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Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.
This is how writer James Baldwin chose to begin an extraordinary address he delivered to schoolteachers in 1963. He was offering a powerful analysis of the racist society in which they operated and the unique role they needed to play in helping Black—then called Negro—children cope with the realities of American history. Challenge the narrative, he said. “I would try to teach them—I would try to make them know—that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal. I would try to make each child know that these things are the result of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him.” It is the job of the educated person to question the society around them, and not make peace with its cruelty or accept a subservient role for yourself. And give children what they need to meet the resistance that will come for them when they fight back, he implored.
Baldwin’s opening line, somehow delivered in his own voice, has been knocking around in my head for months now. We are living through a very dangerous time. For some of us, it has never not been so. Not ever.
How do humans survive a constant threat?
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to feel joy in a dangerous time, not the desperate eat-a-pint-of-ice-cream-while-watching-Netflix brand of self-care, but the kind of joy that brings you out of yourself into something that feels like wonder, that makes you feel both bigger than yourself, but exactly like yourself, at the same time.
“Joy is a birthright. It’s a practice as much as it can be an experience,” Mia Birdsong, author of How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship and Community, tells raceAhead. In a time of great danger, turning away from the work can feel like an indulgence. “But in a culture built on extraction and the commodification of people, labor, and time, marginalized people’s acts of joy are a form of rebellion and a deep affirmation of life, love, creativity, connectedness, and spirit—and it’s also healing.”
But you gotta work at it.
Shavone Charles understands this. The director of consumer communications and creative partnerships for VSCO, the photo editing software and creativity platform, has just launched #BlackJoyMatters, a new photo series and summer-long initiative, designed to celebrate Black joy. In a world that focuses on Black pain and images of battered bodies, joy is a radical act, she says.
“I’ve sat in front in front of and behind a screen during all of these really harsh news cycles and these really harsh, critical times filled with police brutality, taking in this unfiltered look at just how ugly the world can be to Black people,” she tells raceAhead. Those images as the prevailing narrative needed to be challenged. “We deserve to be happy. We deserve to thrive. We deserve to be human and just be live and celebrate all that we are. Inclusive of the trauma, but not exclusive of the trauma.”
Tapping her extensive network of Black creators, she asked them to take on the challenge of documenting joy. “If you think about James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, if you think about all these all these people, what did they do during these times?” She answers her own question: They wrote. They created. They told the truth.
“Joy is freedom. It’s resilience. It’s the sun coming back out after a storm,” she says, riffing on the theme. To build on Baldwin’s own framing, it’s also part of what reminds a Black child that they are fully human, bigger than the vision held out by those who would keep them small.
Charles herself is also a joyful (not just a business) case for diversity. Her story is powerful and instructive, so I’ll be posting a longer interview with her next week. But for now, she wants you to focus on your joy. “Go ahead,” she says. “Share your joy.”
Birdsong has some tips. “So many of the adults I know, myself included, are affirming ourselves as students of joy, relearning and reclaiming it,” she says. “My teachers are my children, my dogs, my friends and kin, the little asshole juvenile squirrel that keeps eating my sunflowers, and the hummingbirds that visit my garden, among many others.” Moments of wonder and presence, humor and aliveness. “Last week I learned from a maple tree and the wind.”
I think Baldwin would approve.
To encourage a student to reshape a racist world is to invite them to consider themselves. “One of [a Black student’s] weapons for refusing to make his peace with it and for destroying it depends on what he decides he is worth,” he said. I believe joy is one of the most potent reminders of human worth.
Plus, it’s good for you, body and soul. Now, y’all have fun in joy school. Extra credit for just showing up.