Illustration for article titled Finding Black Joy in Times of Crisis
Illustration: Benjamin Currie (G/O Media

The other week, I cried.

For some, shedding tears in times of chaos and terror seems quite normal. Anticipated, even. To me, it felt strange.

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I am a black woman. As a journalist and a ‘student of the game,’ I am keenly aware of the systems of racism that—from this country’s inception—were created to oppress black people. To me, crying seemed like a luxury because moments of catharsis indicate finality, and we are not done. History has taught us that if we do not fight, we die. So taking a moment to mourn the lives of black human beings who have fallen to civilian and state-sanctioned violence—during a pandemic, no less—while my comrades were in the streets fighting for justice felt, well, wrong.

Fortunately, my breakdown was behind closed doors.

I was in the privacy of my home and stepped away from the onslaught of troubling images on my Twitter feed for a moment. Reprieve be damned; almost as soon as I put my phone down, I found myself entranced by the news on television. That’s when I was introduced to the story of a Texas man named Tye Anders: in mid-May, the 21-year-old black man, who initially ran a stop sign, found himself surrounded by police while sitting in a car parked in his grandmother’s driveway. At the demand of (what looked like) five or so police officers, all of whom had guns drawn, Anders got out of the vehicle,. knelt to the ground, and laid down. His grandmother hobbled out of her home and stood in the middle of the confrontation. The feeble 90-year-old, who walked with a cane, later lost her balance and fell on her grandson. At that very moment, my tears began to flow.

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I couldn’t understand why the bodycam footage struck a nerve. After all, Tye Anders’ fate would be unlike that of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and countless others. Anders is ‘lucky’—he is still alive.

But the sting still stung.

Perhaps it was the absurdity of seeing a group of police officers, with guns drawn, surrounding Tye Anders due to a minor traffic offense (though we also know that Sandra Bland, who died in her jail cell, was initially pulled over by police due to a failure to signal). Maybe it was the sight of a black matriarch, who at 90 years old put herself in danger to protect her kin. She reminded me of my own grandmother, who often defused confrontations. Before passing, my ‘Abuelita,’ as we called her, walked with a cane (later in her life she regressed to a walker, and finally a wheelchair). She fell often.

Or it could have been the sight of a black man setting aside his dignity and kneeling to the ground to prove to officers that he was not a threat, and thus worthy to live another day. Part of me credits the emotion to black trauma overload; there’s only so much pain one can witness. I’d awakened from a self-induced coma of numbness, and this was the viral clip that broke this black woman’s back.

After the breakdown, I reminded myself that despite the pain of witnessing racism manifested as terror, we—black people—can not live in a state of sorrow. In the midst of this crisis, I decided to center black joy.

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As human beings, I’d argue that our true essence is joy. Some are so overtaken by hatred that, within them, joy no longer exists. A life without joy is perilous. As elusive as the term may appear, ‘black joy’ is exactly what it seems: Diasporic black people experiencing joy—from the mundane to the extraordinary.

This idea of black joy is nothing new. Award-winning director Ava DuVernay dedicated a sequence of her 2016 film “13th,” to black joy. Kleaver Cruz created the BlackJoyProject as a space on social media to share uplifting images of black people. In his book, Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures, professor André Brock explores black joy in the digital space.

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Centering black joy does not serve to quell white fears or anxieties—black joy is for the sanity of black people. Make no mistake: we are rightfully enraged, but black joy serves as self-preservation. We need black joy to nourish our souls, and to survive.

On my daily walks, I am reminded of black joy: A group of carefree, elementary-aged black boys who play touch football. As they chase after each other with masks dangling off their faces, their guffaws make their joy palpable. The little girl who sits between an elder’s legs, withstanding the tugs of getting her hair braided. The OG who sleeps in his parked car, lullabied by breakbeats. Black joy is existing freely, with agency and expressing how one feels exactly in that moment. I now realize that the freedom of black joy allows me the space to cry, and even wail, at the sight of another black person being threatened by the police—it means that I have the luxury of releasing grief in order to create space for an emotion like tranquility to live within me.

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Joy also exists on the battlefield. Listening to the echoes of call-and-response chants that are rooted in African oral tradition evokes the spirit of the ancestors. It brings me joy to know that they walk with us. Black joy exists in the realization that generations of past black freedom fighters loved us so much that they sacrificed their lives so that we can fight today. You see, both joy and resistance exist symbiotically. Without either, we would not survive.

Afro-Cuban woman that was born and branded in New York. When León isn't actually creating cool videos, she's thinking of cool videos that she can create.

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