We Need To Talk About Black Joy On Social Media

The story goes that when I was born in July 1986, my parents received commiserations from a number of people for having "yet another girl". Some had even bought "congratulations on your little boy" cards, so eager were they on my parents' behalf for me not to be a girl. My father instructed everyone to save their apologies and declared that he was happy with his girls, and with his new baby girl, and that I brought him joy. And so he and my mother decided to name me Furaha – the Swahili word for joy. 
I come from a culture where the names bestowed on children have specific meaning and are often believed to intertwine with our destinies. This means that joy is one of my life’s purposes.
In my mid 20s I decided I wanted to live up to my name and that if I was struggling to feel joyful within myself, at the very least I would make sure that I positively impacted as many people around me as possible. Now, a few days away from my 34th birthday, I am fully aware that many Black people live with that same mission of proactively creating, sourcing and spreading joy – especially in a world that seems determined to quench it for us.
Over the past five years my personal life has been filled with quite a lot of grief. Though it was by no means the starting point, I usually use 8th March 2016 – the day my father passed away unexpectedly – as the blurry beginning of what would be an onslaught of personal, familial and immigration hardships in my life. The Home Office has been trying to deport me, which I have been fighting. 

We are living through a pandemic (COVID-19) within a pandemic (anti-Blackness), in addition to experiencing other forms of social injustice.

Through it all, I have maintained my spark of hope by a commitment to creating and tapping into joy wherever I find it. 
The first six months of this year have already been a lot for everyone. We are living through a pandemic (COVID-19) within a pandemic (anti-Blackness), in addition to experiencing other forms of social injustice. We have seen the Black Lives Matter movement gather pace in many countries, with varying reactions. The fact that even saying "Black lives matter" is controversial in many spaces signifies how important this movement is. We’ve seen the taking down of statues that represent racism, colonialism and hatred, and heard arguments which seem to imply that these statues matter more than actual Black lives. Performative allyship has been on the rise too, which has also created the need for the reminder that "allyship fatigue" is not a valid excuse for complacency and complicity. There is so much more going on that highlights exactly how unjust a world we live in.
Of course, these happenings are compounded by things going on in our personal lives, too. I have spent the last few weeks in socially distanced meetings with my legal team as we prepare my appeal against deportation from the United Kingdom. We have spent hours drafting my statement, delving into memories that I long ago compartmentalised and which I will probably need to work through with a therapist at some point in my hopefully stable future. The sheer surrealism of my situation and the uncertainty of my future, together with the revelations about what many Black British people have been through – both in the recent past and presently – weighs heavily and leads to relentless catastrophisation.
Everything is happening at once, and I find myself slipping in and out of despondency. I also recognise that in many different ways, these feelings may resonate with many people. But what I’m also realising is that as clichéd as it sounds, joy has been one of my anchors. And so I search for it, and seize it wherever I find it. In turn, it has been manifesting itself to me through many different platforms.
Black joy and the assertions that it is radical, non-negotiable, underpinned by self-care, an act of resistance and can never be cancelled, are far from new concepts. Black joy is part of who we are as Black peoples in different parts of the world, simply trying to get on with our lives. It exists despite the many obstacles we face because we have been and continue to be intentional about maintaining it. It coexists with every other occurrence that has happened to and been imposed upon us. Our predecessors have indulged in it in many different ways; we are merely the current generation who get to add our voices in defining what it means. Patia Braithwaite says it best: "I lend my voice to the chorus because we’re facing overwhelming challenges, and the things that sustain us – no matter how small or playful – should never be discounted." 

As the academics Lu and Steele note, these expressions of Black joy on social media 'invoke the historic legacy of storytelling as a resistance strategy' and in doing so, defy attempts to 'subjugate and suppress Black life.'

Award-winning author Irenosen Okojie speaks to the fact that especially through a Western gaze and because of cultural gatekeeping, stories about Blackness and Black cultures which are so readily amplified and consumed usually focus on Black trauma and problems within Black communities. This is one of the reasons why elevating stories about Black joy through art is important – not so much out of a deep investment into how we are viewed by the white gaze but so that other Black people feel free to tap into this communal joy and in turn contribute to it. We literally keep one another going.
Okojie describes Black joy, in addition to reclaiming legacy and heritage through art and writing, as "reading a June Jordan poem, it’s watching a Barry Jenkins film, it’s listening to a Fela Kuti record on a hot day, it’s looking at an image of a Basquiat exhibition. All of these things represent Black artistry and Black innovation, and the complete freedom and joy that I think is important as an artist." Going through the Twitter #BlackJoy hashtag emphasises that our joy is indeed valid, whether it relates to the big things or the mundane.
In 2019, Jessica H. Lu and Catherine Knight Steele published research about how Black social media users challenge dominant media narratives that demean and dehumanise Black people through consistent expressions and fostering of joy. Lu and Steele argue that these joyous discourses extend historic legacies of Black oral culture. The article distinguishes between happiness and joy, based on literature from Black scholars, artists and activists, wherein happiness is more based on circumstance as opposed to joy, which is intentional. Concerning the use of popular hashtags employed by Black social media users to spread joy, Lu and Steele state: "The joyful posts shared via these hashtags celebrate Black life in ways that challenge mainstream media’s attempts to fix Black people and Black life into a position of death and despair; assert Black people as fully human, capable of experiencing and expressing a full, dynamic range of emotion; and capture, share, and circulate expressions of Black life without concern for the white gaze." The article foregrounds Twitter and Vine as sites where this online joy is celebrated. 
What these expressions of Black joy on social media do, Lu and Steele note, is "invoke the historic legacy of storytelling as a resistance strategy" and in doing so, defy attempts to "subjugate and suppress Black life." We know of course from oral histories that this culture of Black joy began, and continues, offline.

I have found much Black joy online that has trickled down into my everyday life. I have met individuals through Twitter who have become trusted friends and confidantes, some of whom organised a crowdfunder for my legal fees.

On a personal level, I have found much Black joy online that has trickled down into my everyday life. I have met individuals through Twitter who have become trusted friends and confidantes, some of whom organised a crowdfunder for my legal fees. I’m yet to meet them in person. I have celebrated with Black students who have shared their joy at graduating from university, and with those who have gained places in fully funded PhD projects. There have been stories of Black activists making gains in their grassroots movements. These, among other stories, all contribute to my spark of hope. 
Being online during lockdown has also encouraged me to transition my mental health advocacy to webinar-based work, which has actually widened my perimeter of impact. Led by scholar and activist Melz Owusu, I have also joined a team of Black scholars, activists and community organisers who are committed to establishing The Free Black University: a space for radical and transformative knowledge production that will be focused on community and care for Black students. As an academic, this movement grounded in social justice and unapologetic Blackness fills me with hope for a better future that will go beyond my lifetime. 
There is also the fact that after struggling to read any kind of longform writing for a number of years because of my mental illness, over the past three months I have come together with two friends to create a small, safe and thriving online book club that focuses on bitesize reads. This has enabled me to pick up my reading habit again and I’ve moved back into longform reading. These are all valid sources of joy that I will keep holding onto and which in turn enable me to foster joy for others.

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