Extract: ‘Black joy is the infectious laughter of my mum and aunty’

In this foreword from Black Joy: A collection of love letters to Black British Culture, the book’s editor and curator, Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, expounds on the book’s beautiful purpose.

Image: Flynn Shore / Penguin

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. It is the heart surge of hearing a chant that resonates with me at a protest. 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 it is individual. It is all of these things and more.

Black joy is essential but difficult to define. It means different things to different people, and you’d be right to question whether it is simply any joy experienced by a Black person at any time or something beyond that. But this book, featuring the essays of twenty-eight Black British minds, tries to make the links between individual joy and the collective experience. As unique people and as a wide-ranging community, we embody and have created space for such profound moments of joy that there would never be enough pages to capture them all. But we’ve tried!

The essays within Black Joy speak of many things I already knew to bring the Black British community joy, from the big boldness of Carnival to the low hum of the clippers in the barbershop. They also touch on many things I was less aware of. Until I read Travis Alabanza’s essay on Prince, I shamefully knew next to nothing about the 1980s popstar whose iconic status has uplifted the hearts of the Black gender-nonconforming community now flourishing in his wake. Before Rukiat Ashawe bared her soul by talking about her journey with existential nihilism against the backdrop of an identity she was told would always go hand in hand with hardship, I didn’t fully comprehend that believing nothing really matters could lead to joy.

We cannot completely get away from the fact that everyone’s life is spliced with some amount of pain – without a spectrum of emotions, of course, we wouldn’t feel joy in quite the same way. As I write this, George Floyd’s murderer, Derek Chauvin, has just received a sentence that will see him jailed for many years, while yet another family grieves the loss of their daughter, sixteen-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant. In the UK, we are marking the anniversary of the death of Stephen Lawrence. These essays are uplifting, but they do not ignore the raw realities of our existence – and nor should they. Black joy in this climate is an undoubtedly political reaction to the world we are living in, but we must be careful to push the conversation beyond this moment, and beyond a hashtag.

‘Joy is a way to enter the pain as much as it is to be in the joy,’ Kleaver Cruz, the Dominican–American founder of The Black Joy Project, tells me. With his own book launching in 2022, he has interviewed over a thousand people across the African diaspora on what Black joy means to them and he continues to cite Black joy as a form of resistance and resilience. ‘There’s a difference between experiencing something and creating it,’ he goes on. ‘When you consciously create Black joy or conjure it, it becomes something you can wield as opposed to just experience.’

'I hope this book becomes part of a joyous canon'

I don’t believe there is yet a substantial body of work on Black joy in the same way there is about Black trauma, even though they often exist in tandem. But soon come. In March 2021, the actor and producer Marsai Martin spoke out about her ‘no Black pain’ rule, saying she doesn’t want to produce projects that centre on Black trauma because there are enough of them already out there. It’s essential we move towards storytelling that allows for a full spectrum of emotion. As put by my co-editor, the brilliant new talent that is Timi Sotire: ‘Re-imagining what it means to be Black by focusing on what makes our community happy is paramount at a time like this.’ I hope this book becomes part of a joyous canon.

It can feel indulgent to focus on the things that make your heart sing, on the golden moments of light and laughter. We’re often made to feel like we must be deserving of joy, that to lean in to the emotion first we need to have suffered. Or that our suffering is so great that joy is incomprehensible. Or that we have done too many ‘bad’ things to be gifted with joy. I want this book to challenge these notions. Especially if you are a Black person, you deserve joy regardless of the life you’ve lived. Joy doesn’t have to be contingent upon anything but existence. This book should leave you with the knowledge cemented that Black joy is multiplicitous – a bursting from the seams of experiences and inner mantras.

if you are a Black person, you deserve joy regardless of the life you’ve lived

It is also by and for a young Black British audience. It is unashamedly FUBU, because we deserve it. We deserve our own slice of heaven, a big tiered cake of goodness as we continue to navigate the rocky waters of youth. To our Black readers, your joy is so valid, so important to be shared, to be found and exposed.

The infrastructure for Black joy in Britain is still being built. We do have a road to travel, one that needs signposts along the way. But I’ve never been surer that this book, on Black British joy specifically, needs to exist and that it will help in the construction. It is one web of interconnected stories that will hopefully create glistening threads leading readers directly to their own joy. Black joy can be your love, your light and your fight.

Kleaver puts it perfectly: ‘The work that’s happening is giving language to what we know to be real in the world. It’s part of survival. Joy is innate, it’s not a racial thing. But there’s just something particular when we’re doing it . . . Blackness is infinite. In all the ways we show up, that’s how many ways Black joy can show up or be defined.’

Our Blackness is a construct, but that doesn’t mean the ways in which we can find happiness within it are any less profound.

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