Black joy is resistance: Why we need a movement to balance Black triumph with trials
There is a freedom in expressing and naming Black joy, and I want it for all of Black people around the world.
By Kleaver Cruz
Two years ago, I woke up wishing I could go back to sleep and wake up to a more just and Black-loving world. I wanted to relieve myself of the pain that surfaces after watching too many news accounts of law enforcement ending the lives of Black people in the U.S., or the numbing feeling that chills the heart after yet another young Black person is killed for similar reasons in Brazil.
A little after Thanksgiving in 2015, I woke up burdened. It felt like a ton of bricks were on top of me that morning and I could not get out of my bed. I laid still, heavy, wondering what was the source of my sadness. I thought about how, earlier that year, my family and I had experienced the sudden and tragic loss of my uncle Ali—may he rest in peace.
I thought about how present I was for and to Black death and pain through my organizing work with various activist collectives in New York City, and the ways I felt bombarded by these things on a daily basis. By the time I woke up that morning, I had already made a commitment to not watch anymore videos of Black death and continue refusing to repost them anywhere on the internet.
It did not feel productive to (re)traumatize myself and others via social media. I was, and still am, someone who relies on inspiration and positive thinking to get me through dark moments, but, back then, I was overcome by heaviness.
As I tried my best to rest, I began to feel a spiritual rush. The Universe sent me an important and clear message. Images of Black joy began to flood my mind. I thought about the ways my comrades and I had intentionally created spaces for joy, and how those moments got us through difficult, if not tragic, moments.
I thought about laughter and good times with my family that year despite grieving the loss of one of my closest family members. I thought about moments of joy I experienced in my own life, like the moment I paid all of my bills on time or those mornings when the light shined through my window with perfection.
It occurred to me that Black people’s everyday commitment to locating joy in our lives often pierces through the troubled moments like the light shining in my room. It not only allows us to think differently about struggle, but also to center on our capacity to overcome despite all that might try to harm us, and to work through the difficulty of the moments when we do not. That day, what would soon become #TheBlackJoyProject was born.
This revelation led me to remember a picture I had taken of my mother a couple of weeks earlier at a gallery show for a Dominican artist she wanted to support. It was the first time she and I had done something like that together, and we had a great time. I took that picture and posted it on Facebook with a call to action:
Let’s bombard the internet with joy. That is resistance, too. Trauma is real mi gente. Let’s trigger love as much as the pain as we share important topics we all need to be up on. Love is necessary with the understanding that peace is the exception, not the rule. #BlackJoy.
With that post, I decided to do a 30-day self-healing commitment to post one image of Black joy every day for the month of December without telling anyone I’d taken on this challenge. The next day, I posted a picture of a family member, and the day after a picture of a friend, and so on until about two weeks in I began to get messages from people I both knew and didn’t know very well.
One of the first messages was from someone sharing that they had woken up from a terrible nightmare and seeing one of my posts calmed them down enough to go back to sleep. Then I received a message from a comrade sharing that she got through the week of organizing by seeing my posts.
It was then that I realized my 30-day challenge was bigger than my personal healing. I realized the challenge I had taken on, The Black Joy Project, was a call to community-transformation. The Black Joy Project is a digital and real-world effort to center Black joy as a form of resistance. I have not looked back since.
The Black Joy Project is just one of my forms of activism and protest, but it is the way that I want to contribute most to Black liberation work around the world. I deeply believe that Black joy is an act of resistance. When we acknowledge that we exist in an anti-Black world that is set up to ensure we do not survive, to choose life and to enjoy aspects of that life is a radical act.
Centering on Black joy is not about dismissing or creating an “alternative” Black narrative that ignores the realities of our collective pain; rather, it is about holding the pain and injustice we experience as Black folks around the world in tension with the joy we experience in the pain’s midst. Black joy is healing, resistance and regeneration. The two, joy and pain, are not mutually exclusive, and often we need the latter to get through the former.
Black joy is an opportunity to use one of the most radical tools we have as Black people: our imagination. Each time we experience joy or articulate what it means to ourselves and each other, we are creating space to imagine how else we can exist. We must imagine both the demise of a global system of oppression as well as what will exist in its stead.
What does life after the revolution look like? I imagine that Black folks are full of joy and healing in that world. I fight to ensure that Black folks anywhere and everywhere have access to their joy.
Black joy is also community. When we understand what brings joy to the people around us it allows us to conjure it for them when they are most in need or are looking for support. It gives room to love each other more deeply. Maya Angelou said it best, “love liberates.”
Out of the more than one thousand responses to the question “What does Black joy mean to you?” that I have collected in my travels throughout the Diaspora over the last two years, the most common response has been, “To unapologetically be myself.” What will it take for us to fully and unapologetically be ourselves all day every day everywhere? What will it take to live in a world that makes room for our whole existence?
There is a freedom in expressing and naming Black joy, and I want it for all of Black people around the world. I want freedom for us all.
*A version of this piece was previously published on Cassius Life.
Kleaver Cruz is a Bronx-based writer and creator of The Black Joy Project, a digital and real world movement to center Black joy as a form of resistance.