The Laughing Barrel


For the last 4 nights I've been painting "laughing barrels" in my dreams. Supposedly, slaves used to place their heads deep inside these barrels while working in the fields so slave masters wouldn't see or hear them laughing. They were used to hide/suppress emotion and expression, because to laugh or express any part of your humanity equaled punishment, even death...In every dream I'm standing in front of a canvas, painting the barrel and whatever I paint inside of it then becomes animated and MOVES. In my dream Tuesday night I painted a talking head inside of the barrel and everything that came out of the head's mouth danced. Aside from the barrel and head, everything that became animated were abstract in shape and of varying colors.

Initially, I thought what triggered my dreaming about them is the reflecting/writing/painting I've been doing this summer around Blackness as an experience, the power of expression, why it's so threatening, and why and how it becomes silenced in our lives individually and collectively as a people. Today though, I'm realizing how they connect to and are representative of my own traumas around expression both when I was a child, and as an adult Black woman. I'm seeing that as a child, my mind was my laughing barrel. It's where I went when I needed to cry, laugh, scream, allow myself to embrace the tiny moments of joy I squirreled away every time I left my home-the place where any expression of independent thought or emotion in my voice, on my face, or in my body language put me at risk for-and usually subjected me to-violence. I taught myself how to be blank and expressionless on the inside, trained my eyes to be walls instead of windows, the muscles in my face to remain slack and only move in swift response to a command. Emotions were as robed, consolidated, and stifled, shoved deep, deep, deep, deep down in recesses and compartments of myself before they really had a chance to grab ahold of me. I couldn't risk their existence being detected on my face or in my body language or bursting out of me. I hid everything, even from myself. It has taken me just over a decade to find and excavate  all I hid those first 19 years.

And so as I think about these dreams and this laughing barrel concept, I'm understanding that this is really what my work is about: that excavation of everything I've had to hide in the barrel, in my mind, in my body. It's about reclaiming the power of expression that was stripped from me and denied to me during my formative years, the ones described as the most important in a child's life. It's about the impact having to live an emotionally blunted existence has on a body, a psyche, a heart, a soul. It's about identity:  the deconstructing of a person and the reconstructing that occurs once they're able to start forming new identities on their own terms. It's about the process and how it shapes, alters and refines every part of a person. It's about who I was, who I am, and who I hope to be.

I've always been intrigued by process-by the How and the Why that triggers or birth the What a person or being is/becomes. I like the middle and it's where I tend to find myself in most situations or dynamics. As gorgeous as butterflies are what fascinates me is the metamorphosis that happens in the cocoon. That's why when I started my blog in 2010 I called it Butterfly Confessions-my heart's always longed to hear and tell the stories that come from that messy place and intense stage of development. So as I'm beginning this piece, I'm finally seeing that this is what my visual story is. I've explored it some in words the last 6 years, but the desire now is to paint it...and my hope is that by exploring it in this way I can also paint a journey, experience, and struggle that speaks to what Blackness has endured for centuries. I hope that makes sense. I'm honestly struggling with how to articulate this all in a way that's coherent and not in the roiling, jumbled knot as it is inside of me. Im trying to untangle it and unwind it loop by loop, in word when necessary, but more so through image. we go.