You should just watch them, but in case you don’t: spoiler alert about the Tommy Davidson one. The sketch is a take on the “Black or White” video with Davidson’s Michael Jackson singing about how we don’t actually know whether Michael is Black or white. Like in the real video, this Michael is dancing on a city sidewalk until the song ends. Then, he starts to break and smash things, including the windows of a parked car. And while he’s doing this, a white cop comes by. Davidson’s Michael, eager for help and a new opinion, asks the cop if he can tell whether he’s Black or white.
Instead, the cop says Michael is under arrest. And Davidson’s Michael, surprised, says, “What? Well, I guess I am Black!”
There’s the joke itself, but the audience reaction once it lands is my favorite part. The audience laughs, but they also groan. The joke is a bit too real and a bit too true. In another context—in fact, several other contexts—it wouldn’t be funny at all; it would just be heartbreaking and painful. Yet it remains absurd. And I cackle every time I see it.
I don’t know what you call it when you hold humor so close to pain. But, I do know that I hold them next to each other because of my referred pain. For instance, I have an old injury in my back, but when it’s aggravated, it sometimes travels to my calf or quads. In the same way, I find that particular emotional pain can travel to make me laugh somewhere else. I thought of this often in the summer of 2020. The attention on the Black Lives Matters movement, where Black folks and allies were—again and still—demanding the recognition of humanity for Black people is a process that was rooted in pain. And in its wake:
- I laughed at how one manifestation of guilt in well-meaning folks meant Venmoing random Black people money—and how I complained that no randos put cash in my wallet.
- I spent hours dancing and rejoicing to the “You About to Lose Your Job” remix.
- I found some grim humor in the truth of Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, specifically how my professional demand and value suddenly increased in the wake of racialized trauma.
- I poked fun at my White friends who reached out to see how I was doing after the protests had gone on for weeks since I believed them to be “a punctual people” and wondered what took them so long.
Yet, for the most part, the pain of George Floyd’s murder in particular simply aggravated other pain, and specifically other grief. The early summer became a season of grieving for me ever since my father died in June 2018. Though I felt pain about George Floyd, especially as a Minnesotan myself, all I really wanted to do was think about and grieve my father as I approached the anniversary of his passing.
At the time my dad died, like in the summer of 2020, I found that the pain led me to laugh at other things. For instance, I bought an urn for my father’s remains…except it turned out that we buried him, and since I felt suuuuuper awkward returning it (like what am I supposed to say?? Am I supposed to prove it’s an unused urn??), I’m just-as-awkwardly holding on to it. (And, look, I know it’s not that funny to anyone else, but one day I will write an essay about it and you’ll get it.)
While I laughed in the wake of grief, I thought this process had referred me to a new understanding of my dad. He loved to laugh; he laughed a lot and really hard. He lost his dad when he was a few years younger than I was when we lost him. I wondered if that loss and pain specifically made him value laughter in a new way. Perhaps he, too, laughed harder after loss.
Yet a few months back when I was looking at some photos of my dad when he was a kid, I found a picture of him laughing as a teenager. He’s a boy in the picture, but he looks the same as he always did when he laughed: smile wide, shoulders bouncing, eyes nearly closed. This picture of him mid-laugh undercut my earlier conclusion. Despite my speculation about some kind of knowledge, history, or learning about my father, it seemed more likely that he was just always like that. The parallels I thought I found weren’t there—though I had a new understanding of how the referral path could go the other way, allowing humor to lead to pain.
As I come up on another personal season of grieving, I am glad to have the idea of referred emotional pain. I appreciate having some understanding of the proximities in my emotional landscape, and in this grief season, I will know more about what other feelings and memories might come with it. I know I will think about my dad which will make me think of Minnesota, of Black pain and demands, the fluctuations of my perceived value and worth. These thoughts will spark feelings which will refer elsewhere, and then I’ll play some jams and shake my head at the unused urn. I’ll remember the things that capture the close proximity of pain and laughter, like Such a Fun Age and In Living Color. And like my father, I will be sure to encounter something that will make me laugh really, really hard.
Ijeoma Njaka is a writer and educator currently working on her first novel. She is an alumna of the Hurston/Wright, Kimbilio Fiction, VONA/Voices of Our Nations, and GrubStreet’s Novel Generator programs with publications in the Embark Literary Journal, Auburn Avenue, and Teaching Tolerance. Originally from the Twin Cities, Ijeoma now lives in Cleveland Park, DC.
Essay edited by Panama Jackson