Black Joy is movement work
Seeing Black joy reminds us that Black life exists and thrives outside a framework of suffering.
by Gloria Oladipo
Black joy is revolutionary. Full stop. Oftentimes, white people misinterpret Black liberation movements as movements only about pain, movements only about anger, only about violence and death. And, of course, they involve those things. But joy is foundational. Joy is fundamental. Joy is what we’re fighting for. Joy is what we’re fighting with.
For me, Black joy is an opportunity to fully be within myself, to live beyond the hate and abuse I receive living as a Black woman. Black joy reminds me that it deserves a place outside of suffering. It’s laughing with my Black friends and cooking. Black joy is loving on myself. It is the feeling of pride for an ancestor’s accomplishments in the past and how it energizes. Black joy allows me to enjoy the fullness of what Blackness is, of what Blackness could be. It’s a rebuttal to the world’s demand that Black people hurt.
Black joy is what Vashon Jordan Jr. has been capturing with his camera all summer, specifically highlighting the role of Black joy in protests and actions around Chicago. At the peak of last year’s racial justice protests, Jordan was working mostly as an independent photographer, going to events across Chicago and taking photos of what he saw.
His new book, “Chicago Protests: A Joyful Revolution,” captures it all; it was released last October on Amazon. While the book does include some coverage of non-Black rallies, including protests supporting Trump, the book’s best moments are dedicated to how Black people, particularly youth, use joy as a tactic to fight against oppressive systems (in this case, Chicago city officials). “My goal is to uplift Black stories and to uplift Black people. I never want to do anything that can harm those folks,” said Jordan.
Sometimes, Jordan found himself as the sole photographer at these events, the only person taking photos of a cleanup in Englewood, on Chicago’s Southside, or a rally protesting police in schools on Chicago’s West side. As he continued attending actions, large and small, Jordan noticed a through line in the different events: joy, Black joy.
Many of the protests featured dancing and free food, open mics and chalk art; Chicago Black youth organizers, the main people organizing these gatherings, would put together fun actions. Events that, of course, still addressed topics of police brutality, systemic racism, and other themes concerning anti-Blackness, but weren’t necessarily fixated on the trauma they were fighting against. Jordan began to feel a responsibility to not only capture these moments but publicize them alongside the more sensationalized images published elsewhere. “What I wanted to show people this summer was [that] you can get the same amount of attention if not more, by showing joyful parts of this movement because that is what it’s built on,” said Jordan.
There are several examples of news outlets misrepresenting organized protests from this summer, missing the joy both inherent and necessary to these actions. Last August, following a large protest that resulted in arrests and police assaulting protestors, youth activists organized “Break the Piggy Bank”, an action where protestors could hit open an oversized pig–shaped pinata that symbolized the Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) budget and allocate the fake money inside to needs such as housing, education, and other necessities. However, different news outlets covering the same event gave limited context, eluding that smashing the pinatas was supposed to symbolize violence against the police. White media is completely fixated on Black violence and death, especially when it threatens white institutions. People completely missed the imagination needed for an event like that, the role of joy in picturing what communities could be without a police presence.
Thus, Jordan set out to truthfully shoot and represent these moments in their entirety; he also made sure to protect the organizers putting these events in motion. In August, as protestors were being charged with assaulting officers despite police kettling, pepper spraying, beating, and, later doxxing demonstrators, Vashon deleted photos he had posted to Instragm depicting clashes between civilians and the police to protect activists. “I stopped taking video and deleted everything that I posted because my concern wasn’t “I have to show everything and it doesn’t matter and I’m not going to stop taking pictures.” My concern was with those people and not putting them in harm’s way.” Deleting the photos caused massive backlash: racial slurs in his inbox and direct messages as well as a slew of angry comments. But Jordan remained motivated to capture these moments in their truth, in their joy.
Black joy is a central component in movement work. Whether it’s dancing, laughter, or song, it is community building. Black pain and violence have become commonplace, especially as social media has allowed people to share gruesome images and videos of anti-Black violence. Seeing Black joy reminds us that Black life exists and thrives outside a framework of suffering. “Just to see Dr. King on vacation is a big deal because we want to know that our ancestors didn’t suffer from the day they were born to the day they died,” said Jordan.
Black joy also boosts morale. Fighting for Black liberation can be physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. Engaging in the fight joyfully keeps people motivated as the ability to live in complete liberation is what we’re fighting for.
Black joy is revolutionary. Black joy is freedom. Jordan capturing joy, both for his book but also when publicizing information about these movements, is an important step forward in correcting stereotypes that Black liberation is solely built on bitterness and anger. “I want people to know that yes we fought and we got in the trenches, but we were still able to laugh and love on each other..,” said Jordan.
Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman who is a sophomore at Cornell University and a permanent resident of Chicago, IL. She enjoys reading and writing on all things race, gender, mental health, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @glorels.