Trains, once an American cultural symbol of freedom, occupy an important place in the African-American musical tradition. In the blues classic “Long Train Blues,” a man laments a lover he lost to the lure of the rails; she aims to ride the train, she explains, “till the blues wear offa me.”
Well, on Aug. 22, the blues got thrown on the 11 women (10 black and one white) of the Sistahs on the Reading Edge book club. Riding high when they boarded the Napa Valley Wine Train in Antioch, California, the Sistahs celebrated the birthday of one of their members with toasts, appetizers and good cheer — until fellow passengers took offense at the volume of the women’s laughter and they were kicked off the train. The supposed social faux pas these women committed has been pithily and profoundly summed up by the hashtag #LaughingWhileBlack.
It’s merely the latest example of black people being unable to partake in normal activities, such as asking for help or wearing a hood without being at risk of humiliation, incarceration or death. This most recent incident highlights how black women are perceived, treated and policed, first with suspicion and then with punishment that’s hugely disproportionate to their behavior.
In June, Charnesia Corley, a 21-year-old black woman from Texas, was subjected to a vaginal search during a traffic stop because a police officer thought he smelled marijuana. A Texas state trooper pulled over Sandra Bland for not signaling a lane change and then slammed her head against the ground and arrested her for expressing defiant dismay over being stopped in the first place. More broadly, in an important document produced by the African American Policy Forum, “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected” U.S. Department of Education data show that “while black males were suspended more than three times as often as their white counterparts, black girls were suspended six times as often.” Black girls have faced consequences ranging from criminal charges to expulsion for infractions such as writing graffiti on school property to wearing a natural hairstyle.
In the case of the train incident, Lisa Renee Johnson, a Sistahs on the Reading Edge member and an author who documented the afternoon on her Facebook page, told The Napa Valley Register that the maître d’ delivered a number of warnings to the group, threatening to eject them from the train if they did not bring their noise level down. When Johnson asked who was complaining, the maître d’ said, “Well, people’s faces are uncomfortable.”
Perhaps some customers were not getting the experience they paid for. According to the Wine Train’s website, the outings are designed to be “a trip into the luxurious American past,” circa the early 1900s, as well as “an unparalleled memory-making journey.” Apparently a group of joyous black women compromised what was supposed to be a historical experience. Their perceived transgression — of bubbling over with black joy — offended white privilege. Then came false accusations by a wine train representative that the group engaged in “verbal and physical abuse towards other guests and staff,” adding insult to injury.
For the aggrieved white passengers, the memory of this day excursion was not going to be of the food, the wine or the loveliness of the countryside. It was going to be that they paid, as it turned out, to spend an afternoon in the company of black women free enough to laugh and talk as they pleased. And that breach of contract could not be tolerated. What was left of the trip had to be salvaged. So the train was stopped. The women, including an 80-year-old member and one with a cane, were made to deboard, but not before taking what amounted to a perp walk through six cars past the other passengers on the train. Four law enforcement officers met the group upon their exit; the women were put in vans and driven back to Napa. There, they received refunds. Every regard and courtesy was given to the uncomfortable white people. No consideration was made for the comfort of the black women.
The policing of black women’s everyday lives occurs even as they personify the values that American society upholds. A 2014 study by the National Coalition of Black Civic Participation found that black women participate in the labor force more than any other women. In 2008 and 2012, black women led all demographic groups in voter turnout. Over the last decade, while black women experienced a decline in teen pregnancy and high school dropout rates, the number of black women obtaining college degrees increased. A 2014 report by the Pew Research Center concluded that a college-educated black woman is the most likely person in the United States to read a book. Yet because of a bevy of factors such as bias and stereotyping, black women are feared and forsaken, not admired and supported. It’s no accident that black women are the most likely women in the U.S. to be murdered or raped.
We may still be riding the train toward racial equality, but black women should be excused for feeling that our blues have yet to wear away.