Black joy is a concept that journalist Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff has been aware of for many years. But in summer 2020, after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, she found herself spending so much time reading and thinking about Black pain, trauma, and “things that are the opposite to joy”.
While embroiled in difficult conversations around race and identity, it occurred to her that bringing to light stories of joy seemed like a wonderful thing to be able to do.
That idea is now a reality that takes the form of a collection of essays called Black Joy co-edited by Brinkhurst-Cuff and Timi Sotire and published by Penguin.
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Comedian Munya Chawawa, YA author Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, MP Diane Abbott, writer Chanté Joseph, writer Travis Alabanza, and journalist Jason Okundaye are a few of the contributors to the collection. Each essay takes the reader into the writer’s own source of joy — be it Nigerian dance hall parties, homecoming and meeting one’s Jamaican family, banter and the importance of having a work BFF, or the simple pleasure of having chicken and chips after school.
When Brinkhurst-Cuff began to delve deeper into the topic of Black joy, she discovered a wealth of inspirations that continued long after that initial spark. “Audre Lorde writes beautifully around joy, and speaks about joy is like a communal experience. That was something that was really inspiring,” she tells me. “Kleaver Cruz, who runs the Black Joy Project, has interviewed over 1,000 people in the African diaspora about Black joy over the past five years or so.”
Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, co-editor of ‘Black Joy’
Timi Sotire, co-editor of ‘Black Joy’
In the book’s foreword, Brinkhurst-Cuff writes, “I don’t believe there is a substantial body of work on Black joy in the same way there is about Black trauma, even though they often exist in tandem.”
That emphasis on Black pain is owing in part to the subjugation that Black people experience under white supremacy. “There is a lot of trauma that is tied up in the fabric of the racial identity known as Black and it was created as a way to subjugate people, our identity, unfortunately,” says Brinkhurst-Cuff. But Blackness is being reclaimed by the Black community, Brinkhurst-Cuff says, as a space to find community, joy, and life.
94 percent of journalists in the UK are white and because of the white domination of the media, there are very few opportunities for Black writers and journalists to write about subjects that aren’t Black trauma, pain, or activism. I ask Brinkhurst-Cuff if this book is an act of resistance to that focus on Black pain and a request to hold space for joy and the need for writing about Black joy.
“I definitely would want an editor to pick this up and just be like, ‘Oh there are other stories,'” says Brinkhurst-Cuff. “I definitely think that it can be viewed as like a resistance to that reality, which is that those fluffy, joyful, non-pain related features that mainly white writers get to have their hands on, we are capable of producing them, but of also producing identity focused pieces, which relates to things other than trauma and pain.”
So, what is Black joy? “It’s ever changing,” says Brinkhurst-Cuff. “It’s not one thing, there’s not one thing that can be claimed. So I would only ever want to speak about it from my very individual perspective, Black joy is about finding the connection, there’s the cultural connections that Black people have between us that that lead to moments of joy.”
Brinkhurst-Cuff didn’t contribute an essay to the collection and there’s a reason why. “If I’m honest, one of the reasons why I didn’t was because I was struggling to find joy,” she says. “I was struggling to know what it was that I should or felt able to write about in that moment because I think, as for everyone, 2020 and 2021 were really hard years.”
The cover of ‘Black Joy’
“I think the irony is I don’t necessarily think that I’m someone who would be called a joyful person,” she adds. “I hope I bring people joy. But I feel like I kind of lean more towards like melancholia more naturally than I do towards a state of joy.”
Working on the book changed Brinkhurst-Cuff’s relationship to joy, however. “It definitely made me think about finding joy more intentionally, if that makes sense. And seeking out spaces for joy, and identifying what they are,” she says. “I think a lot of us in the pandemic obviously have had a lot of time to reflect generally and that paired with working on this book has meant that I have a clearer understanding of what does make me happy or unhappy, which is really great and brilliant.”
As Brinkhurst-Cuff writes in her foreword: “Black joy is the infectious laughter of my mum and aunty. It is my dad telling me to be proud of my heritage. It is the feeling of hopping along to my first ‘Candy’ dance. It is stepping off the plane in Jamaica.”
Black joy is personal but also communal and that plurality of the joyful experience shines through in this book. “It is the heart surge of hearing a chant that resonates with me at a protest,” she writes. “The smooth stretch and pull of my afro acquiescing its curl to a box braid. It is a look of recognition. It is shared and individual. It is all of these things and more.”
Black Joy co-edited by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff and Timi Sotire out now through Penguin.