It is a Sunday afternoon in September on 138th Street in Harlem. Worship services at The Abyssinian Baptist Church have ended, and throngs flow from the pews of the sanctuary into the street. Fish frying, children playing, and the young as well as the old are dancing to the sounds of Frankie Beverly & Maze's "Before I Let Go" and Silento's "Watch Me." The church and community are celebrating its annual Homecoming Celebration under the banner of #BlackJoy. The day spoke to the essence of joy we so desperately needed.
Studies show that the constant threat of violence and pressures of racial discrimination has direct correlations to disproportionate levels of stress, high blood pressure, depression, diabetes, and other preventable ailments. While black bodies are affected, the capability to "have life and life more abundantly" is also threatened. How does one experience joy in a body that is constantly under threat? We would do well to make good on Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi's work by centering life. What is life without joy?
Black Joy is the work of a community coming together to create opportunities of life, love, and flourishment. It is through this effort that a community resists the constant threats of hopelessness, lovelessness, and meaninglessness. Yet, in the context of Empire, joy must be created against the powerful forces of oppression.
We can find Black Joy in the scene of Jesus turning water into wine. Jesus has been invited to attend a wedding celebration in Cana of Galilee, which is controlled by the Roman Empire. It was rare that such a party should take place in an impoverished community. The couple could not afford a luxurious wedding, so the celebration is limited to one day instead of several. During the celebration, the wine runs out. Embarrassing! Mary calls on her son to find a solution to this problem. After a few moments of contemplation, Jesus gathers the servants and offers directions for turning gallons of water into wine.
The power of this miracle is not about wine. It offers a lesson on the importance of strengthening relationships, fostering collaborative work, and sustaining spaces of joy for a community living under the threat of imperial powers.
The world of the Roman empire is not much different than life in the American Empire today. Life in Cana was hard and short. The constant demands of work life put a strain on the body, as well as familial relationships. Empires are designed to control every aspect of our lives, individually and collectively. The empire seeks to rob us of life, joy, hope and meaning. The empire tells us that Black lives don't matter. The empire builds its economy off of the labor and incarceration of black and brown bodies are dispensable. Empires separate and destroy relationships between parents and children. Empires pump millions into some schools, and give pennies to others. Love does not matter in the empire. Family does not matter in the empire. Hope does not matter in the empire. Joy does not matter in the empire.
Yes, this Life is plagued by poverty, family stress, police brutality, a pipeline that funnels children from the cradle to for-profit prisons, mass incarceration, unfair hiring practices, stress on the job that causes depression. Black children are not allowed to be children, and so it follows that a police officer with a gun considers black teenagers in bikinis and trunks as a threat. We are not safe in the street, nor the sanctuary. Our children are not safe at pool parties, and our grandparents are not safe in prayer meeting. We are not safe in our skin. We have no wine.
Collaborate & Create
Black people have always carved out spaces of joy in the context of oppression. Many of the customs and cultural expressions of the black community were created out of the deep need to celebrate life in the face of social threats. For instance, the custom of jumping the broom was a West African tradition that was used during slavery to mark the transition into marriage, when formal weddings were outlawed. The soulful music of the New Orleans Jazz tradition was birthed when young people living in poverty discovered the discarded civil war instruments. Hip-Hop was birthed at the corner of Sedgwick Avenue and Cedar Avenue in the Bronx when DJ Kool Herc hot wired his speaker system to a street light pole. When the wine runs out, it must be created. This is what we do.
It's time to take our joy seriously
As a minister serving in an urban church made up of hard working congregants, I watch people become overwhelmed. The Abyssinian Homecoming Block Party is our refusal to lose sight of the most important things in life: family, faith, and good times. The constant demands of our work and protest places a strain on the body, the spirit, and the family. As we continue to protest and fight to create a better world for our children, it is just as important for us to strengthen our community through intentional effort to enjoy life with one another. Joy need not distract us from the real world. Black Joy, as Jesus demonstrates, creates opportunity for healing fellowship. No place is perfect, but Joy makes life sweeter.
The work of Black Joy is found in the simple moments of everyday life. It is mentoring a child, and celebrating their achievements and accomplishments. The work of Black joy is taking time to plan family reunions and brunch parties. It is pausing to catch up with the neighbor next door, catching up in the fellowship hall, and making sure that the only time you see your family is not at a funeral. Black Joy is a good shout in E flat; it's the war cry. Black Joy is a two step on the dance floor. Black Joy is us living to love, and loving to live. Black Joy is a necessity and our resistance. Black Joy is our strength. May it reside within us so we can continue the fight.