The national 2023 Black History Month theme, “Black Resistance,” explores how African Americans have addressed historic and ongoing disadvantages and oppression. We’ve had no shortage of tragic stories – from Tyree Nichols to George Floyd to Emmitt Till. All too often, those stories depict only our hardest times, erasing the wholeness of who we are. Yes, struggle and resistance are part of our stories. But so is hard-won happiness, success and joy.
As we are inundated daily with images of trauma, it’s important to remember that joy can help us heal, too. In fact, the act of joy is resistance and just as we use our physical bodies to protest, march and demand change, we must also use them to experience the pleasure of joy.
Kleaver Cruz of the “Black Joy Project” is just one of many who have been encouraging Black people to choose joy as a form of resistance, saying it is “internally driven” happiness that can happen when someone consciously chooses pleasure as a way to combat the traumas of racism.
“When we acknowledge that we exist in an anti-Black world that is set up to ensure we do not live, to choose life and to choose to enjoy any aspect of that life is a radical act,” Cruz said in a recent interview. “Amplifying Black joy is not about dismissing or creating an ‘alternative’ Black narrative that ignores the realities of our collective pain. Rather, it is about holding the pain and injustices we experience as Black folks around the world in tension with the joy we experience in pain’s midst. It’s about using that joy as an entry into understanding the oppressive forces we navigate through as a means to imagine and create a world free of them.”
Throughout Black history, joy for African Americans has been grounded in freedom and self-determination, according to Rhode Island College Africana Studies Program Director Sadhana Bery, who has even started a collegiate course titled “Black joy.”
In an article “Black Joy,” by Gita Brown, Bery states: “I would hear Black students in my classes express their weariness and despair because often the focus of Africana studies courses is on anti-Blackness and the structures of white supremacy in our society. They felt depleted when they considered the history and contemporary existence of Black people. They lived through the Black Lives Matter movement and saw that even the largest Black social movement, which became a global movement, had not led to comprehensive racial justice. So I asked myself, ‘Where is the Black joy in these courses? Why don’t we ever focus on that?
“Black Joy is created in everyday life – in gatherings, storytelling, family cooking traditions, gardening, music, self-care . . . in a plethora of spaces,” Bery said. “In fact, Black joy itself is a form of resistance to anti-Blackness. It’s a refusal to let racism dictate your life.”
For your mental health
We often hear how getting therapy, adequate sleep, and practicing self-care can help your mental health, but Cruz says choosing joy is just as important to get your mental health back on track.
“I think one of the most radical things you have access to is imagination. We literally have the ability to create what does not yet exist that we need,” he said. “And Black joy, choosing it as a way to practice that imagination, to make it real. And deciding like, this is what I need.”
When people talk about “mental health” they mostly talk about anxiety and depression. And while those are real conditions, experts say mental health encompasses more than that. The absence of depression and anxiety does not mean someone is in good mental health. Choosing to focus on the things that bring you joy is one way to combat that.
For more information about the Rhode Island program, visit