What Is Black Joy, and How Is It Connected to Juneteenth?

Nearly a decade ago, between 2013 and 2014, the most recent stage in Black liberation began with the Black Lives Matter hashtag, network, and movement — often mistakenly thought to center on the community seeking justice for Black men who were killed at the hands of police and state-sanctioned violence.

Though this community is a significant part of the movement, Black Lives Matter has intersected a multitude of Black identities and lived experiences while bringing visibility to generations-long trauma and pain Black people have faced because of systemic racism.

Resilience, resistance, and perseverance have been focal points of Black liberation, but there’s a more positive side, too: Black liberation is about Black folk experiencing joy. As influential “joymakers” put it, Black people have always experienced joy, even long before a more recent visible movement started highlighting joy online and IRL (in real life).

Finding Joy in Spite of Oppression and Racism

Juneteenth, the June 19 commemoration of the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans in Texas, the last former Confederate state to do so, has long been a day of celebration — and in 2021 it became a federal holiday. It's a prime example of a duality: Black joy has always existed despite oppression and racism.

“None of this is new … Black joy is ancestral,” says Kleaver Cruz, the founder of The Black Joy Project, a campaign of joyous visual moments that they started on Instagram in late 2015 as a reminder of their own Black joy after the death of an uncle. “If we can accept where humanity began — which … the fact is in Africa — Black joy comes from that Black space. The language ‘Black joy’ is maybe new, but that thing, that force, has always been there. Always.”

Black joy is ancestral. That force has always been there. Always.

A queer Black Dominican American in New York City who, through their work as an activist, was also overwhelmed at the time by the amount of Black death and pain around them, Cruz wanted to create a space for the Black collective to heal from trauma by sharing the joyous moments in life.

“Whereas my usual saying is actually that we are f***ed up, the world is f***ed up,” Cruz says, “Black joy is one of the most powerful ways to work through that, to get to the other side, to create something else altogether.”

But it’s not about being an escape or ignoring facts or trying to explain Black identity, Cruz emphasizes. “We know who we are. We’re dynamic. Of course we've had to handle joy while also in the background people are getting killed and all the other s*** that's been happening over centuries and centuries,” they say.

The Black Joy Project gained momentum throughout 2016 and has since become a movement beyond social media, as well as beyond Black trauma and pain. “It's also a space for imagination, which, at its best, is very radical for Black people to be imagining another world — other ways of being that's not this violence,” Cruz says. “That's where Afrofuturism and all those things come in. Black joy is very much a way to get there. It is a healing force.”

The Rise of Black Twitter as a Space for Joy

While images on social media have helped bring literal visibility to the Black joy that has always existed IRL, André Brock, PhD, an associate professor of media studies and an expert in internet culture and Black Twitter at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, has been studying Black people on social media since at least 2007, the year that Twitter became its own company.

Through his own personal experiences and his research on Black Twitter, including in his groundbreaking paper “From the Blackhand Side: Twitter as a Cultural Conversation” and in his award-winning book Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures, Dr. Brock examines how the internet has created spaces of joy for Black Americans and, as with Juneteenth, a place to celebrate each other.

Much like Cruz’s Black Joy Project, Brock says his work is helping people see themselves — and be seen — in an environment that typically focuses on deviance, trauma, or pathology of Black people. “It’s not just about resistance and racism,” he says. “People find [joy] in these places.”

Brock’s own journey in finding solace by engaging with fellow Black internet users started after he left New York City for the Midwest in 2001 for graduate school and his first faculty job.

“When I started going west,” he says, “there were so many fewer of us [Black people] out there. I turned to the internet to have a secondary community — a virtual community of Black folk that I could restore myself in after I spent a day dealing with … well-meaning white people.”

“In the early 2000s, that was Java chat rooms. Black Planet had chats, Yahoo! had chats, and all these other places [had chats],” says Brock. “And then Twitter became a space I didn't need a special [account] for. I could just log into my browser and follow what people were doing.”

Twitter quickly became a space for Black people to engage with one another and share memes, Brock says, but also to celebrate each other.

“That mode of preserving, maintaining, and celebrating Blackness is one of the things I think that Twitter is best at,” says Brock, who says his account, under the name thot leedurr, is a celebration of his own joy and being Black. “There are other communities that do really well, but Twitter has been that space for me for a long time.”

Which means it’s a place where Juneteenth has obviously been a topic of conversation, including whether corporations should involve themselves in the holiday and if they’ll try to use it as another profit-maker — a topic that was hotly debated after Walmart introduced (and was hugely criticized for) its Juneteenth ice cream.

In response to this widely reported debacle, Brock asked Twitter, "Is there anything a corporation can do to support Juneteenth?" Replies ranged from suggesting corporations have no involvement to saying they should support communities by investing in ongoing celebrations to suggesting Walmart give reparations.

“I'm like, ‘Well, Walmart ain't giving nobody reparations,’” he says, laughing.

‘Juneteenth Is the Celebration of Us as a Community’

But discussions about Juneteenth on Black Twitter go beyond bad corporate decisions. “Juneteenth is a moment of joy,” says Brock. “Yes, it's celebrating a moment where we found out we were free, but since then, it's also become — depending on which neighborhood or city you live in — it’s a picnic, it's a DJ, it's kids doing games and contests. It's cookouts and everything else. It's not simply breaking the chains every time we get together on Juneteenth. It's the celebration of us as a community.”

Regarding Black joy, Brock says, “For me, it’s a way to understand how we build these spaces and infrastructures that weren't [originally] meant for us that provide resources to sustain us for the next day.”

Juneteenth is a picnic. It’s a DJ. It’s kids doing games and contests. It’s cookouts. It’s not simply breaking the chains every time we get together on Juneteenth.

In theory, Brock questions if Juneteenth should be viewed as a tragedy. “They waited, in Texas, for [almost] three years … to officially let Black folk know that they were freed,” he says, referring to the arrival of federal troops in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, to take control of the state and make sure all enslaved people were free — President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

But that’s largely the point for Black people: Juneteenth became a time of celebration and joy despite the violence they faced as enslaved people. Black joy has always existed despite the pain.

The Connection Between Black Joy and Juneteenth Is ‘Freedom’

Juneteenth has been a holiday in Texas since 1980, and organizers like Opal Lee, often referred to as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” were behind the fight to make it a national holiday.

Some Black Americans are therefore new to celebrating Juneteenth, including Elisha Greenwell, the founder of the Black Joy Parade in Oakland, California, who says she really learned about Juneteenth only four or five years ago. For her, the connection between Black joy and Juneteenth is “freedom.”

“One of the best ways to find joy is to seek freedom and to achieve freedom — and to feel like there is a world of possibilities that you can pursue,” she says. “There are opportunities that you can step into. I believe that one of the definitions of ‘freedom’ is ‘possibility.’”

She also says Black joy and Juneteenth don’t necessarily have to be related.

“I would actually push against the idea of trying to draw the connection between the two because, sure … absolutely, celebrating Juneteenth brings us joy, but Juneteenth is a very significant historical moment, and it's okay for it to just be that,” she says. “It can just be an important thing for us.”

I would like to see us as a community let our joys, celebrations, struggles, and humanity just be in the wild and not try to label it or put boundaries on it.

In fact, Black joy doesn’t have to be connected to Black Music Month, Juneteenth, or Black History Month, she says. “It should exist always. It’s an ever-present kind of thing that we should want in our lives [and] that people do have in their lives. I would like to see us as a community not live in this limited space — and to really let our joys, our celebrations, our struggles, our humanity just be in the wild and not try to label it, contain it, or put boundaries on it.”

Cruz, a second-generation American, has a different but special relationship with Juneteenth that does tie into their need for Black joy.

“This is a tradition coming out of the celebration of the downfall of one of the most atrocious things to happen to any Black people,” they say. “In that moment of Juneteenth, yes, slavery was technically over‚ and had been — but we know very well that the reality of Black people didn't significantly change.”

Which brings Cruz back to the importance of Black joy. Whether it’s referred to by name or simply a part of everyday Black life, Cruz says Black joy is a vital part of continuing the Black liberation movement.

“When it comes to liberation work, all those things, I'm not committed to the language so much as the liberation, if that makes sense,” they say. “I'm less committed to the ship and more committed to the destination.”

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