The Defiance of Black Joy in an Especially Anti-Black Year
Illustration: Franco Égalité

The Defiance of Black Joy in an Especially Anti-Black Year

Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying

Illustration: Franco Égalité

I’ve been thinking a lot about joy lately.

Maybe it’s the Thanksgiving trip I recently canceled. Maybe it’s the constant despair we’ve experienced throughout 2020 — the feeling that we’ve spent a year of our lives suspended between moments of tragedy. Either way, I can’t help but wonder where joy has manifested in our lives, and why, when it finally does, it feels so weighed down and muddy. I’ve been thinking about why joy feels like more than joy and less than joy at the same time. I’ve been thinking about who joy is for and who it’s against. I haven’t felt joyful in my thoughts.

First, let me back up.

There’s a Twitter account called @NoContextDrUmar that happens to be the dumbest thing on the internet. It takes clips of hotep Insta-vangelist Dr. Umar Johnson and posts them, as the name suggests, out of context. They’re all as ridiculous as Dr. Umar himself; I can’t get enough of them. They bring me joy. When I watch the videos, I’m not thinking about oppression or resistance or fighting back against a tyranny that constantly threatens to wipe away my smile. I’m just… laughing.

Despite a pandemic that struck Black communities with cruel precision, the virus in the White House, and months of protesting systemic racism and extrajudicial police violence against Black people, we found joy.

When I sat down to write this, I originally wanted to contend with the idea of Black joy. How finding it in 2020 is an act of resistance, some cementing of one’s right to be happy in conflict with the burden America puts on us for the color of our skin. How happiness isn’t just something we feel, but something we do — actively — to fight off the scourge of White supremacy. But I don’t think that’s quite right. I don’t think that does our search for joy justice.

Despite a pandemic that struck Black communities with cruel precision, the virus in the White House, and months of protesting systemic racism and extrajudicial police violence against Black people, we found joy. But these were joyful moments on display. With our usual safe havens — barbershop hangouts, spades games, cookouts — wiped away by Covid concerns, we instead had Twitter and Zoom and IG Live events. All of them filled our spirits, but all of them happened in public, in view of a White gaze that so often seeks to co-opt and analyze our culture. To find joy in those spaces required shaking off that gaze and feeling like we were home even when we were out in the open.

But we did it. We gave our Black icons their flowers during Verzuz battles and cracked jokes when the technology gods weren’t on their side. We made TikToks and memes about Wet Ass Pussies. We made (and watched) I May Destroy You and Lovecraft Country and Real Housewives of Potomac. We won Golden Globes and Emmy Awards from White folks who never know how to judge our work in the first place. We wrote bomb-ass books about Blackness and joked on live television about Trump catching Covid-19. We danced in the streets and clowned people who wanted four more years of White supremacy. We praised deliciously alliterative Bossip headlines and made puns playing on J. Cole’s name.

We gave the coronavirus and the pandemic pet names — “the ’rona” and “the panny,” respectively — giggling through our tears and fears. We celebrated Abby Phillips and called Van Jones an opp. We knelt before NBA games, talked shit to each other when they were over. We bumped albums by Burna Boy, Griselda, Teyana Taylor, and Freddie Gibbs. We binge-watched The Wire together and hid our eyes behind our hands when we learned about Patti LaBelle’s son. These are joyful moments.

But how do you quantify something like joy? Last year, my family traveled to Europe for our first international vacation. We drank hot chocolate in (on?) the Eiffel Tower. We had Thanksgiving dinner in the heart of London. We were happy. In our moments of isolation since then, we’ve talked about how lucky we were that my cheap ass didn’t pass over the flight deal when one of those error-fare sites posted about it. We tell ourselves that if we hadn’t gone when we did, who knows when we’d actually be able to take a trip like that again.

If we manage to maintain our health, we’ll be spending Christmas not even venturing beyond our living rooms. We won’t take our customary trip to my dad’s house to visit relatives we see only once a year. We’ll instead feel the emptiness of a home where only our voices echo off of the walls. But we’ll be alive during a time when we’re reminded every single day that so many people are not. So I wonder, as we enter the holiday season, is it better to flourish in good times or survive in the worst?

Sometimes Black joy is a directive. A necessity to survive. It’s singing “Alright” in Ferguson streets among empty tear-gas canisters. It’s jazz funerals. It’s the way my uncle used to post up telling jokes at family members’ wakes because that’s how he knew how to make it through the night.

Black joy is also in our nature. It’s a survival instinct, a natural determination to be happy. To be Black, though, is to not know whether that joy is part of this basic human need or a revolt against being denied that need. Because the things that stop our joy are omnipresent.

This year, there were the personal battles: the quarantine-mandated isolation from loved ones, the jobs that vanished quicker than the stimulus check that was intended for economic relief, the departed family members we couldn’t properly memorialize. They all played against an unending news cycle telling of slain bodies in the streets, a parking lot, a bedroom — all for being Black in the presence of White people with guns. People tried to co-opt our movements to defund police and abolish prisons, attempting to soften those organizational efforts and replace them with reform.

This country was active in trying to steal our joy, whether it was Karens calling police on us simply because they could, pundits complaining that our protests were ruining sports, or others insisting our mobilization didn’t change America in November. Voyeurs of Black culture became active invaders, taking credit for TikTok dances we created and spitting patois in Clubhouse rooms. It all sticks to our joy like seaweed. There’s never a moment when we’re free from the architects of our despair and destruction.

Maybe therein lies the intersection of joy and freedom. Maybe the true essence of Black joy is not giving a shit why we have our moments of happiness. Maybe the key is to so fully embrace your happiness that the forces tamping down that elation becoming nonfactors. Maybe the best thing 2020 can give us is a remembrance that no matter where our joy comes from or what it crashes up against, our laughter remains so loud that it’s all anyone hears.