Black joy and suffering

Serena Anagbe / Photo Editor
From left, Jane Desmond and 2023 alum Trinity Wilson at the Laurier International Multicultural Gala

Thomas Shipp. Abram Smith. Emmett Till. Rodney King. George Floyd. Philando Castile. Sandra Bland. 

History remembers these names, the countless videos, the photos, the movies, the books, the news segments and the social media posts that publicize their deaths. In 2020, as COVID-19 devastated the world, another pandemic was spreading. No matter where I turned, I was forced to confront the extrajudicial killings of Black men, women and children; people that looked like the people I loved most in this world. It didn’t matter the cost those images had on me, the people I loved or the larger Black community. It didn’t matter that I cried for days or that I couldn’t turn on the news anymore or that I was scared for my friends’ or family’s life. This was the cost of constant attention.  

After all, there is no greater spectacle than that of Black suffering. It begs the question: how much are all these images of Black death worth? Your time? Your attention? Your sympathy? Your activism?  

The more these images are shared, the more people are desensitized to them. It is a vicious cycle that requires relentless violent gory imagery to feed people’s attention. We consume this content without a second thought. The spectacle of Black suffering has no care for who the person was and the life they lived; its only concern is the brutal, traumatic end. Pain is the only lens in which we see and believe these people to be. These images just reinforce for Black people that they’ll never be anything but in pain and suffering because why wouldn’t they be? That’s the only way that the world seems to pay any attention or take anything seriously. You literally have to die to make a point.  

As I witness this pain so frequently, I can’t help but contemplate: who is the intended audience of this suffering? What value does engaging in this pain voyeurism accomplish? As Jack Dudley notes in The Body Politic in Pain, “Black pain requires political validation by an … whiteness all too often unable or unwilling to recognize or respond to that pain.”  

It is only recently that with the movements for racial justice — such as Black Lives Matter — the world has stopped to grapple with what the lived reality of a Black person is. Writer Dionne Brand, who is Black and queer, wrote in the Toronto Star, “I know, as many do, that I’ve been living a pandemic all my life; it is structural rather than viral; it is the global state of emergency of antiblackness.” 

That said, there is still space for portrayals of Black pain or trauma. As Hugo Canham points out in his article titled “Black Death and Mourning as Pandemic”, “Mourning has a rebellious register that insists on a number of things. It insists on the value of the dead, the importance of cultural practices, and it calls for the disruption of business as usual. Public grievability is a profound act of community resistance. The power of congregation and public gathering assembles a collective demonstration of force and promise of renewal even in the face of death.” 

Portrayals of Black pain or trauma have a political necessity. They assert the significance of the Black experience, ugly parts and all. However, the spectacle of Black suffering has become a low stakes anti-racist statement where non-Black people can espouse Liberal values while giving each other self-congratulatory participation trophies. It’s the same every Black History Month. It’s either the inevitable viewings of 12 Years a Slave, Amistad, To Kill a Mockingbird or white people engaging in symbolic acts of self-flagellation in penance for racism or tokenistic representations of the Black experience like a fried chicken luncheon.  

Black History Month is the only month that asks the question: what does it mean to be Black? From my experience, Blackness is far from the representations on the news. Blackness is community.  

There is a reason why Black Twitter has a Wikipedia page. If Black people don’t have a seat at the table, they just create their own table. If there is one thing Black people will do, it will be to show up for each other.  

Blackness is innovation. Otherwise, the world wouldn’t have clothes dryers (patented by George T. Sampson — a Black man), furnaces (invented by Alice H. Parker — a Black woman) or traffic lights (invented by Garrett Morgan — a Black man).  

Blackness is musical. Black people created or inspired the following genres of music: spiritual, gospel, rumba, blues, bomba, rock and roll, rock, jazz, pop, salsa, R&B, samba, calypso, Soca, soul, disco, funk, reggae, house, Amapiano, hip-hop, Afrobeat, bluegrass and more. If you can sing it or play it, Black people have probably played a part in creating it.  

Blackness has a common thread that connects us all no matter where we are in the world. It is our food, our celebrations, our home remedies passed down from our grandmothers, but most importantly, it is our joy. Blackness is a celebration of life and all the greatness it has to offer. Black joy is powerful. It is a tool for resistance and resilience.  

While portrayals of the Black experience aren’t always in the control of those featured, joy is. Black joy isn’t an escape from reality or a way to avoid tough conversations. In the article titled “Black Joy in the Time of Ferguson” by Javon Johnson, they wrote, “Black pain is used in service of the nation-state because we have been historically constructed as threatening by virtue of being loud, excessive, unruly, illegible, pathological, and outside the comfortable confines of white neo-liberal, liberal, and conservative structures alike.” Black people are a threat to oppressive structures simply for existing. By choosing to be loud and take up space, joy is a way for the narrative to shift from sadness and oppression. It’s a way to take back power after decades of attempts to steal any sort of happiness. 

As Kleaver Cruz, founder of the Black Joy Project, said, “Black Joy is not … dismissing or creating an ‘alternate’ Black narrative that ignores the realities of our collective pain; rather, it is about holding the pain and injustice…in tension with the joy we experience. It’s about using that joy as an entry into understanding the oppressive forces we navigate through as a means to imagine and create a world free of them.” 

The Black experience is complex and has a duality of both the good and bad. While the bad is what is popularized, the good should also have just as much of a place in society. Black joy should be the new spectacle solely to make a statement. A statement that violence, racism and injustice are not ideas that should be normalized within society. That the dehumanization of Black people shouldn’t be consumed as one would read celebrity gossip or watch a cooking video.  

That’s why Black joy needs to be recentered into popular consumption or else all Black people will ever be is angry, poor, loud, sexualized or dead. 

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