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Celebrating Black Joy as Resistance

Posted on
February 14, 2023
“This joy that I have, the world didn’t give it to me and the world can’t take it away.”

-Shirley Caesar

It’s taken me the span of my adult life to understand Black joy. To understand it enough to feel it deep in my bones. And to hold onto it when days feel heavy and dark. When asked to describe Black joy, especially in the context of this year’s Black History Month theme – Black Resistance – a line from the Shirley Caesar hymn “This Joy” comes to mind: “This joy that I have, the world didn’t give it to me and the world can’t take it away.”

African Americans have resisted historic and ongoing oppression in all its forms. Honoring Black Resistance comes at a time when the Black community is once again mourning the senseless death of another young, innocent, Black man, Tyre Nichols, at the hands of the police. Investigating and honoring stories of Black resistance has always carried with it the complexity of knowing that even when we don’t resist – like Tyre – the shadow of violence still hangs near.

The topic of resistance is near and dear to me. In fact, my own investigation into Black resistance and Black joy as resistance was the precursor to my book The Joy of the Disinherited. In honor of Black History Month and keeping in tradition of sharing stories of life overcome this month, I offer up excerpts of The Joy of the Disinherited to chronicle and celebrate how African Americans have practiced resistance over generations.

A Framework for Resistance

Excerpted from The Practice of Remembering, Preface to The Joy of the Disinherited

As a child, I believed that Black people were oddly placed in the world. I learned this belief through the images and articles in the Ebony and Jet magazines my mother would leave on the coffee table, and in the encyclopedias my grandmother, Ella Mae, would stack against the walls in my home. I learned this through the unspoken racial codes of the south that were subtly modeled by my elders.

Juxtaposed to this understanding of my odd place in the world was a pervasive belief that God loves Black people and has not forsaken us. This belief was passed down by my ancestors, nurtured by my elders, instilled in me. These two opposing beliefs would eventually require an examination of my own mind. It would require what Rev. Howard Thurman refers to as a “surgical examination of the psyche.” A parsing of misbelief from truth with the precision of a surgeon.

When I first came across the work of Thurman, a theologian, philosopher and civil rights leader,  it was life changing. I was inspired to learn that Martin Luther King, Jr. studied and traveled with his book, Jesus and the Disinherited. It was the capstone of years of struggle and study for me. My public health career provided me with an intellectual understanding of health and health disparities. My life has been marked by first hand encounters with oppression and discrimination. My personal mental health challenges led me to therapy and then to study mental health. But it wasn’t until I read Jesus and the Disinherited that I obtained the necessary framework to intellectually and spiritually understand the impact of oppression on the minds and bodies of the oppressed.

Thurman’s book frames Jesus’ teachings as meant especially for the “disinherited.” It extends far beyond typical theological pontifications, positioning Jesus as a historic revolutionary in the context of an oppressive Roman empire. In this regard, the disinherited represent a people who have been relegated to an inferior – an odd – position in society by the power structure or ruling class. In the book, Thurman argues that there are three ways that the disinherited deal with oppression. They either:

  • take on a general plan for nonresistance, one of imitation
  • reduce contact with the oppressor to a minimum
  • employ “the other major alternative,” resistance.

In my book Joy for the Disinherited, I use this resistance framework to declare that Black people are the “disinherited” of America due to their inequitable relationship with the country.

Regardless of the position the disinherited takes (resistance or nonresistance), there are negative consequences to one’s psychological health. Generations-over, myself and my family have demonstrated Thurman’s forms of resistance and non-resistance. And we have born our own personal consequences.

A The Joy That I Have

Excerpted from essay The Joy of the Disinherited, final essay of The Joy of the Disinherited

“Again and again, he came back to the inner life of the individual. With increasing insight and startling accuracy he placed his finger on the ‘inward center’ as the crucial arena where the issues would determine the destiny of his people.”

–Rev. Howard Thurman

I believe Thurman’s words. I believe that a self-examination is required for the disinherited to unearth our humane inheritance. This examination is a part of my continued healing from living as a Black man in America. With each delve into my ‘inward center’, I come to know myself and the iterative healing process better. I identify my own injurious thought patterns and where relevant, their oppressive, racist origins. I challenge – and in many cases, destroy – those ill-founded thoughts and rebuild my own intellectually investigated beliefs. I advance into the light by making space to remember and reflect on my dark moments. Where necessary, I dispossess parts of my selfhood that had developed under the weight of oppression. I rediscover myself – time and again – by remembering where I came from. I connect to something bigger by being still enough to tell my story.

And, to tell the story of my ancestors.

My grandmother, Ella Mae, for instance–– she never had many material possessions. The most elaborate piece of furniture she ever owned was a sectional couch that sat in the parlor room of her small home. The same home that her husband, George, built with money he’d saved from working as a farmhand for a wealthy white family in their tiny farm town. The couch was a gift from her son, Johnny, who knew how important it was for Ella Mae to have a space where she could gather all of her grandbabies to “take a look at you.” The same Johnny that was swept away by an undertow in the Arkansas River at the age of twenty-seven.

Ella Mae didn’t have much, but she was resourceful in the needed materials to care for the roses that adorned her doorstep. By early spring each year, the red blooms were plenty. Plenty enough so that in May, she could clip a dozen flowers to decorate her dinner table on Mother’s Day and still have a dozen blooms left on the bush to keep her doorstep decorated.

Recently, I planted my own rose bush. I am building a flower garden. In my garden there is lavender, hibiscus and begonias. I think often of Ella Mae and her single rose bush, of her perennial bouquet. This year, I too will make a bouquet when the flowers are in full bloom and in need of pruning. Some days, I daydream about the arrangement–– an assortment of reds, purples and whites, taking care to trim any brown or dead leaves, finding the perfect vase to compliment the bend in the flower’s stems and the architecture of their petals. It is the small things that bring me joy.

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