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There are many attributions for the quote “To know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been.” But no matter who said it, it is true. You learn from the past in order to correct and excel in the present and future. That was certainly the notion when Carter G. Woodson established Negro History Week in 1926. More than 50 years after emancipation, he wanted to formally celebrate the accomplishments of Black people since freedom.
“Since freedom” is the most important part of that sentence. Too often, the celebration of Black History Month is relegated to two time periods — slavery and the Civil Rights Movement — and the triumphs of too few Black heroes: Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and John Lewis.
Black history is more than these two snapshots in time and more than the successes that came out of these painful periods. Yes, we should commemorate and celebrate these times, these moments and movements, and the people who were at the forefront of them, but there is more. There is more than pain, tragedy, and struggle. There is more than the David vs. Goliath allegory applied to our history to recall how we overcame. There is also joy. Pure unbridled joy.
On the first day of Black History Month in 2022, author Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts’ book, Black Joy: Stories of Resistance, Resilience, and Restoration, was released. The book is steeped in both personal narrative and historical perspective. In the introduction, she notes: “The complexities of our experiences mean that our joy can live just underneath pain.”
So yes, during Black History Month, celebrate the accomplishments of Black people who survived brutality to emerge out of the struggle. But do so by not only acknowledging our pain, but by celebrating our joy. When celebrating the Civil Rights Movement, for example, make sure you mention the importance of song.
Black joy is music. It is “I’ll Fly Away” and “Wade in the Water.” It is “We Shall Overcome” and “Come Sunday.” It is “Before I Let Go” and “Black Parade.” It is African drumming, jazz, be-bop, swing, the blues, R&B, and hip-hop.
With music comes movement.
Black joy is dance. It is traditional West African dances like Lambaan, Sunu Gui, and Yankadi. It is the lindy-hop and line dances like the electric slide. It is tap and jazz, Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus’ modern, the ballet of Arthur Mitchell, the revolutionary moves of Alvin Ailey. It is crip-walking, and crumping, the percolator and juking, k-wang and bounce, footwork and buckjumping, the renegade on Tik Tok created by Jalaiah Harmon, and every other dance challenge that goes viral on social media.
These iconic characters played by Regina King, Angela Bassett, and more have left a historic mark in Hollywood cinema. https://t.co/lzH9irPqPy
— SheKnows (@SheKnows) February 16, 2022
Black joy is art. It is the photos of Gordon Parks, Carrie Mae Weems, and Malcolm Jackson. The quilts of Bisa Butler. The gray-scaled images of Amy Sherald. The installations and drip-drop oil and marker paintings of Erin Kendrick. The expressionism of Basquiat, the elongated limbs depicted by Ernie Barnes, and the majestic pencil drawings of Tracie Mims.
Black joy is literature. The poetry of Philis Wheatley Peters, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Ntozake Shange, Nikki Giovanni, and Honorée Fannone Jeffers. The short stories of Toni Cade Bambara, Edwidge Danticat, Nafissa Thompson Spires, Deesha Philyaw, and Dantiel Moniz. The novels of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Terry McMillan, the essays of James Baldwin, the play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, and the critical analysis and narrative storytelling of Isabel Wilkerson, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and the late Valerie Boyd.
Black joy is in food. It is on the plate whether we be high on the hog or eating a plain peanut butter sandwich.
Black joy is beating the summer heat with a super soaker first invented by Lonnie Johnson.
Black joy is playing your music loud inside your car while you wait at the stoplight improved by Garret Morgan.
Black joy is double-dutching between clotheslines some Black folks used to use to hang white folks’ wash.
Black joy is braiding hair on porches — a babydoll, a toddler, a sister, a mama stacked on stairs, sitting between knees to gather together strands to show we are cared for.
Black joy is imbued at birth and embodied in our bodies. We carry it with us. It is beautiful. Just as the color of our skin and the deep richness of our melanin tell of a horrific history, it too tells of joyful journeys of imagination, of our power and prowess, of having lived and loved.
This Black History month, if you don’t remember, acknowledge, celebrate or take away anything else from this 28-day fest of all things Black just remember that Black joy is ________.
It is living. It is breathing. It is loving. It is soulful. It is graceful. It is powerful. It is spiritual. It is calling. It is abundant.
Black joy is.
Before you go, click here to see celebrity women of color share the first movie or TV character who made them feel seen.