When I first started writing this, I was excited to wax poetic about black joy and Instagram battles. I started drafting this story a week before Mother’s Day, buzzing from how the internet coalesced around Teddy Riley and Babyface and excited to watch Erykah Badu and Jill Scott battle it out. Amid the new coronavirus outbreak, these Verzuz battles were reminding me of how vital it is for black people to experience joy. It’s a secret ingredient to black resilience, in my opinion.
At the time, my primary motivation for writing this was compensatory. It’s well-documented that black and brown people are at greater risk of death from COVID-19. I wanted to talk about how joy has to be part of black health, too, and how finding these moments of lightness can help us persevere. Inevitably, when the conversation turns toward black folks enjoying themselves, someone suggests that it’s a distraction from larger issues. But happiness and levity have quantifiable health benefits, and I was ready to discuss them.
Then I heard about Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old man gunned down while jogging near his Georgia home in February. And news tumbled in of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT in Kentucky who died in March after being shot by police while she slept in bed. Processing racism alongside a pandemic left me far more exhausted than joyful.
I still believe that joy is an integral part of black wellbeing, and I’m not the first person to say this. Audre Lorde wrote eloquently about how caring for oneself is an act of resistance. There’s also the Black Joy movement, sprouted alongside Black Lives Matter, which celebrates the happiness, playfulness, and freedom that undergird social justice. Adrienne Maree Brown’s 2019 anthology, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, gives a nudge toward understanding the power inherent in being delighted. While I’m not the first to say that joy, creativity, and even eroticism are necessary components of black health, 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.
This notion that joy fortifies isn’t just philosophical. A 2019 meta-analysis published in the Annual Review of Public Health found associations between affective wellbeing (defined as joy and seeking pleasure) and lowered stress hormones like cortisol. (Overproduction of cortisol from chronic stress can contribute to a host of ailments from heart disease to depression, the Mayo Clinic says.) There’s evidence that laughter, thanks to its stress-relieving effects, can help support your immune system, among other benefits. And, since this piece was inspired by Instagram battles, it’s worth noting that a consistent habit of dancing (hopefully swaying in your seat is included) does count as exercise and, as such, can nurture the parts of the brain that have to do with memory, planning, and organizing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. There’s also some evidence that listening to music might help reduce chronic pain thanks to the power of distraction, the National Institutes of Health explains. And a 2017 meta-analysis published in Perspectives of Public Health found an encouraging link between listening to music (as well as singing it) and improved mood in adults of all ages. My point? Joy isn’t a distraction—it’s nourishment. It’s part of where some of us find the energy to continue thriving.
The essay I wanted to write is no longer as relevant—the Jill Scott and Erykah Badu battle was restorative (the Nelly and Ludacris battle, a little weird)—but that essay was probably incomplete. Finding joy is useful, but I can’t talk about the necessity of it right now without making space for the inherent risks—a man was shot while jogging down the street, a woman shot while sleeping in her bed. I can’t talk fully about black joy in public without talking about these killings. And I refuse to make a recommendation for black joy without acknowledging that joy alone won’t change the ways we’re under threat. But I still believe it’s something that pours out of us organically, and it should never be undervalued.
My hope, as we weather the pandemic and the latest round of senseless killings, is that you’re able to find respite in moments of joy and laughter. And if you can, throw yourself unapologetically into those feelings. Those are legitimately good for you.