Black joy is an act of rebellion. Here’s to more of it
Social and political writer and commentator, Lola Adesioye, kicks off Black History Month with a call to action for more Black joy
Friday 4 February 2022 By Lola Adesioye Illustrations by Meg Pollard
In 1779, a man named Alexander Hewitt said this about enslaved Black people in South Carolina: ‘The negroes of that country, a few only excepted, are to this day as great strangers to Christianity, and as much under the influence of Pagan darkness, idolatry, and superstition, as they were at their first arrival from Africa… Sundays and Holidays are days of idleness… in which they assemble together in alarming crowds for the purposes of dancing, feasting and merriment.’
The disgust Hewitt feels at the sight of Black people having a good time is palpable. He scoffs at their practice of ‘merriment’, seeing it as synonymous with ‘darkness’, seemingly unable to understand that this expression of joy – despite their circumstances – may have been all that kept those Black people alive.
Beyond white supremacy’s role as a cruel and inhumane tool for economic domination and the creation and maintenance of unequal and unmeritocratic social hierarchies, there’s also a negative mental, emotional and spiritual dimension to oppression, prejudice and inequality that continues to have a profound impact on the Black psyche.
I would argue that the various tools that have been used to dominate Black people in America over time have also been ways to attempt to assert control over Black joy and to subvert the Black community’s inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. Being joyful in the face of such oppressive and restrictive structures is, therefore, not only a right but is also an act of rebellion and resistance.
Since the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in 2020, discussion has grown about the toll that political activism takes on activists. Burnout, fatigue and disengagement are all too real in the face of enduring societal structures that are resistant to change. Activating joy is a necessary antidote, an important part of self-care and emotional wellbeing.
As a social and political writer and commentator, I noticed that I was beginning to find years of writing and talking about politics increasingly depressing. Although the work is important and necessary, it has weighed heavy on my own psyche. As such, I had to look for new ways to engage, new ways to express myself in a way that was less burdensome on my own spirit. So, I have gone back to my first love, which is making music. Singing, songwriting, playing my saxophone and piano, arranging, and being in the studio. Fully embracing the creative acts that make my heart feel full make it easier for me to deal with the more difficult parts of navigating this world as a Black woman.
So, what does leaning into joy look like? It looks like celebrating the best of ourselves, allowing ourselves to focus on all that is great about us as a community and a culture. It looks like celebrating our wins and victories. It looks like engaging in rest, laughter, and practices that help us feel good – whether that’s yoga, dancing, roller-skating, cooking, knitting, singing, or whatever it is that you enjoy, and doing them without guilt. It looks like talking to your Black friends about what they love about their lives, about their culture, community and history, and encouraging them to talk about the goodness and the gold, as well as the stuff that isn’t so easy to discuss. Black joy is part of the multi-faced, multi-dimensional Black story.
Oppression negates life. Joy affirms it. Oppression renders people powerless. Joy gives power to the enjoyer. Here’s to Black joy.
Check out last year’s Black History Month hub, Black Imagination here.