Experiencing joy shouldn’t be an uncommon phenomenon. But being joyful while being Black takes on a distinctive flavor because of what it means to be Black in this country. Historically in America, Blackness legally meant you weren’t free, weren’t valued, weren’t seen as equal — weren’t even seen as fully human. And that foundation has bled into the fabric of our society in overt and subtle ways.
It’s because of that fraught foundation that Black Joy is an extraordinary thing. It’s celebrating big moments, like the continuity of family through the birth of a baby, or buying a piece of property. It’s savoring small moments, like nurturing your body, your mind, or your spirit, a right that your forebears may not have had access to. Black Joy is essentially taking the opportunity to luxuriate in something that seems simple, but is particularly precious in that it wasn’t guaranteed for people who look like us — the freedom to just be.
As the presenting sponsor of The Root Institute, a virtual conversation series dedicated to advancing the agenda of Black Americans, Target aims to help support, uplift, and enable Black Joy. In that spirit, I spoke to Black vanguards across a spectrum of influences — the arts, activism, and business — to find out how they define their own personal version of Black Joy.
Sisters Chloe and Maud are the combined forces behind Syncopated Ladies, a tap troupe that performs and choreographs dynamic routines, workshops, and camps all around the world. With their exuberant style and impressive pedigree (Chloe trained with dance legend Debbie Allen), they’ve performed at venues from the US Open to California’s Folsom State Prison, and caught the attention of superstars like Beyoncé.
I think Black Joy is innate. Every style of music — African American music, dance, tap, hip-hop, Afro-Cuban, anything Motown, anything disco, anything rock and roll, jazz — all of this stems from the African diaspora ... Joy is innately in our bloodline — as part of the African diaspora, we are born into that sentiment. I think if you are lacking it, it has to do with what the world has told you about yourself, or how you’re perceived or treated.
Black Joy is just reaching back into who you are — your essence — and magnifying it. But it’s important to remember that joy doesn’t always mean that you’re smiling. We have dances for justice, we have protest pieces. Once you have released all that you needed to say through that movement — and maybe it was angry or maybe it was sad, or maybe it was rage — that sense of release inside your spirit when you finish that dance is joy.
To be in control of your body is such a powerful thing. When you feel power, you feel joy. And when your power is stripped away, when things are taken away from you, you still have your body. We performed at Folsom State Prison in December ... It was so beautiful to be dancing for 700 or 800 men in a maximum security prison. They were cheering for us, dancing with us, and felt so good. And after we performed, we talked to them and they said, ‘I felt free when you were dancing. Thank you so much. This was amazing. I’m going to tell my daughters about you.’ What they felt was the joy. They weren’t like, ‘You guys are the best technical tap dancers I’ve ever seen.’ It was the joy they were connecting to.
When I think of Black Joy, I think about my nephew. He’s 14, and when I look at him I see myself at that age. His curiosity, his spirit — it feels like I’m seeing myself grow up again ... He’s about to go into high school, and I don’t want him to go through anything dangerous, like being bullied or robbed on his way to school. So I try my best to protect his joy. He’s one person in my life that I try to show up for as much as I can. And I think I help keep some of that joy in him by being that cornerstone.
I took him to his very first concert last summer ... He also loves to play basketball, and my homegirl works for Kyrie Irving. She and another friend got me and my nephew tickets to an event, and she came with Kyrie. She got us to sit right behind him, and my nephew got to speak to him. That’s his favorite basketball player, period. It makes me happy to be able to do things like that for him at his age. I think it will build his world to a point where he knows that things that seem impossible can be real, and that will help him seek what he wants in life. Because if you don’t see things like that, you don’t believe they’re possible for you.
Kendra is the founder and CEO of The Boss Architect, a wealth advising firm that guides entrepreneurs on how to build successful businesses without relying on personal credit. She launched her own venture after over a decade as a financial advisor, a career in which she generated billions for some of America’s most prominent Fortune 500 companies.
For me, there’s so much joy in the freedom of giving myself permission to chart my own path and release myself from everything I had been traditionally taught about what success meant. I can show how valuable I am by what I can create with my own two hands. I had an epiphany: Either I’m going to be uncomfortable here making someone else’s dreams happen, or I’m going to be uncomfortable for my own benefit … As an entrepreneur you have to learn by tribal knowledge. It’s not institutionalized — they don’t teach it in schools.
And so if there aren’t a lot of us that have experienced success building our own businesses, there’s a lack of that tribal knowledge that is being passed down. There’s joy in knowing that I’m the first in my family that can say, ‘I built a multimillion-dollar company,’ and in knowing that you are the one that is breaking the generational wealth curse. There’s responsibility in that joy. But it’s joyful nevertheless to say ‘this stops with me.’
Mckayla is a Maryland-based activist and politician who recently made headlines as a congressional challenger to her district’s longtime incumbent. She recently launched a nonprofit, Schools Not Jails, with several of her former campaign staff, which will work to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.
When I think about Black Joy, I think about being strong, about being resilient. I think about perseverance. It’s being able to persevere as a people, and still have our joy. It’s us basking in our Blackness. It’s us uprising throughout the entire country, and organizing within our communities.
But I won’t be happy until I can drive down the street and not have to check all of my mirrors to see if there’s a police officer behind me ... We experience Black Joy now, but I think the true happiness will come when we can dismantle an oppressive system that is forcing us to be resilient against it. If we could just have plain old Black Joy and just be happy Black people without it having the whole resilient part to it, that would be great. That’s the kind of future that I want to see: us being happy because we are not only believed, but because we dismantled a system that has forced us to become resilient.
For more about Black Joy, check out how Target is championing racial equity and social justice. And we want to know what Black Joy means to you, so let us know in the comments.
Quotations have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Rachel Mosely is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Elle, and more.