Black Joy in Pursuit of Racial Justice
What does it mean to give ourselves permission to experience joy even when grief and rage are present?
I have decided that 2020 was a great year for me. It was filled with so many tremendous professional and personal wins. Wait… scratch that. Actually, 2020 was a horrible year. It was filled with tragic losses and enormous amounts of rage and grief. I have to choose one or the other, right? Surely our capacity for joy and pleasure is contingent on how much sorrow and anger is held at any given moment, right?
Actually, no. I don’t think it is. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. It’s always both/and.
I’ve been longing to talk about all the ways in which these last couple of years have been so much of a gift for me. And yet I struggle with holding that fact in the same space with all the ways these last couple of years have challenged the very core of who I am as a human being and the way I navigate this world as a Black woman. And yet, in writing my book Black Joy: Stories of Resistance, Resilience, and Restoration, I’ve learned that the ancestral legacy of our joy tells me I don’t have to choose.
My great-grandmother understood the difference between joy and happiness. The latter, a temporary state of being, may have felt the same as the former in that there was that same adrenaline or dopamine rush. But Nanny knew how to call on the ever-present undercurrent of joy, even when happy moments were few and far between. It’s why she rocked that pain out of her body in those church pews. It’s why that great-great-aunt would wind that pain out of her hips at the juke joint. My ancestors knew that they didn’t have to go out and find joy. They knew that joy, unlike happiness, is something that we’re born with; it’s our birthright. They clearly understood what Octavia Raheem writes in her book Pause, Rest, Be: Stillness Practices for Courage in Times of Change: “Joy is an act of rebellion. And so is allowing ourselves to feel our grief.” They knew that joy and pain, joy and rage, joy and grief occupy the same vessel.
So what does it mean to give myself permission to experience joy even when grief and rage are present? It means I feel a sort of survivor’s guilt. We don’t want to say, in the midst of a global pandemic, just how much the isolation, at least in the beginning, was good for us. Because it gave us space and time to be still. Because it gave some of us a chance to jump off the metaphorical treadmill of work. Taking a break from grind mode allowed us to realize that our productivity was never an indicator of our worth.
For me, it gave me time to name my pain even when I knew that language could never do its intensity justice. We don’t want to say any of this because we know that for some people, isolation caused a spiral into depression. For many, it was the beginning of economic devastation. The pandemic also amplified health disparities and inequities in access to care.
So we allow our grief to take our joy hostage, in a kind of solidarity, because we also know how this time has been tragically hard for others. Sometimes we even unintentionally divest ourselves from joy altogether in favor of a suffering we think is our lot as Black people.
Joy is Black when it lives within the particular historical and cultural experience of Black people across the African diaspora. Our joy transforms those often-traumatic experiences—the results of White supremacy—into something distinctly ours. By virtue of this 400-year liberation journey we’ve been on, Black people have always held joy simultaneously in our bodies with rage and sorrow. That part isn’t new.
What does feel more recent is this notion that we shouldn’t embrace the duality and actively work toward ensuring that those harder emotions don’t overwhelm us to the point where there is no harmony, no healing mentally, spiritually, or somatically (as in, our physical body).
Righteous rage and deep grief, particularly the kind we Black folks have experienced of late, can be so all-consuming that, if allowed to completely split us open, can make it seem like joy or peace doesn’t even exist. In those instances, we can’t access joy. Our grief and rage are so big, we are, in essence, disembodied.
I’ve observed this in many social justice leaders and racial justice organizers. Those working on the front lines are often the first to fall victim to a disembodied way of moving through life and doing the work. I can always tell when an activist is wrestling with the presence of joy. Those very valid, even necessary emotions of rage and sorrow are so big in their bodies that they cannot feel anything else. Joy is but a miniscule thing relegated to a past life or a kernel of memory. As a result, these activists don’t rest. They don’t hydrate. They don’t sleep well.
And so, for every victory—every indictment or conviction of an abusive police officer, every policy change or increase in the voter rolls—they find themselves sicker or dealing with anxiety and other stress-related ailments. I rejoice when I hear about a movement leader taking a sabbatical or going on vacation, or when I see images of them laughing or dancing. As much as I want collective change, I want collective healing—whether or not the dismantling of White supremacist systems or laws ever happen.
What does it look like to make room for all our feelings instead of just the ones that feel most urgent or are easily accessed? It looks like joy, and Black joy especially, taking its rightful place within our emotional canon.
Part of my personal journey has been about operating from a place of empathy and grace for myself in order to expand this container, this vessel, the spirit that holds the whole of my identity, so I can set free the joy within. Rage isn’t going anywhere. Grief isn’t either. What I have to do is be self-aware enough to see when those emotions are about to harm me, and turn my altruism and compassion onto myself.
Some of that work is definitely somatic in nature: identifying joy in the body so we can call it up when we need it. But some of it is just some good ol’ soul work: unlearning the generational response to pleasure that often says too much laughing or too much joy might lead to harm or violence.
Holding the tension between the good and the bad that has happened to me over these last couple of years has truly been work for me. I have had to learn to stand firm in the power of my Black joy and embrace the myriad ways in which it shows up, then wield that joy for the healing of myself and my people.
I know that my joy stands defiant in the faces of those who try to dehumanize me. I know that my joy makes my oppressor big mad. Because more than stealing our rights, stealing our joy is their greatest, albeit subtlest, evil. Ensuring that we can’t access our joy or that we have a fear or guilt around expressing it is probably the most insidious form White supremacy takes. Black joy is a kind of currency, and when we learn to spend it recklessly, the results are glorious.
I have decided 2020 was a good year.
But 2020 was an awful year.
I give myself permission to accept those two things as true at the same time.