Black Joy

What is joy? You know that moment you have that stops you in your tracks? The ones that make you smile from ear to ear, or laugh so hard you might cry… Moments that temporarily make you loose a sense of place and time because all that matters right now is this place and time? That’s joy. And for black folks, it’s not simply a luxury, but it’s a necessity.

The girls and I were at our favorite place, *the bookstore), one afternoon this week and I came across this book, Black Joy: Stories of Resistance, Resilience, and Restoration written by a black woman named Tracey Michae’l Lewis- Giggetts. I was immediately intrigued by the title alone. Once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. So much of it resonated, starting first with the premise: that black joy is necessary and offers a challenge to the one-sided narrative of black life solely comprised of trauma and hardship. And then there’s this quote: black joy, without an understanding of empathy and self compassion is simply happiness, and happiness is temporal at best.

In fact, experiencing and expressing joy for black folks is key to embracing our full humanity. I know I’ve personally struggled with this, as a black man, husband, and father. Growing up I was taught that there was very little margin for error, which meant no time for anything non-serious. This is a relic of previous generations where our very existence was a threat, so of course to pause and “frolic” in the moment felt frivolous. Man, how many moments of joy I missed out on as a result of embracing this hustle culture reality.

Then, there’s probably the most damning line thus far from the book:

No doubt we black folks look outside ourselves for validation for good reason. Historically we’ve been dehumanized and dismissed as inferior. So through our demonstration of joy we hope to experience our full humanity. 

This is what differentiates black joy from other types of joy in my mind. Like so many other things for black people it seems to be born out of an expression of our experience. And while “the black experience” isn’t a monolith, there certainly are some common threads, one of which being the unlearning we’ve had to do when it comes to centering ourselves and our worth.

I know for me personally, it has taken me some unlearning and reconditioning to turn inward for validation and compassionEven today, I worry about the margin for error being so slim, that I find it difficult to extend myself the grace and benefits of the doubt. But I must try.  And I must anchor my joy in self compassion, not only for myself, but for those around me.

I’m compelled to help raise my four black daughters with a stronger sense of self, firmly connected to black joy that sustains them. As Tracey writes, our ancestors were well versed in black joy, even when moments of black happiness escaped them.

Yesterday, we went to see the Obama portraits on display here in Atlanta. And while I was so excited to share this experience with the girls (they didn’t seem to grasp the enormity of the occasion) I was more proud to simply let them catch a glimpse of my own black joy in happening in real time. For me, watching Obama rise has been like watching us rise, and to see all of this history coming together over the past few decades of my adult life, it truly has been a source of deep pride and joy, one that is shared by so many.

I’m just so glad we were all able to share this moment together.


At the Obama Portrait exhibit.

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