What is Black joy? See it through artists’ eyes

The joy of love, a healthy childbirth, connecting with dear friends, a beautiful sunset—these are things that all people can feel. But Black joy is mined from a different vein of human experience.

Black joy concedes that, yes, we are a happy people. But don’t get it twisted. We are happy that we can function in a system that was designed to keep us obedient, invisible, and disenfranchised. Happy that we are strong, that we can fight, tooth and nail, be it for our communities, our rights, our health—and yes, for our country. Happy that we can move forward after witnessing one brutally televised police-related murder after another. Happy that we can bend a knee, but still be unbowed.

Black joy is the Fourth of July firecracker of human emotions. Intentional, symbolizing independence, blazing fierce, shooting sparks that sear the memory.

Black artists channel, nurture, and reveal Black joy. They paint, sing, weave, and knit. They make, and they build. They write, and they play. They tell the stories that only we know—and they keep alive our history.

In the images and videos that follow, Black visual artists and photographers chronicle the untold stories, traditions, and celebrations that compound into the bittersweet experience of Black joy.

Black joy is telling our stories

Perhaps another photographer would have recognized the look Leila Jackson gave her mother during the hearings that would make Ketanji Brown Jackson the first Black woman to be confirmed to the Supreme Court. But Sarahbeth Maney—Black and Latina—was the one who captured the pert smile that told the world, “Mama, you’ve got this. History is yours.”

Growing up in a predominantly white area, “I struggled to feel seen,” says Maney. “I didn’t know many people who could relate to my experience.” Now she’s finding untold stories through her own lens.

George McKenzie Jr. uses his lens to insert the Black community into a field where it has little representation: wildlife photography. “I discovered a greater appreciation of the natural world through the lens of a camera in largely urban surroundings,” he says. “I wanted to share stories that were not being told from my perspective, not only through a camera lens, but through my cultural lens as well.”

Black joy is living our traditions

Bathe the chicken in buttermilk overnight. Trace the pattern for the next square of that quilt. Palm and roll the roots of a coily crown of locs until they’re secure. Such traditions and rituals bring joy.

“My family and I enjoy traditional cook outs, jumping double Dutch rope,” says photographer Dee Dwyer, whose work is rooted in Southeast Washington, D.C.—the capitol being the first major city in the United States with a majority Black population. “The music plays loudly through speakers, and dirt bikers [and] ATV riders come through sprinkling their good energy in the neighborhood. It’s a vibe only for real folks to enjoy.”

For Akilah Townsend, Black joy is the tradition of empathy and compassion that she says she has witnessed throughout her life.

“From my family, strangers, aunties, etc.—I’m reminded of it when I see our capacity to give, even when we may lack,” she says. “In times of tragedy, when the victims are those who may have even been violent to us, we have a capacity to seek healing even for them. There is a certain quality of grounded-ness that we have, that expresses itself in forms of love.”

Black joy is celebrating our culture

I am the dream and the hope of my mother’s grandparents Henry and Mary Jen Jessie, both born to former slaves in South Carolina during the 1870s. I did not expect to wipe tears from my laptop keyboard on the day the U.S. Senate confirmed the first female African American Supreme Court Justice. I did not expect to lift both arms over my head, palms facing upward, and shout “Hallelujah!”

Black joy is a stamped ticket that the foremothers and forefathers scrimped to buy for us. You can see it in the glide and stride of HBCU band members, whose frenetic precision seems fueled by Terpsichore herself. It’s in the painted and bejeweled faces of Afro-Caribbean dancers during parades in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

Though trouble may come, Black joy provides freedom. “As Nina Simone stated, ‘I’ll tell you what freedom is to me. No fear!’” Dwyer says. “That’s what you’re experiencing while in these moments or state of mind. It’s peace! … a mixture of your best summer day in your most stylish outfit topped with revolution to put humanity first.”

Because that humanity was always there, even when others tried to kill it. Maybe we’re just giddy that we made it through.

Rachel Jones is Director of Journalism Initiatives for the National Press Foundation and a frequent contributor to National Geographic.

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