A people of laughers, Langston Hughes has called his people. His poem “Laughers,” first published in Crisis in 1922 as “My People,” goes through a series of roles associated with African-Americans (singers, storytellers, dancers, but also dishwashers, cooks, and waiters), to conclude that they are laughers: “Yes, laughers…laughers…laughers— / Loud-mouthed laughers in the hands / Of Fate. “Yes, laughers…laughers…laughers” comes as a response to a doubtful question: “Laughers?” “Yes, laughers…” is the insistent answer, its insistence a function of the acknowledged irony of an African-American poet in 1922 describing his people as laughers.
“I love myself when I am laughing” is also Zora Neale Hurston’s provocative statement, an attempt to claim membership with the same people of laughers. It is a response to Carl Van Vechten, who had taken a series of photographs of her laughing; but also to Hughes and his accusations that she had put on a “happy darkie” show and played the primitive. The sentence would be the site of Hurston’s recuperation by 1970s feminism, becoming the title of her 1979 collection published by Feminist Press. It condenses an “attitude” that brought Hurston intellectual annihilation in the 1930s and posthumous fame. A list of adjectives describes the “attitude” within different contexts: quick-tempered, arrogant, rude, inconsiderate, unladylike; or, alternatively, enthusiastic, confident, unconventional, outspoken, free-minded. Photographs of Hurston laughing, marking this “attitude,” have become her trademark. One sees them wherever Hurston’s name appears. And then, “I love myself when I am laughing.” What does Hurston see when her laughter returns to her in the form of a photograph?
What is clear is that both Hughes and Hurston are deeply invested in a wider struggle over African-American laughter. Hughes would write about Hurston: “To many of her white friends, no doubt, she was a perfect ‘darkie,’ in the nice meaning they give the term—that is a naïve, childlike, sweet, humorous, and highly colored Negro.” This description came in the wake of the fight between Hughes and Hurston over the authorship of their 1930 collaborative work, Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life, which they imagined would be the first African-American comedy. Their conflict is considered one of the most notorious “literary quarrels” in the history of African-American literature. “Playing the primitive” is in this context the insult one injured party throws at the other. But, in close proximity to the primivitist theme, the quarrel is also symptomatic of the desire to rescue African-American laughter from those to whom Hughes refers as Hurston’s “white friends,” known for their indulgence in fantasies of black laughter.
It would be Ralph Ellison who would take it upon himself to explicitly frame the struggle over African-American laughter, and to bridge the discussion between a wider modernism and the African-American tradition.