When All Else Fails, We Have Black Joy

For black liberation activists, black joy is just as powerful as justice.

It’s 2016 in America. And we have found ourselves at another peak in the rising and falling wave of racial tension. Anti-black racism has been state sanctioned as the justice system has repeatedly failed to live up to its name when black and brown people are victimized by violence. Black communities have been literally poisoned (see: Flint water crisis) and screwed over by the same institutions that help other groups reach the American Dream — whatever the fuck that means. But in the midst of some of the thickest racial tensions since Civil Rights, black people in this country have also organized for liberation.

Black Lives Matter is somewhat of a household name — whether you support or oppose their mission and tactics — as an international movement for the valuation of black lives, created after the killer of Trayvon Martin was found not guilty of murder. Other organizations operating at the local, level like Assata’s Daughters in Chicago and Dream Defenders in Florida, have also formed to lead direct actions, protests, and strategies on changing policies and culture for the sake of black lives.

It is the model laid forth by organizations like these that we are inclined to envision when we think about how black people are going about the business of black liberation. We imagine banners, highway shutdowns, and interruption of political speeches. But while those are certainly effective tactics that have brought global attention to the issues affecting black people, there are other strategies that go unnoticed, even in plain sight. Black joy is just as much a strategy for improving the lives of black community as any rally or election. I talked to some black activists about some of the things that contribute to their own sense of fulfillment and found that it was in these moments that so many of us feel closer to freedom.

For example, Paris Hatcher is a black queer feminist organizer and bike magician in Atlanta. She helped organize the Black Freedom Bike Tour, which covered 310 miles and hit historic sites like the Harriet Tubman Bridge and the Combahee River. Something as mundane as a bicycle is a source of happiness that allows Hatcher to transcend. “Cycling is a moving meditation,” Hatcher said. “It is also the closest thing to flying I know. I’m wild and free and in my body sitting with myself. When I’m riding with others via leading bike tours, it also lets me tap into my most aspirational self by cultivating a culture of black love, joy, collective care, and magic. All which are some of my guiding values in building and sustaining black liberation.”

Amber J. Phillips is the senior manager of Youth Leadership and Mobilization at Advocates for Youth, an organization that focuses on reproductive justice and eliminating abortion stigma. She also co-founded a digital media firm called Black. She’s runs campaigns, sits on boards, and advocates for black women on a daily basis in her professional roles. But if you follow her on Snapchat, what you’ll see is a whole bunch of turn up. Twerking, trap music, cheers, and recaps of crazy nights in DC or whatever city she’s visiting are a regular staple in her stories there. When asked about how these after-hour experiences contribute to her work she told me: “Black joy includes the right to turn up and relax, free from oppression or violence. When I turn up I reboot and give myself the the room to do what feels fun and good to me because sadly, black joy is still very dangerous for black people. Jordan Davis was killed for having his music too loud. Countless black people are locked up for rolling blunts when we deserve to have joy just like anyone else. Black joy IS black liberation.”

And to Phillips’ latter point about rolling blunts, I talked to someone else who found even weed to be practice of resisting anti-blackness and affirming his identity. Kevin ‘CHuBBZ’ Banatte, a digital strategist (a trade that he warmly regards as “black wizardry”) who co-directs Black with Phillips described growing up in Haitian family where even the thought of smoking bud was thoroughly shaded. “I reached a point where I was learning a lot about myself and the world, especially on a psychological level. It was 2011, and life was beating me down. But whenever I smoked weed, it was like I was able to respond to life from a happier place. Not to mention that things slowed down, which allowed me to ensure that I responded to life in the most authentic/truest to myself way. At that point I realized that I needed to embrace weed as my thing. I needed to use weed to help me unpack the oppressive behaviors society and my family had taught me… Weed allows me to slow down the rapid fire of black hate and anti-blackness to then pivot into a place of black power and black joy.” Even in a society where petty weed laws disproportionately affect black men, for CHuBBZ, rolling a jay offered a paradigm shift in which he could analyze and the theorize these very circumstances.

Other activists I know are finding their freedom not just in hobbies, but in their day-to-day activities and from our own bodies. Fresco Steez is a digital strategist with BYP100, a national member-based organization that advocates for black lives, comprised of 18-35 year olds. Her personal style is in a league of it’s own and that, too, is a political statement. “It is a tradition of black resilience to stunt and adorn our bodies in celebration of our identity,” Steez told me. Jazmine Walker, a non-profit consultant and UGK fangirl, said this about her own black body: “Orgasms remind me of my humanity and my inherent right to my own pleasure. People try to tell black women that we are less than human, who are sent here to suffer, to be anything but our own. So, every time I have an orgasm I’m actively resisting that. And having a body that’s mine is a core value of my black liberation.” I’ll take two, please.

Black people in this country, and elsewhere in the diaspora, have found innovative ways to push back on the structures that subjugate us, and enjoy ourselves doing it. This was the foundation upon which the blues, jazz, and hip-hop were built. Cultural/media studies scholar Jessica Robinson, whose doctoral work focuses on black girls reminds us, “The arts and music have always been a part of black liberation, politically and socially. For me, music is important because creating or indulging in black people’s brilliance connects me to what’s supposed to be broken under white supremacy and other forms of oppression. But also because music is where I see other black people being happy, vulnerable and turnt. And that shit makes me happy.” These are not new practices, nor are they limited to black people, but they do work to paint a different picture of what fight, struggle, and resilience look like.