Laughing After Slavery:
The Performances and Times of Ben Ellington
Laughing After Slavery brings to light the unknown but significant story of “Laughing Ben” Ellington, an African-American former slave who at the 1901 Buffalo, NY World’s Fair gained national and international fame because of the stories he told about his slave experience and his extraordinary ability to laugh loudly for long periods of time thereafter. Examining the production and impact of Ben’s laughing act through the lens of performance studies, trauma studies, slave narrative, and scientific investigations of laughter, the manuscript considers the connections of laughter and humor to the slave experience and the literal role laughter played in fomenting national acceptance of the trauma of American slavery.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II performs Laughing Ben in the 2011 Black Theater Workshop version of AT BUFFALO (UC Berkeley). Directed by Dr. Amma. Photo by Anna-Marie Panlilio.
While humor, comedy, jokes, and wit are part of Ben’s laughing act, Laughing After Slavery is primarily interested in laughter itself—the bodily behavior of laughter—the work of laughter as Anca Parvulescu calls for us to consider of general laughter.[i] The book asks: What is the work of laughter when it is produced within the context of a former slave’s past? What agency does laughter give to and take away from the laugher and its hearers? How do we make sense of the incongruous pairing of the trauma of the American slave experience with the seeming frivolity of laughter? To answer such questions, the book performs the archive to recoup Ben’s laugh—its production, the body that produced it, the bodies that heard it and were infected by it, and its subsequent silence in the historical record. Using data generated by performative enactments of Laughing Ben’s famous act from the AT BUFFALO development process, the book demonstrates that performance can be part of historical research and analysis. In doing so, Laughing after Slavery not only restores to the archive that which has been lost but uncovers new interpretations of an emancipated slave’s experience at the turn of the twentieth century.
[i] Anca Parvulescu, Laughter: Notes on a Passion, Short Circuits (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 3.