What do you do when you are all too aware that Blackness makes you uniquely vulnerable in this world?
Traditionally, the Black community has relied on a spirituality born of hardship and humanity to declare a phrase popularized by gospel-music artist Shirley Caesar, “This joy I have, the world didn’t give it to me, and the world can’t take it away.” This is not to create a monolith of the Black community; I am in no way suggesting that all Black Americans have found refuge in the gospel of the Christian church. Instead, I mean only to point out a shared, rooted resilience in joy. Contained in this one sentence is a staunch declaration that if the world will take from me, it will do so only once, not twice. It cannot have both tragedy and my joy.
Our community has learned that even the darkest depths of human evil cannot snuff out our experience of joy – of laughter and love, of good food and good conversation, of family legacy and hope for the future, of creative endeavor and the pursuit of justice. The joy of Blackness persists”Austin Channing Brown
This posture is not giving in to foreboding joy. It does not suggest that since racism can steal from me, I will care about nothing and no one. Instead, it lives paradoxically at the intersection of joy and pain, realistically acknowledging that pain may come, but that pain cannot permanently drown out joy. After generations of horrific oppression, after a century of second-class citizenship, after a host of atrocities from colonization to genocide and all manner of horrors, we have learned that the only thing white supremacy would love more than taking our lives is for the lives we have to be diminished, less than human, filled with despair, containing only fear. But our community has learned that even the darkest depths of human evil cannot snuff out our experience of joy – of laughter and love, of good food and good conversation, of family legacy and hope for the future, of creative endeavor and the pursuit of justice. The joy of Blackness persists.
Our joy is in having loved and been loved well.
Our joy is in the ties that bind us to one another.
Our joy is in the legacy of all that our ancestors have done for us.
Our joy is in being able to participate in that legacy now.
Our joy is in the taste of freedom, regardless of whether we got only a morsel or the whole pie.
Our joy is in a shared language, a shared dance, a shared game, a shared song.
Our joy is in having left a mark in the world, being able to say, I was here.
And none of these things can be placed in a box and buried in the ground. They are resilient in that they are everlasting, surviving long after the pain of tragedy has waned.
There are very real ways our community attempts to keep the fear of tragedy away. A mother tells her son to pull his hood off before he enters the store. A partner reminds her wife to tuck the receipt away in case they are accused of stealing. Before leaving the house to walk the dog through the neighborhood, we double-check that we have ID to quickly end any accusations that we don’t live in our own neighborhood. Even my husband and I, on our way to the hospital to deliver my son, sat in the car making plans between contractions. If something goes awry with my labor and doctors do not believe me, we’ll make clear that you are an attorney, and they should take us seriously… No need to tell them your specialty is juvenile justice. We do our best to anticipate the ways white superiority will pop up in our every day.
We decide not only that we will practice gratitude for the ways we are experiencing joy, but that we will do so with every bone in our body”Austin Channing Brown
When the women in [my] book club asked me about the ways foreboding was inhibiting their lives, I asked them what parameters they could manage that might set their hearts at ease. For a little while, can you walk at a public park, rather than in your neighborhood? Can you mark out your cross-country drive to stay in places as close to a major city as possible? Can you limit your kids to the backyard or the grass in your front yard, just for this week? Let’s see if we can box the feeling in, knowing that we will not live at the pinnacle of anxiety forever. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But we go on trying. We go on living, even if we are scared.
We decide not only that we will practice gratitude for the ways we are experiencing joy, but that we will do so with every bone in our body.
We will love hard.
We will dance with abandon.
We will laugh loudly and often.
We will declare our right to be in that store, or that school or that neighborhood or that job.
We will give our bodies the respect they so richly deserve for carrying us this far.
In the words of poet Toi Derricotte, “Joy is an act of resistance,” and so we will lean in to that joy, knowing that our humanity demands that we fully partake of this magical experience.
When I look into my little boy’s eyes and wonder if his life will mirror Trayvon’s, I silently thank Trayvon Martin for his life and [his mother] Sybrina Fulton for sharing his story. And I lean over to my little boy, kissing the top of his head. I let my heart swell with joy over his very existence in my life, for that little personality that is intrigued by zippers and pockets and hoods. I will love him harder, and in this become softer. I will be vulnerable – open to being hurt because I trust that my joy in him cannot be taken away.
Extracted from the essay This Joy I Have by Austin Channing Brown in You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience – an anthology, edited by Tarana Burke and Brené Brown
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