Black joy as resistance

3 ways Black leaders and students can create healing rhythms in their lives

Ahren Martinez Image Ahren Martinez | Apr 21, 2022

My mom has always been my greatest teacher. One of the most valuable lessons she has taught me is to never let anyone or anything steal my joy. Pre-pandemic, my mom and I would go to concerts all the time! 

One of our favorite concerts has always been the Long Beach Jazz Festival, a music festival that would start on Friday and end on Sunday. No matter what recent violence or display of anti-Blackness was all around us, we knew that we would make our way to this festival for the weekend with other Black and Brown people to sing, dance, eat good food, and spread love through fellowship together. It always felt like a big Black family barbecue or reunion. We have gone for at least 6 years, so we can always count on seeing the same friends every year. The concert is outside on the grass, there are lots of Black and Brown vendors selling delicious food, homemade beauty products and jewelry, hats, art, and perfume. It's truly a time to soak in the culture, energy, love, sun, and music, and be restored.

While I’ve often experienced all sorts of limitations to how I could express my joy, I could always count on this festival to be a place where no one would police our bodies, telling us we were being too loud or dancing too much. This jazz festival is the embodiment of Black joy as resistance. In the face of all of the pain, violence, anti-blackness, and policing of our bodies that happen within a society where the culture of White normativity is promoted and expected, this festival is like utopia. A space where we can go to feel unbound, unapologetic and unashamedly Black, and joy-FULL within our bodies. We get to have an embodied feeling of safety, love, and togetherness where we say that resistance, oppression, and death do not get the last word. As author Abiola Abrams urges, “Joy starts with being open to the idea that you can experience full happiness. Claim it now, because happiness is your birthright. Your Creator did not bring you here to suffer”[1] This notion of not being created to suffer is crucial when working with Black youth, given the narrative that the myth of Black suffering is living into the gospel.

What if the church could be a place where Black joy could live?

What if the church would be the people who would encourage such practices?

As Black people, we must connect to our joy as resistance consistently within our lives in order to mentally and physically combat the internalized oppression[2] and generational trauma[3] we feel within our bodies, along with the anti-Blackness within our society and community. The Black church has historically been a safe space where Black people can go to hold their joy and pain together and embody that tension in whatever way feels good to them. But in the mainstream evangelical church, joy can be a giggle but not a cackle, joy can be clapping but not a shout, and joy can be a 2-step but not dancing in the aisles.

When I say joy, I mean embodiment: the physical, emotional, spiritual, and soulful expression of joy in all its forms! Kleaver Cruz of the “Black Joy Project” describes Black joy as a “type of ‘internally driven’ happiness that can happen when someone consciously chooses pleasure as a way to combat the traumas of racism … it honestly feels like an ancestral responsibility.” This is an important conversation because Black joy is what Black people need to survive and heal in this world. The way that joy is expressed is often misinterpreted, misunderstood, and policed in public spaces. The church should embrace Black joy and encourage it for the health, well-being, and healing of generations of the Black community.

As Black youth leaders, I want to give you 3 ways that you and your Black youth can connect to Black joy as resistance, which can create a healing rhythm in their lives. Black youth leaders, may your youth group circles be safe spaces of Black joy, laughter, abundance, and uninhibited celebration with the help of these 3 steps:

1. Be unashamedly Black, unapologetically beautiful

This is the title of my most favorite song from the church I attend online, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, IL. It was written by Kevon Carter and is frequently performed by the Trinity United Church of Christ Sanctuary Choir. This is an anthem and a freedom song for Black people, and I encourage you to adopt this song as yours. Here are some of the lyrics:

The night is beautiful just like the faces of my people

The skies are beautiful just like the eyes of my people

The stars are beautiful just like the souls of my people

We are fearfully and wonderfully made

Unashamedly Black, unapologetically beautiful

I know who I am

I’m proud of who I am

Unashamedly Black, unapologetically beautiful

I know who I am

I’m proud of who I am

Unashamedly Black, unapologetically beautiful

Unashamedly Black, Unapologetically Beautiful. Click the link to watch the song performed by the Trinity United Church of Christ Sanctuary Choir (0:00-6:00 mins).

In this world, we need anthems like this that have been resurrected not only from our Black churches but also from the richness of our music throughout the history of our people to remind us of who we are and whose we are. Just like the song says, we are fearfully and wonderfully made! We “were born to feel joy and to pass that joy on. Your joy is a creative, evolutionary force.”[4]

As youth leaders, we must model for our youth the vulnerability and habits we encourage them to emulate. They will only go as far as we go, so we must get in touch with ourselves and embody the Black joy they need in their lives! Talk to them about the ways in which you have been censored or silenced in public spaces for being too … (fill in the blank) and ask them about times when they have experienced the same type of situations. How did it make them feel in their body? How did they react?

Let them know that unfortunately within society, Black joy makes some people who aren’t of African descent (and even some who are) uncomfortable because they don’t understand it, therefore they want to stop it. But that is a reflection of their insecurity, and is in no way a reason for your Black youth to feel embarrassed or ashamed. They should allow no person, place, or thing to steal their joy, and saying no to those societal White normative constructs and continuing to be themselves is resistance. As you model creating space for the fullness of who you are as a leader of African descent, you also give Black youth permission to be their full and unapologetically beautiful Black selves.

2. Move your body

Black joy can be embodied through movement in so many ways! The first way I immediately think of is through dancing! Encourage your Black youth to put on their favorite playlist or to even make a Black joy playlist they can put on and dance to in order to lift their spirits when they’re having a hard time. Solo or collective dance parties are powerful ways to keep stress levels down and rejuvenate the mind, body and spirit. Dancing reminds you of the blessing of breath in your body and rhythm in your veins, whether you can stay on beat or not. If dancing isn’t for some of your students, suggest they go for a walk, run, or stretch their bodies in nature and just breathe. Through focusing on their breath, they can feel the sun on their beautiful melanated skin and connect with God through sunshine and nature. Ask your students what other ways they have felt free and liberated through movement.

Choosing dance in the midst of protest is one of the most beautiful examples of resistance I’ve seen en masse recently. I saw this taking place during many Black Lives Matter protests all over the US. First, crowds marched throughout the streets, and then afterwards Black people led the way in playing music, doing the electric slide, and singing songs of resistance. This is the story of our people, our culture, and our movement throughout all of time: protesting with a song in our heart and a beat in our feet. Holding joy and pain in tandem has always been our experience, and may we never let our pain get the final say. We were created for joy and liberation and we worship a God who is with us in the midst of it all. A God who lived our story as an immigrant of color within an empire that lynched him, and yet who also turned water into wine at a wedding. I would like to guess there was some dancing going on at that wedding, and Jesus was right in step with it!

3. Pray and meditate on your own terms

Prayer and meditation are practices that reconnect us to God, ourselves, and our ancestors. As a young person, I grew up going to Christian schools. I was taught that prayer and meditation only looked a certain way: sitting down with your hands together in silence or speaking in a quiet voice to God. This is another way that Black joy is silenced and White normativity takes over when we are kids, because we are taught that silence and lack of movement is what connects us to God and is most desirable to God. Ask your students what they think prayer and meditation should look like. I guarantee most of them were taught the same “rules.” This expression is one way to pray but not the only way, and it certainly does not incorporate Black joy.

Prayer and meditation can also include movement, music, and being unapologetically and unashamedly Black before God! Ask your Black students the different ways they have prayed in church and at home. Ask them if they’ve ever incorporated movement and song. If they haven’t, encourage them to go on a walk and listen to music while in nature, just being thankful for the beauty God has surrounded them with. Prayer is simply communing with God, and your students need to know they do not need formal postures or fancy words to do it. Your students can pray with their feet at a protest while dancing and singing. They can work out, run, do yoga, go on a bike ride, and listen and talk to God. God is within the sacred act of movement and focus, and this can be done in the midst of many things that feel good to your students within their bodies.

How I wish that jazz festival wasn’t just an annual weekend experience. I’d love to experience that kind of communal joy much more often, and I think we can—and need to—create opportunities for joy in our ministries. Black youth leaders and students, may you be well, thrive, and develop healthy rhythms of Black joy in your life. Joy and liberation is our birthright.

Check out 10 exceptional people who are using Black joy as a form of resistance!

Tweet this: Black youth leaders, your youth ministries can be safe spaces for Black joy, laughter, abundance, and uninhibited celebration. Here are 3 steps to help you lead healing rhythms of joyful resistance.

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[1] Abiola Abrams, African Goddess Initiation: Sacred Rituals for Self-love, Prosperity, and Joy (California: Hay House, 2021) 143.

[2] Internalized oppression: The prejudiced beliefs we tell ourselves about our own race, culture, religion, gender orientation, and/or socioeconomic group that keep us from being our fully authentic selves (Aldana, Armas, and Samuel, Talking about Race with Teenagers, 19).

[3] Generational trauma: The impact of trauma experienced by a person’s ancestors that is felt and echoed throughout two or more family generations (Aldana, Armas, and Samuel, Talking about Race with Teenagers, 43)

[4] Abrams, African Goddess Initiation: Sacred Rituals for Self-love, Prosperity, and Joy, 144.

Ahren Martinez Image
Ahren Martinez

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Coordinator

Ahren Martinez is the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Coordinator at Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) where she is committed to diversity and making sure that inclusion and equity are tracked across race, gender and socioeconomic status. Ahren, a Pasadena native, holds a BA in International Relations with a Minor in Spanish & Latin American Studies from Spelman College, a Culinary Arts Degree from LA Trade Tech College, and an MA in Intercultural Studies with an emphasis in Children at Risk from Fuller Theological Seminary. Her passion is working with marginalized teens and making sure they have all the resources and opportunities to be empowered, encouraged, enriched, and supported. Ahren was always taught that “one who learns must also teach.” Therefore, she feels it is her duty and mission to work with and empower marginalized youth in her community. In her free time, Ahren enjoys going to concerts, traveling, trying and cooking new foods, and anything Disneyland related.

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