The Politics of Black Joy

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In the summer of 2015, I attended the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival (BNVI) in Atlanta as a coach with Baton Rouge’s youth poetry slam team. One of the most defining moments of my experience at the festival that year was witnessing the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement (PYPM) win the tournament with a closing poem about Black joy. The festival was taking place in mid-July, at a time when the news of Sandra Bland’s death was barely a week old. The BNV community comprised of poets, organizers, coaches and mentors were also still reeling from the state-sanctioned murders of Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and Charleston church massacre, but here was this all-Black team of youth poets challenging us to find joy in the midst of devouring sorrow.

The PYPM team ended their piece chanting the chorus to that summer’s anthem in the movement of Black lives, Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” and stirred up the spirits of everyone in the audience. For three minutes and thirty seconds, every person within earshot and eyesight of the performance was suspended in hope. I was and still am appreciative to have been there for that moment. At the time, I was personally experiencing the weight of depression and the youth of PYPM gave me, one of many adults in the room, permission to feel alright. To be okay.

I have spent a great deal of 2020 thinking about the intersections of Blackness and joy, in a time when so much that has tried, and to some extent succeeded, at siphoning our joy from us. Our culture has lost icons this year. The coronavirus pandemic has ravaged our communities. Violence at the hands of the state have brought names like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks to our dinner tables. There have been moments of cultural release that have provided a bit of antiseptic to the consistent sting of dehumanization, but by and large this has been one of the hardest years in modern history to be Black in America.

It can be argued that so much of the Black American experience can be codified into flashpoints of joy or hope or optimism, and the uneasiness that follows based on historical traumas. A recent example of this is the jubilation many Black Americans felt when Joe Biden announced that he selected Kamala Harris as his running mate, and the cultural interrogation that followed the announcement on social media and in news outlets. Whatever joy surfaced from the idea of a vice presidential candidate of Black and south Asian descent with a HBCU education and senatorial experience, was immediately countered by conversations around her problematic history as attorney general of California and the specific impact of mass incarceration it had on Black citizens of the state.

The pendulum swing from excitement to grave concern about Kamala is not merely clickbait for the writings of politicos, it is also a very real example of public discourse had by Black folks who have been traumatized by American history. A response to centuries of socialization that often anticipates “the other shoe to drop” because it usually does, and when it drops it usually lands in the form of a boot on our necks.

It should also be noted that the vulnerability of Black joy is a bigger concern than just a disruption of “turn up” or the killing of our “vibe.” There are mental health ramifications to us being consistently subjected to acts of dehumanization and to overly consuming dehumanizing images. Black folks cannot afford to navigate the world naive and aloof. But there is also a high cost on our psyche to remain enveloped in despair, hopelessness, and communal sorrow.

It is often the unspoken task of Black folks in America to differentiate the societal variables within our control from aspects of American life we can only hope will not devour us. Still, we should always endeavor to invite joy into our lives that is not contingent on American being on its best behavior or offering us whatever it believes will quell our discomfort.

We have cornered the market on resilience. We are deserving of the kind of peace and wellness not dictated by however America decides it wants to treat us.