I’m a black woman. I belong to a book club. I drink wine. Sometimes I laugh loudly. And I’ve ridden trains.
All of which explains why the recent brouhaha over a black women’s book club getting kicked off the Napa Valley Wine Train last week — apparently for excessive mirth — had me dismayed.
Well, not exactly dismayed. More like: Wow, I didn’t know laughing while black was a thing. But of course it would be, and of course it has historical antecedents. In the Pullman porter tradition, let’s unpack this car, shall we?
The 11 women from the Antioch, Calif., book club Sistahs on the Reading Edge had been asked to quiet down or exit, wine-train spokesman Sam Singer told the Associated Press. They were told to hush on a train with wine in the name, where the point was, I daresay, to have a good time.
“The book club clearly was fun-loving, boisterous and loud enough that it affected the experience of some of the passengers who were in the same car, who complained to staff,” Singer said.
The group, which included a woman in her 80s, was escorted through multiple cars, and the police were called to see them to waiting buses in the Saturday incident. Club members say they were humiliated, and one was in tears. An initial statement on the Napa Valley Wine Train’s Facebook page said, “Following verbal and physical abuse toward other guests and staff, it was necessary to get our police involved.”
That post was deleted, but not before outrage was registered on social media and the hashtag #Laughingwhileblack was created. On Tuesday, the company did an about-face.
Chief executive Anthony “Tony” Giaccio sent a letter apologizing to the women, saying that the Wine Train had been “100 percent wrong in its handling of this issue” and that the Facebook post was “inaccurate” and “erroneous.”
“We accept full responsibility for our failures and for the chain of events that led to this regrettable treatment of our guests,” Giaccio said in a statement.
Whatever the nuances of the incident, parts of that “chain of events” fold rather neatly into a long history. Some of the infamous “black code” laws, enacted after the Civil War, forbade blacks from assembling. There’s Homer Plessy (Plessy v. Ferguson) and Ida B. Wells, whose 19th-century arrests for riding trains while black led to landmark lawsuits affirming segregation. In the 1930s poem “Slim in Atlanta,” by Sterling Brown, whites have passed laws forbidding blacks from laughing in public, so they line up to use phone booths, where black laughter is permitted. This is because in the black tradition, joy is a form of resistance, which, of course, gets met with resistance.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker might put it, those black women on the train “possessed the secret of joy,” and that’s a quality that can irk some and make others jealous. Jealous like Beat writer Jack Kerouac who, in “On the Road,” wrote that he wished he were “a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks.”
The hashtag #Laughingwhileblack joined a long list of things black people can’t do: run, swim, drive or wear hoodies.
A satirical essay on the Web site VerySmartBrothas called the dust-up the “blackest thing that ever happened this week.” Because a Pew study last year found that college-educated black women read more than anybody else in the country. And because “a group of Black people doing absolutely nothing other than ‘enjoying life’ ” facing some sort of legal consequence also feels extra ethnic.
“So maybe, to be safe, if you happen to be Black, just don’t be Black,” wrote the Web site’s editor, Damon Young. “It’s probably the best thing for everyone involved.”
Young said to me in an interview: “When you follow the news and you’re aware of these news stories involving race, especially the ones where black people are getting harassed or arrested, you can’t help but recognize the absurdity of it.
“You get angry, annoyed — you feel all those emotions. But after you sit back and read the story, you’re like, ‘This is some silly [expletive] right here.’ ”
For more by O’Neal, visit wapo.st/lonnae.