Since 1976, the month of February has been recognized in the United States as Black History Month to observe and celebrate the Black diaspora. Forty-five years later in the middle of a pandemic, Black History Month returns with the activism of the Black Lives Matter movement and a newfound urgency for social change.
Amid the civil unrest, ignited by multiple Black deaths related to police brutality and racial discrimination, is a sense of loss and a need for joy. The idea of “Black joy” as a movement and a form of rebellion has been taking root. Cal State Fullerton African American studies professor Mei-Ling Malone explains: “Black joy is an act of resistance. The whole idea of oppression is to keep people down. So when people continue to shine and live fully, it is resistance in the context of our white supremacist world.”
Black people are able and allowed to find happiness and comfort despite their tribulations. In the 1600s, slaves used to go swimming for pleasure after their day’s work, according to Malone. This idea that Black people can be happy, despite their trauma and history of oppression, is Black joy.
“Like other communities, Black folks, of course, feel tremendous pain, outrage, sorrow and depression, and we struggle with our mental health. But there is also a necessary longing and practice of joy,” Malone said. “As long as there has been racial oppression, there has also been resistance and Black joy.”
Malone went on to say that the Black community faces enough challenges due to the preventable issue of racism alone. But that even in the darkest times in a white supremist society, Black people still find a way to laugh and love.
Rather than romanticize the struggles of the Black diaspora, Black joy reveals Black folks’ humanity and their simplest need to feel free and safe in their pursuit of happiness. One way of doing this is in allyship and solidarity against a future where joy has to be defined in a trauma-inflicted context.
“Black joy is a beautiful thing but what would be even more beautiful is if all of us band together in solidarity to destroy and dismantle our system of white supremacy so that all joy is just human joy and Black folks can live freely in the world and strive,” Malone said.
Bringing Black Joy to the Protests
Upset Homegirls of Fullerton is an activist organization that emerged last summer amid the plethora of Black Lives Matter protests in Orange County and nationwide. While most protesters will walk around the block and hold up a few signs, these girls asked the attendees at their protests to dance.
Last July, the founders of Upset Homegirls invited their community to march with them in solidarity for Black Lives Matter. At the end of their march, they invited everyone to dance while sporting their “BLK JOY” T-shirts in front of Fullerton City Hall, with carefully curated music from Black artists playing in the background.
Drivers going down Commonwealth Avenue honked along to the protesters’ display of joy as Cupid’s “Cupid Shuffle” commanded their movements “to the right” and “to the left.” As if entranced by Cupid’s lyrics, the protesters carried on his message as they danced along to “I just let the music come from my soul / So all of my people can stay on the floor.”
“It’s important, even in all that bad space, to bring all of that goodness,” said Brandy Factory, a founding member of Upset Homegirls. “Because you can’t fight anything without love and I think there’s a lot of love that’s rooted in Black joy.”
Factory inherited her passion for justice from her parents, both of whom were involved in protests for their communities. In the generation before her parents, Factory’s grandfather was simultaneously a member of the Black Panther Party and a proud Los Angeles police officer during the 1980’s.
As an officer who lived in the community he served, Factory said her grandfather saw how the police treated civilians who weren’t their neighbors, and that it was one of the reasons why police brutality persisted.
“I think that’s also why he took on being a Black Panther as well. Because he knew what the history was with police officers and how they don’t really need as much funding and armories,” Factory said.
Having grown up connected to her family’s history of activism, service and an unfaltering dedication to fight for one’s people, Factory protests today with the understanding that the police are not going to protect her community, just as they didn’t her parents’ nor her grandfather’s.
Just as her mom took to the streets in 1992 to protest at the Los Angeles Rodney King riots, Factory went to Fullerton City Hall on July 4, 2020 to light candles for the Black lives that were lost rather than fireworks for a country that made them victims.
“You did your part, so now it’s time for me to do my part,” Factory said in reference to her mom. “Some people don’t go out and start activism to be influencers. They just do it because they feel like that’s what’s in their heart. And that was a big starting point with Upset Homegirls.”
Esther Fagbamila, one of the founders of Upset Homegirls, was the catalyst in her organization’s formation. According to Factory, it was as simple as gathering the girls and saying “Hey, I’m not happy with what’s going on and I want to do something. Can you help me?”
And in her pursuit of the happiness that was lost due to America’s current political climate, Fagbamila and her friends created Upset Homegirls to help serve their communities while also teaching, spreading and displaying joy.
“I can’t let myself stay in the position of victimhood, or believe that I am in any way, shape or form a victim to my circumstances. I can believe that I can be full of joy, and happy, and still be able to fight against my oppressors,” Fagbamila said.
Laryssa Odd, another member of Upset Homegirls, said that Black joy doesn’t have to be isolated and that it can stem from the creativity that flows through the Black community.
“If you have a Black business, that’s Black joy right there, because you’re supporting the community, and you’re spreading to other Black folk. If you’re a Black musician, you’re spreading your creativity. There’s so many different ways that Black joy can be spread,” Odd said.
While the Label is Trending, the Idea is Not Foreign
Throughout all civil rights agendas in history, Black people could be partially, if not fully, credited with integrating music into their protests, according to Cal State Fullerton African American studies professor Natalie Graham.
Graham explained that the influence of activism in art is powerful because it represents the tenacity of Black culture in American society, which is not something that forces of violence and oppression can easily strip away.
Graham referenced Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 song “Alright” as an example of powerful art and creative activism. Graham argued his lyric “we gon’ be alright” is powerful because it represents hope — hope that they will be OK and hope to experience joy.
“Many Black thinkers talk about the power of hope and the power of joy, the power of Black celebration. It’s outside of the white gaze. That’s outside the confines of the cultural expectations of white culture,” Graham said.
Graham taught “Black Men in America” at Cal State Fullerton and asked her students, “What does it mean to be a Black man?”
In response, nearly all her students’ answers included words like “pain,” “strife” and “challenge,” as opposed to “joy,” “peace” and “pleasure.” In her students’ minds, this is what Blackness looks like, which is representative of the idea that Black laughter and Black joy has been weaponized against Black people.
“When you think of a person as fundamentally angry, or fundamentally aggressive, then it’s a lot easier to justify hurting that person, or diminishing that person’s rights or even killing that person,” Graham said. “So I think there’s this really powerful thing that we’re saying no, Black people are joyful, they’re not angry.”
On Jan. 20, Kamala Harris became the first Black American, Asian American and woman to hold the second-highest office in the U.S. On the same day, 22-year-old Black American poet Amanda Gorman delivered a powerful, joyful composition, and became the youngest inaugural poet in American history.
With so much left for people of color to accomplish and moments to celebrate, Graham affirms that Black people, regardless of circumstance, have the full right to celebrate themselves and feel joyful doing so.
“I think Black joy acknowledges that, alongside whatever else is happening, it acknowledges that we have the full right to feel our emotions,” Graham said.
She emphasized that while Black joy is resistance, it is not the full picture.
“It’s about honoring our humanity, in the fullness of what it means to be alive and to be human,” Graham said.
Malone brings up a similar idea when she said that it’s just as important to challenge white supremacy as it is to practice self-love, which leads to joy. She said that embracing our humanities will naturally lead us to reject the status quo that violence and hate are normal.
“Black joy is about affirming one’s beautiful life. Black joy rejects the pathology of racism. Black joy is being fully human. Black joy is pride. Black joy is self-love. Black joy is shining bright. Black joy is living your best life despite living in a racist world setup against your very being,” Malone said.
Kim Pham is a writing fellow for Voice of OC Arts & Culture. She can be reached at [email protected].