I was with a friend of mine when his wife called to tell him that he was about to be a father a second time—22 years after the birth of their first child. I could hear the pure joy in her voice (hell, even I was joyful), but he had this faraway look on his face. He wasn’t smiling. For the nearly 30 years I’ve known him, I can’t remember a time that I did not see him smile. I was worried and confused, and I told him so. He had shifted gears into a mood I didn’t recognize.
“I can’t do it, bruh. I can’t bring a child, a Black child, into all this,” he whispered to me. For the next five minutes, it was like he was possessed. He went through the recent affronts to Black American existence: Renisha McBride, Troy Davis, Marissa Alexander, infringed voting rights… he started to cry. He said he felt it would be almost irresponsible to bring a Black child into a society primed to hate them, criminalize them, and kill them without a second thought.
He cried even harder when he admitted that he considered talking to his wife about an abortion. We sat together for several long and silent minutes. I mean, what do you say to a friend with such a heavy sadness?
I made a joke. I cannot remember what the joke was, but he did not find it funny. If we weren’t boys, we would have been fighting. I made another joke. And then another. I kept going until he cracked some semblance of a smile.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” he asked. Good question. In hindsight, what was wrong with me was that I felt overloaded by his misery and did what Black folks have done since being snatched from the Continent: I laughed (and tried to get him to laugh) to keep from crying. The more that I reflect, I had to be honest that this was almost always how I use humor: as a form of self-defense, a shield to protect myself against all of the things trying to hurt me and mine. Now that I know this, I plan on increasing my opportunities to laugh just to laugh.
One of the strongest values my wife and I share is humor. We got together because of humor and have sustained a decade-plus relationship because of the easy laughter we share. We’ve instilled this in our daughter, and she’s becoming quite the little clown. We’ve made fun a priority—despite my feeling guilty because of it.
My man had it partially right: Black folks are (and have always been) under some kind of attack. And at times, when my family and I are out to eat, riding bikes, or wrestling around, I feel little pangs of guilt. As folks who are politically active in our neighborhood and community, when we aren’t engaged in organizing or resource development I feel like I’m letting my people down.
I want our daughter to understand that supporting our people is something we find valuable and also something that we want her to uphold. What we don’t want to happen is for her struggle to become her identity. We wish her a balanced life. Folks talk about balance like it’s something easily achieved. At times, balance seems like a selfish choice. We’re fairly well off and have had opportunities and experiences that many folks can’t say they have had. We’ve been very fortunate, so why wouldn’t we devote our time to others who don’t have? But we’ll be useless to anyone else if we aren’t doing well, and the best way to do well is to have a life of joy and laughter.
And this brings us back to my man and his baby.
I acknowledged his concerns, but challenged him to put the joy of this news and his family ahead of the tragedies he felt so deeply. While we don’t want to be blind to the ills, we don’t want them to dictate our behavior either. This would be willfully operating from a deficit. The best way to combat the evil is with laughter, joy and fun. If we can parallel Black tragedy with Black joy— the deep, amazing joy that comes from being with those we love—instead of cushioning against sadness, there really will be no way to hold us back.
My man called his wife back. This time, when he cried, his tears weren’t from despair.
Shawn Taylor is the author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity, and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter, and can be found sporadically on Twitter @reallovepunk.