavery: bodies in bondage. As author Glenda Carpio (2008) states in Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery, “Black American humor began as a wrested freedom, the freedom to laugh at that which was unjust and cruel.” In a historical context, humor was necessary for survival, it provided an expressive space where “bodies—otherwise considered disposable bio-commodities—[enacted] and [laid] claim to a life (bios) otherwise denied them” (Chávez 2015: 166). Often the institutions of both race and slavery were the targets of such humor. For instance, Carpio (2008) cites the tale of a black man that wanders into Mississippi and asks a white man, “Where do the colored folks hang out here?” Pointing to a large tree in the public square, the white man replies, “Do you see that limb?”
“African American humor has been, for centuries, a humor of survival. It has been a safety valve, a mode of minimizing pain and defeat, as well as a medium capable of expressing grievance and grief in the most artful and incisive ways.”
Further, there is some really fascinating literature on the connection between Black humor and existentialism. The idea is that Black humor and existentialism both begin with the same assumption -- that the world is absolutely absurd.
In his book “Black Culture and Black Consciousness” (1977) the late historian Lawrence Levine highlights how absuuuuurd the rules were that governed the worlds of slavery and Jim Crow and how this very absurdity invited numerous African American jokes that were recorded long before existentialism. This gives the term Black humor a specifically racial meaning and context in America.
Black humor has sustained Black Americans from the earliest use of parody, to animal tales, proverbs, jokes, and stand-up comedy shows. Black humor often exists in pure folk form -- orally, on the block, in families, neighborhoods, spaces of worship, on front porches and street corners.
This is a weird but fitting segue… I’ve been thinking a lot about 9/11 since we (and by we, I mean instagram) just commemorated the 19th anniversary this past Friday. 19 years later, and it’s nearly impossible to go a whole week in the U.S. without someone using the phrase, “ever since 9/11…” The whole thing feels cruelly ironic given the current state we’re in. The west coast is on fire. Racism and Xenophobia are having a Freaky Friday field day. Thousands of people are dying, daily, from Covid-19. And yet… there are still a few reasons to laugh. Still not buying it? Here’s a list of 10 things that have made me laugh that you’re welcome to borrow:
Last week I was reflecting on the very real fact that I was in the fifth grade during 9/11 and when I first heard the news of the attacks on the Pentagon, I didn’t realize it was the U.S. headquarters for the department of defense Pentagon. I thought it was the Pentagon City Mall where I get all of my back to school sneakers, Pentagon. While I intuitively sensed the panic around me (I too was devastated by the thought of Auntie Anne’s being obliterated) I didn’t quite grasp the gravity of the situation until many, many, MANY hours later.
Reading an old…. poem? fan fiction? opening to an erotica series? that I wrote in the 10th grade entitled, “First Touch” (lolllllllll):
They lie on top of each other.
Noses touching as they breathe heavily. (S E X Y)
She bites her lip in anticipation and lets out a nervous giggle. (to mask a fart)
“You’re beautiful,” he whispers, looking straight into her eyes. (CREEPY)
She laughs again, pushing the sea of curls out of her face. (uhhhhhhhhhhhhhh)
Their kiss is deep and wet. (EW)
It takes them a minute to get their mouths in the rhythm of each other, (artsy)
but then they just click. (wait, what?)
Her arm starts shaking as she tries to stay propped up above him. (plot twist?)
Deep breaths. (WHAAAAAAAAT?)
My mom’s continuous excessive use of ellipses. Just yesterday she wrote to me:
“You need to be very careful digging in your front yard.... I’ll explain…”
Remembering when I wrote a short bio about myself for an externship position, forgetting to add a D to the word “anD” so it read as:
Jesse lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband, an English bulldog.
On the topic of dogs… retelling a story recently from many moons ago when a bunch of my gal pals were meeting Sam’s parents for the first time (mind you, this was our junior year of college). We were all passing through New York on our way back to DC for spring break, and Sam’s parents very graciously invited us to spend the night to break up the drive. There was excitement and nerves a plenty, so introductions were a bit… chaotic. In all the emotional commotion, my friend Sylvie (hiiii sylvs!) mixed up Sam’s dog’s name, Spree, with his Dad’s name, Bart, so at one point, totally out of the blue, Sylvie goes:
“Ahh Bart, stop nibbling on my toes!”
Starting a new tradition of buying friends creepy personalized piñatas of themselves to hang out with the creepy piñata versions of me and Sam and Buddha on our wedding day, because WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO DO, LET’S BE HONEST (see below: Jesse, Sam, Kristof & Buddha. You’re next :))
While concerned about my parents’ health risks at the beginning of Covid, I called my sister Halle to see if she could give me a better sense of how they were doing:
Me: Halle, be honest… is Mom okay? I’m worried she’s not telling me something.
Halle: Oh Jess, she’s straight up lying to you. This bitch has covid, no doubt in my mind.
After one of my last in-person classes, pre-Covid, sitting outside of Marvin Center on GW campus and having a homeless man say to me, “Someone didn’t get enough sleep this morning. Take care of yourself, sister.”
Remembering when my other sister Liza, was about five years old and we were having dinner at one of my Dad’s colleague’s houses. Liza and I got stuck at the kids table with the colleague’s four sons, all ranging from the age of 3 - 9. At one point, the 9 year old, thinking he was a reaaaal hot shot said to us, “Men are so much stronger than women,” to which Liza calmly replied, “That’s not true. You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re not a man. You’re nothing more than a pathetic, little boy.”
Crying is so cool, but please try to make space for some laughter too. Our lives depend on it.