Black Joy is an Act of Resistance

How Anti- Blackness Robs Black People of Black Joy

Ya’ll know Black people are some of the funniest human beings on the planet. I remember it was new years eve and we poured the kids some apple cider in some cups to make a toast. Midnight hits and we all yell Happy New Year! My five year old leans over to my good friend David and says, “But where’s the toast?” Of course we all fell out laughing.

Black boy in a suit vest, tie, and button up shirt five years old, arms crossed, smiling at camera.
Black boy in a suit vest, tie, and button up shirt five years old, arms crossed, smiling at camera.

We have learned to use joy and laughter to combat our grief. Because of this, we are experts at humor. Our humor is often so deep that onlookers can’t understand the depths of why we are laughing. We have had to find so much joy in such miniscule things, because many times that’s all we had. Black joy is a profound act of resistance in a world intent on keeping us on the bottom of every social structure.

Anti- Blackness is a global phenomenon. We use the phrase to draw a distinction between the specific kind of racism Black people experience. Natalie Morris lays the historical context of anti- Blackness and how it started, “Anti-blackness’ is a form of racism that is specifically damaging for black people,”

“Anti-black racism is the specific exclusion and prejudice against people visibly (or perceived to be) of African descent

– what most of us would commonly call black people,’ says senior policy officer Kim McIntosh.

Psychologist and anti-racism scholar Guilaine Kinouani says anti-blackness is based on the alleged inherent inferiority and ‘primitivity’ of Africa, its people and its nearer descendants, i.e. black people. She adds that these ideas are principally rooted in colonial constructions.

Put more simply, our racial hierarchy places white people at the top and places black people at the bottom — non-black people of colour stand somewhere in-between.

She says that over centuries, many communities of colour have bought into colonial lies and anti-black stereotypes in an attempt to ‘gain access to structures of power’ and be accepted within whiteness. ‘The price of assimilating into structures of power has often meant stepping on the heads of those lower down the rung on the ladder of power, often those closer to our struggle.”

Anti- Blackness is the at the root of every oppressive and racist system.

We see it in the Asian and pacific islander communities with how darker skinned Asians are treated (they’re referred to as Jungle Asians, lighter Asians are referred to as “fancy” Asians, Ali Wong taught me that). We see it in the Hispanic community with the erasure of Afro- Latinos and the preference for lighter skinned actors and reporters in Telenovels and Telemundo (Have you ever seen an Afro- Latina news anchor?). We see it in the Black community with colorism. So the problem isn’t just whiteness, it’s our addiction to color and the value system that whiteness has taught us of who gets to be human and who doesn’t.

White people and non-Black people have a hard time seeing Black people outside our trauma. Black grief is a more comfortable reality. Why is that? Because the structures of white supremacy our bodies were only meant to be maintained for consumption, labor, and breeding. Exhibiting joy is an ultimate act of autonomy over one’s own body, a body that isn’t supposed to belong to us. So it makes sense why I had non- Black friends who were comfortable going to see “Twelve Years a Slave” but winced at the thought of watching Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett in “Girls Trip.”

So when we say anti- Black, we mean partaking in acts that go against our humanity as Black people. Forcing Black people to change their hair to accommodate white beauty standards in the workplace is anti- Black. Blaming Black people for our disproportionate COVID-19 rates is anti- Black. Let’s explore how anti- Black behavior hinders and oppresses expressions of Black joy but also how we can be pro- Black.

Just look at pictures from the early 1900’s of Black people. They weren’t smiling in most of them, because public displays of joy were an act of rebellion.

My mother was born in 1947 in rural Georgia to a sharecropping family. All the pictures I’ve seen of her as a child were stoic. It took my sisters and I years to get mom to smile in photos. I guess being in your sixties with strong, Black millennial children will force you to either laugh or cry. I’m glad she chose joy.

It bothers people when they see us happy. I get looks of annoyance from people when my son and I show up at the pool to swim, or when he’s the only Black kid (and usually the loudest) at the playground, when I’m bumping Mary J. Blige in my car, or having brunch with my girls and we are having a good time, we get resistance from onlookers. If they could call the police on us for our exuberance, they would.

The resistance to Black joy is anti-Black because it perpetuates the ideology that we are still owned. We are not even entitled to the freedom of expressing happiness. But, we are not slaves, and your reaction to our joy says whether deep down inside you think we should be free and have control over our own bodies or not. So when you see black people laughing, living, being carefree… mind your business. That’s the best way to be pro- Black.

Elika Bernard is a communications expert, skilled orator, and prolific writer with an extensive history in the visual and performing arts.

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