Matthews, a 49-year-old Black woman from Lawrenceville, Georgia, turned to creative projects to bond with her parents who are both in their 70s. For her, having these precious moments with family are what encapsulates Black joy.
"We can allow our uniqueness to carry over with an older population just by becoming creative and just going back to some simple things,” Matthews says. With her parents, “we color, we sing songs, we do art. Those are some of the things I believe anyone can tap into.”
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Those moments and rituals, like Sunday dinners, road trips, family cookouts and faith-based practices create small sparkles in daily living and can be more meaningful than a big event, says Matthews, who is a licensed professional counselor. Leaning into community is essential.
As the country honors Black History Month, celebrating Black joy has become a focal point. Along with calling attention to struggles related to African American inequities and history, there’s a concerted effort to draw attention to the delight that can be drawn from events, relationships, art, music and experiences intrinsic to black culture.
To Matthews Black joy boils down to “the essence of understanding our culture, where we came from and really where we're going,” she says. “It embodies our ability to be creative and tap into who we are as a culture.”
Finding the roots of Black joy
The origins of the Black joy concept likely date back to the start of Black history itself. For example, religious beliefs and traditions have always been part of Black culture and the first predominantly Black religious denominations were founded in America in the late 18th century, according to the Pew Research Center. For many in the Black community — especially those who are older — church is not only for worship but also a place of community and uplifting through praise and song.
The concept of Black joy has garnered more attention in recent years, in part because the version of Black history taught today focuses largely on pain and struggle. Images of Black people experiencing violence and inequity are common in the media. And even as the world collectively faces the COVID-19 crisis, for example, Black Americans and other people of color are dying from the disease at an increased and alarming rate, adding to the traumatic impact of the virus.
While those problems are real and important to call attention to, they don't encapsulate the entirety of Black life, says Kleaver Cruz, a New York City-based writer and educator. In 2015, Cruz began The Black Joy Project, by sharing photos of Black joy on social media to counter images of tragedy.
"We inherit so much of trauma and all this other stuff — not to mention whatever we actually experience in our personal and collective lives —that we deserve healing,” Cruz says.
Black joy isn't about erasing the difficulties of the Black experience, but showing the whole truth by creating balance, he says. Cruz is now turning the materials he's collected on the topic and using his experiences of the past few years to create a book on the topic. “Black joy is a form of resistance,” he says. The world may be working against us, he adds, but in the face of that it is really an activist movement for Black people to still choose and find joy.
Create resilience for hard times
Practicing Black joy doesn't have to be a grandiose endeavor. In fact, it can be quite simple. In addition to Cruz's project, social media can help connect people, create community and spread images and ideas about sources of joy, says Randal Jelks, a professor of American studies and African and African American studies at the University of Kansas.
For example, interacting with others on Black Twitter, (the virtual Twitter community where Black people commune, share ideas and discuss relevant and important topics) and sharing memes and videos showcasing the commonalities of the Black experience inspire connection and even laughter. “Humor has always been an element of Black joy,” Jelks says. “This is why we have so many comedians coming out of our community. Because of sadness we also know how to laugh."
Jelks, who is 64, says the example set by his grandparents reinforced the concept of Black joy for him as a child, even though it was not a term in common use at the time. Though his grandparents grew up under difficult circumstances, his memories of them during his childhood in New Orleans center on their happiness.
"They lived through the hardest part of Jim Crow, but they created joy for themselves,” Jelks says.
To practice incorporating and focusing on the concept of Black joy, psychologists suggest starting with internal work. Practice gratitude and mindfulness, and embrace the present. In order to really feel joy, you have to identify what makes you happy, says Talisa Beasley, a licensed professional counselor, corporate speaker and trainer in Atlanta, Georgia.
Beasley asks her clients to look outside work and career to give of themselves as a way to tap into activities and practices they enjoy. Some clients are so focused on getting ahead and earning a profit that they struggle to figure out what activities actually make them happy and fulfilled. Turning to therapy, support groups and faith can also help unpack where a person's joy lies, she says.
"Going back to the struggles we've been through throughout our lives and generations before us, joy was just not a focus. [The focus] was on trying to make it,” Beasley says. “If we embrace the idea of what it means to identify joy within ourselves and within our community, we will be able to withstand when difficulties happen and also be able to progress forward faster.”