In my culture — the Mvskoke (Creek) tribe — humor is a constant. There’s even a certain genre of humor which one of our scholars, Craig Womack, termed “fvmbe humor.” (In Creek, “v” is pronounced like a “u.”) “Fvmbe” means “stink,” and “fvmbe humor” often has to do with the body, though it’s not crass. It is difficult to translate, but we’ve kept the word despite the government’s many attempts to take away our language and culture. Laughing at certain things is almost a marker of belonging. But another marker of belonging is knowing when not to laugh, when not to let suppressed giggles burst out at the wrong time. Especially, in church.
My family attends a Mvskoke Baptist church. As is custom in our tribe’s churches, the church house is in the center, and it is surrounded by family “camphouses” — small houses which are usually just a dining room, kitchen, and seating area. Some have a bedroom because some people stay at church from Saturday evening to Sunday night. All of us stay from Sunday morning to Sunday evening, as do visitors from other Creek churches, who come to camphouses for meals and visiting throughout the day, in between the many preachers.
A few weeks ago, we were all in our family’s camphouse when my youngest aunt, Robin, relayed a story an old man told to her about a basketball game. We are from Oklahoma, where vowels are pronounced long and broad. As she acted out his animated narration, she also imitated his accent.
“And then he said, ‘He farrr-d it…’” she began, mimicking how the man talked about the player “firing” the basketball toward the goal.
It sounded nothing like “fired it” and everything like “farted.”
Just then, the deacon stepped outside and blew the horn (literally, the horn of a bull) that signals it is time to come into church. When the horn blows, everyone has to stop moving, stop talking, and listen to him blow several times as we prepare ourselves to go inside. We contemplate all the times the horn has blown: In Oklahoma, in Indian Territory, back in Alabama and Georgia before our ancestors were forced from their homes in the Removal. We remember the times way before, when our oldest ancestors blew conch shells long before Christianity was ever thought of. It’s really sacred.
And…my aunt had just said what sounded like, “farted.”
As the deacon’s breath filled the horn and the sound widened out across the churchyard, we clamped our lips together and looked away from each other.
It was too late.
I could feel the laughter rising up through my very soul, and it was made so much worse by the fact that I could feel my aunt giddily shaking beside me and sense the laughter spread like a contagion through the camphouse.
I tightened my core, as Pilates instructors are always encouraging me to do, trying to catch the hilarity before it rose any closer to my mouth. But Pilates are no match for a fart joke, and the laughter barreled through, picking up memories of all the things that had ever been funny in church as it raced up my throat.
That time my mother and I both managed to read “grace” and “peace” while singing a hymn at a church and accidentally sang “grease.”
That time I was praying on a cold, cold day in church and my earring dropped into the hood of the coat of the person in the pew ahead of me.
That time I was looking at a picture of Jesus knocking on a door on the back of a paper funeral fan and thought about how if he did that at my house, my cocker spaniel would lose her little mind, and I’d have to shout to Jesus to wait until I could lock her in the bedroom.
By the time the laughter reached my mouth, it was covered in all the million, tiny funny things that had ever happened when I was supposed to be quiet and solemn. And now I was an adult, standing there in my long church skirt, with my apron on from washing dishes, being the example for the next generation…which just made it even more hilarious.
I tried to breathe only through my nose, hoping that would let just enough of it out to get me through all the horn blowing, but that one little breath was too much, and in an instant, the laughter sprang from my mouth as my hands flew up to try to hold it in. Tears poured out of my eyes, and my entire body was shaking. I remembered all the times of my life that I had watched the oldest women of the church laugh silently, with their entire bodies gently bobbing up and down.
And in that moment, at the age of 42, I moved one step closer to being an elder of my tribe: I had unlocked a laughter that could not be contained, which is one way our people deal with pain that must be. The laughter came from my aunt, and it spread to my young cousins, like all our wisdom does when we mentor as our ancestors did.
When the deacon finally stopped blowing his horn, we looked around at each other with tears on our cheeks, all red-faced from holding our breath with the pain of containing shared hilarity. My aunt didn’t even finish the story. We just took off our aprons and went on into church, where we sang the old songs in our tribal language and did all the right things, with the great decorum expected of us as Mvskoke women.
We will tell this story over and over, and it will always be funny. It will lead to the telling of other funny stories because stories spread just like laughter does.
After we are gone, one of the children who was in the camphouse that day will remember us bent over, shaking with laughter, even if they don’t remember why. I hope they remember it while the horn is blowing, and it gets funnier and funnier until they can’t contain it and accidentally laugh out loud. Then when someone asks what was so funny, they will say, “I was just remembering something from when I was little…” Then they’ll tell about us, and we’ll be there laughing with them again, like Mvskoke people always have and always will.
Photo courtesy of the author.