I’m Dying: Black Women’s Rhetoric of Laughter and Liberation


I’m Dying: Black Women’s Rhetoric of Laughter and Liberation

By Dr. Cona Marshall,

“I’m dying” serves as a pejorative statement used to signify actual death as well as hearty laughter within Black communities, capturing nuanced relationships amongst Black pain and joy. As a millennial womanist, my scholarship and faith based social advocacy explore the liminal space that dying supposes as active responses to the absurd (a philosophical term used in understanding the quest for meaningness and meaningless). While scholars have debated solutions to the absurd by offering: escaping existence (Kierkegaard, 1941; Camus, 1942), believing in entities beyond the absurd (Kierkegaard, 1941), or accepting the absurd (Fanon, 1961; Camus, 1942) as valid responses, it is within all three responses that I analyze Black women’s rhetoric in preaching (Ain’t I a Preacher?: Black Women’s Preaching Rhetoric), rap (“Who Made These Rules?: Black Women Rapping and Preaching Activism and Liberation) and comedy (Laugh at My Pain: Black Comedic Language Laboring Towards Liberation). Ultimately, I am concerned with how Black women articulate their realities through language.

[easy-tweet tweet=”My work engages the ratchet and the religious, the petty and the podcasts, the calloused and the comedy. ” template=”qlite”]

My work engages the ratchet and the religious, the petty and the podcasts, the calloused and the comedy. While our foremothers, sisters, aunties and cousin womanists have traditionally centered Black women’s voices from and within literature, scripture, churches, music and everyday lives; as a millennial womanist, I engage these cultural productions while also engaging Instagram comedians like Mrs. Shirleen, CeCe, and Jasmine Luv and podcasts like “The Read” and “Gettin’ Grown”. The sacrality of Black women’s comedy is that it is liberating to know that Black women can find peace in living and laughing alone. They are not required to save the world, but live and shed light on the absurdities that present themselves in living. In the like manner, Black women insert themselves in “male-dominated” spaces, unapologetically situating Black women as viable resources for emcees and preachers and center their subjectivities as viable resources for liberation and activism.

[easy-tweet tweet=” What and who am I privileging in course readings, and viewings? What content mediums am I privileging? ” template=”qlite”]

As the only tenure-track Black woman at my institution, and the youngest in my department, it is most important to demonstrate who I am. This means disrupting and putting into conversation Black Christian/religions, Black women and millennial identities. I am fortunate to be in conversations concerning which scholars to bring to campus for various symposiums, which courses to offer, and how to build an Africana Studies Program. In doing so, I am strategic in introducing womanists and varying mediums of engagement for students and the larger institutions’ community. I serve as the Black Student Union advisor and allow myself to be open and welcoming to students. Even with my heightened visibility, I am careful not to allow each diversity issue of the institution to be my burden. In sharing myself, I am not only sharing what a Black queer woman from lower class rural Midwest looks like in the classroom, but what are her pedagogical offerings? What and who am I privileging in course readings, and viewings? What content mediums am I privileging? What learning tools do I permit? In answering these questions, I am clear to center Black women’s voices, experiences and epistemologies.

My faith based social advocacy continues centering Black women as I foster Black children. While explaining to my sons that we were headed to an event that provided gently used clothing and toys to children in the foster care program, my son exclaimed, “It don’t feel like we in foster care!”. Not only does this statement make me feel good, it sums up my approach to faith based social advocacy. In the midst of court cases, therapy sessions, doctor appointments, parental and sibling visits, I want to eliminate and/or minimize decisions of dying or meaninglessness. I want my children to feel a love that pushes beyond conditions while recognizing them as real. As an instant mom, it is trial and error, but it is the way that I have learned over the years from other sisters, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, scholars and actors, that fostered my know-how. Familiar voices flow from my mouth, preparing this next generation to challenge gender roles, sexist language, and heterosexist ideologies.

[easy-tweet tweet=”Black women are hustling and grinding in spheres that do not have blueprints.” template=”qlite”]

Because Black women’s rhetoric is at the epicenter of our current social realities, we must listen and encourage millennial womanists to engage their world. Not only is it in the creation and sustaining of Black Lives Matter, Black Podcasts, preaching, rapping and comedy, we are writing engaging articles, television shows, music, blogs, and tweets. We are building global and digital communities while embracing liberal politics. We are preaching liberation in oppressive denominations. We are the most educated group and earn the least. Black women are hustling and grinding in spheres that do not have blueprints. It is essential that we keep our eyes on communities that do much with less, with integrity and awareness of their political, social, physical and spiritual realities that are often stacked against them.

In an age where Black women are slaying by reserving premium network space to display their music videos and Black transwomen are slain unnoticed, we must charge millennial womanists in collaboration with womanists of all generations, to create narratives. In the space between dying spiritually, emotionally and physically, Black women are creating memes, tweets, podcasts, Instagram and Facebook videos that keep us dying with laughter. Black women are preaching and teaching, they are using their epistemologies to resurrect scriptures that have been oppressive to Black women, and they are changing conditions to ensure that Black women reach liberation. In efforts to speak to ways of knowing, we must engage the modes of “doing”, “acting” and “saying” of Black women millennials—to counter and live in rhetorics between literal and figurative dyings.

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Dr. Conā Marshall is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies housed in the Religion and Philosophy Department and affiliated with the English Department at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, PA. She serves as the Chair of the developing Africana Studies Program at the same institution. Both her teaching and research interests focus on the constellating themes of African American rhetoric, womanist studies, comedy and religion while her upcoming publications have also included these themes in conversation with Hip Hop artists and activists, Kanye West and Lauryn Hill. Her intellectual foci were nurtured at both Michigan State University (BA), (PhD) and Vanderbilt Divinity School (MTS). Conā uses her subjectivity as a Black woman growing up in with lower-class status in the small rural village of Cassopolis, MI as the lens that guides her work.

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