By Chelle Luper Wilson
I’ve watched and re-watched the documentary, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, more times than I can count. The scene that stood out most recently was one featuring poet, activist, and scholar Sonia Sanchez, who also happens to be one of Morrison’s closest friends. She explained how Morrison’s work made you feel a full range of emotions.
She talked about being so mad reading The Bluest Eye that she just threw the book against the wall. As only she can, Sanchez then described the tears that flowed from her eyes as she came back the next day to read more. She says, “You read Toni and you cry and you gotta laugh…If you don’t laugh; you don’t survive.”
Her words, “If you don’t laugh; you don’t survive,” have haunted me ever since. Like most children of Black parents, there have been times when we as kids, didn’t see the funny in many situations that amused the elders. However, I remember hearing my mother say a lot, “Sometimes you just have to laugh to keep from crying.”
In the times we now find ourselves in, there are plenty of outrageous things happening that ordinarily would warrant a good laugh, but right now, all I want to do is cry. Finding something that really made me laugh has been a challenge until Eddie Murphy returned to my screen.
I honestly didn’t know how much needed a good laugh until I had one—a really good one, the kind that makes you spit out your drink, causes your eyes to water and requires you to hold on to your sides because they hurt from laughing. Recently, several people have told me I needed to see Dolemite Is My Name. I knew the story of Rudy Ray Moore wouldn’t be appropriate to watch as a family but finding time away from the kids to “Netflix and Chill” isn’t easy.
On a 6 am flight, a week or so ago, I paid for Wi-Fi and started watching it. I laughed out loud (and I do mean loud) so many times. Ordinarily, I’m a quiet flyer, especially at 6 am, but the laughs came louder and quicker than I could stop them. It didn’t seem to bother the beautiful and distinguished seasoned Black woman seated next to me, and as we were landing, I said, “I hope my laughs did not bother you. I just watched Dolemite Is My Name.”
She turned to me and said, “You did not bother me and listen, honey, I understand. I watched it last night.” Yes, Dolemite Is My Name, is very funny. The cast is phenomenal, Murphy has brought so much Black excellence together in this one film. I kept saying, “Wait, was that?” Yes, it was. Let me tell you, Wesley Snipes delivered as D’Urville Martin and said aloud what everyone outside of the cast had to be thinking.
Surprisingly, it is also very heartwarming. It is a story of belief in self no matter what. It is a story of authentic friendship. It is a story of representation. It is a story of community—the way we come through and show up for one another. It is a story that visually depicts our experience, “when they slam doors, go find another, or build a window…do whatever it takes to keep going.” This movie is all of that, and did I also mention it is funny?
When I think about the African American experience in a historical context, one of the factors that I believe has contributed to our resilience and survival, is that despite our circumstances, we have somehow always been able to find joy. Those who held racist beliefs rooted in white supremacy couldn’t fathom the concept that enslaved persons could still find reasons to smile, and so, they concluded this happiness must mean those of African descent were childlike with lesser developed minds.
After all, how could anyone find happiness within a life of bondage, sorrow, and pain? What those racists couldn’t understand was the fact that while my ancestors’ bodies were bound, their minds were free. Their minds were able to tap into a metaphysical connection that allowed them to transcend present circumstances and as real as sunshine and rain, they conjured joy from pain (shout out to Frankie Beverly).
The ability to separate the spiritual from the physical was not only an ability that far exceeded average levels of mental comprehension; it was also necessary for survival. However, I like to think it wasn’t just about their survival, but the joy that resonated from the depths of their souls soared as the ancestors visualized us, not just surviving but thriving. They could find ways to laugh, and dance, and sing because they knew this life was not our end.
In times like these when seemingly everyone and everything is working against our ability to survive, sadly sometimes even ourselves; we must find sources of joy. Richard Pryor once said, “All humor is rooted in pain.” With climate change, global unrest, voter suppression, senseless violence, chaos in the Oval Office, there is more than enough pain to go around. It is enough to break your spirit all the way down and for many people, it has.
You can see its effect on their faces, bodies, minds, and spirits. Sanchez tried to tell us, “If you don’t laugh; you don’t survive.” Before Sanchez, the Bible told us that “A merry heart doeth good, like medicine (Proverbs 17:22). Medical studies have proven that laughing boosts the immune system, decreases the risk of heart attacks, helps reduce blood pressure, and can aid in weight loss (I’m trying hard to fit in my new jeans so I’m gonna start laughing right now).
If you haven’t seen the movie, I know by now I’ve piqued your interest. Let me know when you get to the scene in Dolemite when Murphy as Moore brings in the idea of including Kung Fu, that part WILL make you laugh out loud. I’m taking Eddie Murphy’s energy with me into 2020, because even though he said these words as Dolemite to Mighty Donald, I know he was talking to both himself and us when he said, “Don’t never let nobody tell you, you can’t be anything you wanna be. Understand?” Like Anita Baker, these words bring me joy! This holiday season, I ask that you join me in finding at least one thing that brings you joy, not just the type of joy that makes you smile, but the kind that makes you laugh out loud.
Chelle Luper Wilson is a writer, motivational speaker, and activist. She is the International Secretary of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.