Black Joy in the Time of Ferguson
So little is known of our past, we can imagine damn near anything.—Terrance Hayes1
In the wake of this country’s most recent displays of structurally violent anti-blackness—including the acquittal of murderer George Zimmerman and the refusals to indict murderer Officers Darren Wilson, Daniel Pantaleo, and Sean Williams, or murderer Sergeant David Darko—we witnessed a wave of responses from peaceful marches, strategy meetings, die-ins, social media campaigns such as #BlackLivesMatter, uprisings, riots, a litany of think pieces, poems, songs, art work, and so many others. As a spoken-word poet, I penned a number of pieces in a series of attempts to find a place to put all of this bubbling rage, hurt, and fear. In one poem, “(Un)titled Black,” I simply wrote, “I want to live in a world where police do not murder Black people” over and over, as if my basic request was a punishment unto itself. In another, I demanded a move away from peaceful protests, which ended:
Pay close attentionWHEN the State says,“This is a time for peace.”They are admittingthat when they firstfired the gunit was a time of war.Do not sit quiet.Do not whisper, unless it’s for strategy.Do not make another beautiful Black ballad [End Page 177] to be used in the soundtrack toyet another shitty movie about racismthree decades from now. Do not go gentle.Do not turn the other check.Yell. Scream. Show themyour claws. Your fangs.Be the monsterthey always thought you were.Show them the anger.The hurt.IT HURTS.IT HURTS.IT HURTS.WHEN the State decides to murderits next Black child,remind them of the shotgunshow them the hurt …
I struggle mightily with my poetic call for the “shotgun,” as I truly want to be a pacifist, but how can I continue to desire that in the face of all this black death? How can I turn the other cheek when my people are murdered, comedic songs are made, “I can breathe” t-shirts are produced? All while painting us as the violent ones in the media? If anything, black folks have been overly patient and overly nonviolent, as it is not just these few cases that have received national attention. It is the all-too-forgotten black women and black queer folks, it is 12-year-old Tamir Rice, Tarika Wilson, who was shot in her home while holding her baby, 7-year-old Aiyana Jones, unconscious Tyisha Miller, 93-year-old Kathryn Johnston, and the too many names I do not have the space to list here that are corporeal reminders of the “vulnerability of [our] own black bodies.”2
In her brilliant essay, “‘Can you be BLACK and Look at This?’ Reading the Rodney King Video(s),” Alexander locates what she calls a “bottom line blackness.”3 For her, in the midst of high anti-essentialist discourses, violence often “erases other differentiations and highlight race.”4 Ultimately she argues that black pain is made both invisible and inaudible to many with crucial judicial, cultural, and political consequences. But, given that “[b]lack bodies in pain for public consumption have been an American national spectacle for centuries,” I do not want to think about invisibility and inaudibility as antithetical to visibility and audibility.5 The in/visibility and in/audibility of black pain are often one and the same, establishing orders and essentially communicating/dictating place and boundaries in service of the nation-state that uses anti-black racism as the [End Page 178] foundation for white supremacy. How else can we make sense of murderer Darren Wilson’s testimony that he feared for his life because Mike Brown “had the most intense aggressive face” that could only be described as “a demon?”6 In our God-fearing country, which historically constructs black people as innately violent, Mike Brown was not portrayed as a prospective college student, not even a human, but a demon that needed to be exorcised so that this un/holy house could be made livable for all the good—read: white—people.
Black pain is used in service of the nation-state because we have been historically constructed as threatening by virtue of being loud, excessive, unruly, illegible, pathological, and outside the comfortable confines of white neoliberal, liberal, and conservative structures alike. In other words, black people are a threat to safety simply because we are black, “and the resistance to enslavement,” or perhaps resistance in general “is the performative essence of blackness,” which, in a white supremacist, anti-black world, must be reined in.7 Hell, gay safe spaces,8 prison (not justice) systems,9 HIV/AIDS discourses,10 and this entire country were built on the logic that black bodies are inherently unsafe and must be reeled in.11
But, “[w]hat does it mean,” asks Moten, “to suffer from political despair when your identity is bound-up with utopian political aspirations and desires?”12 Danez Smith beautifully pens his “Dinosaurs in the Hood,” which might offer us some insight to Moten’s query.13 Riffing and improvising, which for Moten is black performance, on Terrance Hayes’s unapologetically black ekphrastic poem, “We Should Make a Documentary about Spades,”14 Smith writes:
Don’t let Tarantino direct this. In his version, the boy playswith a gun, the metaphor: black boys toy with their own lives,the foreshadow to his end, the spitting image of his father.Fuck that, the kid has a plastic Brontosaurus or Triceratops& this is his proof of magic or God or Santa.
He later writes:
This movie can’t be a metaphor for black people & extinction.This movie can’t be about race.This movie can’t be about black pain or cause black people pain.This movie can’t be about a long history of having a long history with hurt.This movie can’t be about race. Nobody can say nigga in this movie who can’tsay it to my face in public.15
Smith’s film of reference, “Jurassic Park meets Friday meets The Pursuit of Happyness,” is an imagined place that is undeniably black, fun, and has redemption [End Page 179] at the end.16 In addition, in refusing Tarantino, Smith consequently refuses white directorship, ensuring the film is not about anything but “a neighborhood of royal folks—children of slaves & immigrants & addicts & exiles—saving their town. … “17 With breathtaking line breaks, a kind of punctuation that Jennifer Brody might say “performs as a type of (im)material event,” Smith poetically imagines a cinematic world that refuses to be about and/or cause black pain.18 And, it is here, somewhere In the Break (from linearity) that we can, and perhaps must, continually imagine black possibility outside the conditions of white supremacy. And, rather than thinking squarely about black pain in response to the most recent wave of state-sanctioned anti-black violence and terrorism, I wonder how we might also think about black joy as a theory, a method, and a political device.
Thinking about black joy beyond Ferguson, beyond the continual pain of being denied basic human rights, beyond, and perhaps outside of, structural racism, anti-blackness, white supremacy, and state-sanctioned terror have allowed black people to continue on, despite every reason to not. In addition, black joy, a real and imagined site of utopian possibility, must also be an important part of Alexander’s “bottom line blackness” and Moten’s radical “freedom drive that animates black performances.”19 More than a method to endure, however, black joy allows us the space to stretch our imaginations beyond what we previously thought possible and allows us to theorize a world in which white supremacy does not dictate our everyday lives. House parties, backyard cookouts, and other spaces where black bodies gather in celebration produce rich and profound moments in which black love and laughter “lifts everyone slightly above the present” and allows to feel, to know in our bones, what black utopia might be like.20 I firmly believe in that our bodies harbor knowledge, and in these moments every smile, head nod, hip shake, and high five is an exchange of embodied truths that black joy is phenomenally transformational. In this way, black joy provides another set of political tactics to “make do” and use the in/visibility and in/audibility of black joy as a site with which to operate outside of white supremacy.
On the night it was announced that there would be no murder trial for Darren Wilson, I decided not to protest. Instead, I fell asleep listening to Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, and others because I wanted to be happy and black. In the weeks following the decision not to indict the officer who killed Eric Garner, I attended a few protests in Los Angeles. I marched and chanted through some of the busiest streets in Los Angeles, not because I believe these demonstrations necessarily work, as the very fact that the streets were blocked off for us by and in coordination with the LAPD means we were [End Page 180] operating within the same structures that murders black people without any accountability. I remember seeing waves and waves of black (and other) people brought together by a “bottom line blackness,” animated by an unwavering “freedom drive,” and made somewhat whole again through black joy—that is, the black love, laughter, hugs, and smiles that for a moment offer us glimpses of radical democracy, freedom, and utopia. And, I want a theory about that, one that is powerful enough to “imagine damn near anything,” as Hayes put it, one about what to do with all of this black joy just bursting at the seams.21
Thick, Black, and unapologetic likebig momma’s chili just spilling overthe top, too much spice for most peopleto stomachbut we like it that way.
Black like a fish fry,like a backyard cookout withsome Maze playing.Where ALL (but not really all)the Black folks know the dancebefore it was even created, andwe look at each other with that“White folks cook in their backyards toobut they don’t know nothing bout this”look. That Black.
And isn’t that we are all fighting for,the right to be joyfully Black.The audacity of it all.That in spite of Ferguson, or Staten Island,or Ohio, or Mississipi, or Alabama, or Louisina,or Texas, or anywhere elsethat makes racism sound like it’s “over there,”that in spite of it allwe still smile and laugh and dance.That Black.Not that we laugh to keep from crying Black,but sometimes we laugh because it’s just funny.That Black.
And, aint that why they think we magicalin the first place? [End Page 181] That despite every reason not towe still have joy, Black joy.We smile, and live, and love.We love.We love.We Black.
Javon Johnson is an Assistant Professor of Performance and Communication Studies at San Francisco State University. In addition, he is a spoken word poet and is currently completing his book (Rutgers University Press) on the performances of blackness in slam and spoken word poetry communities.
2. Elizabeth Alexander, “‘Can You be Black and Look at This?’ Reading the Rodney King Video(s),” Public Culture 7, no. 1,(1994): 88.
3. Ibid., 81.
5. Ibid., 78.
6. Terrence McCoy, “Darren Wilson explains why he killed Michael Brown,” Washington Post, November 25, 2014, http://washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/11/25/why-darren-wilson-said-he-killed-michael-brown/.
7. Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 332.
8. Christina B. Hanhardt, Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 376.
9. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2012), 336.
10. Cathy Cohen, The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 410.
11. Jeffrey McCune, Jr., Sexual Discretion: Black Masculinity and the Politics of Passing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 224.
12. Moten, In the Break, 93.
13. Danez Smith, “Dinosaurs in the Hood,” Poetry (December 2014): http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/249154/.
14. Hayes, “We Should Make a Documentary about Spades.”
15. Smith, “Dinosaurs in the Hood.”
18. Jennifer Brody, Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 240.
19. Moten, In the Break, 13. [End Page 182]
20. Jill Dolan, Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theater (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 248.
21. Hayes, “We Should Make a Documentary about Spades.” [End Page 183]