When Black Joy Has White Witnesses

Juneteenth Parade 2016, Philadelphia / photo by Femi Matti

I went to my city’s Juneteenth parade this weekend. It was in Old City, a historically oriented part of Philly. It hosts the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, horse drawn carriages, tour guides in bonnets, and a shit ton of tourists on segways. I generally avoid Old City, but it was important that the parade was there. It was important because our nation does a lot of praising of certain parts of its history, while skimming past others. Juneteenth is the historic day on which the final 250,000 enslaved Africans in Texas were informed of their freedom — two years later than their freedom became law. Celebrating Juneteenth in a place which heralds colonial America (and its founding fathers) with fondness felt like a necessary infiltration of a more accurate truth. It felt like refusing to have our history withheld from the narrative.

I walked up to the park where the parade began with my son in tow and my husband next to me. I saw all of the marchers in queue — a drill team, a second line, stilt walkers, dancers. I heard drums, saw small children dancing in Ankara prints.

I cried. I couldn’t help it. It was equally due to how weepy I get during pregnancy, and how much collective trauma and suffering I knew we’d all endured. Our ancestors endured it, our children will endure it, and still we manage to dance — to celebrate ourselves. My tears were tears of awe and tears of pride. It’s really easy to feel fucked as a Black person in America, but there is nothing in the world like Black joy.

The parade began moving and my family found a corner to occupy. Stilt walkers danced before a group of Black men playing the music of New Orleans. It felt like I was watching ancestral spirits dance to the music of their displaced children. It was a informal tableau of what being a Black American has always been to me —the forging of a powerful and potent culture from what we have left of what was once ours, and what we’ve made of where we are now. The tears were welling up again when a white tourist stopped me. I snapped back from my contemplation.

“Excuse me, what is this for?”

I looked around, saw the people on the sidewalk. Black faces barely peppered a bunch of white bodies, clad in khaki shorts and visors. Those who weren’t raising their phones to document were flashing condoning smiles.

“It’s Juneteenth — the end of slavery.”

“Oh, how nice!” She said, making sure to snag a photo before walking away.

Juneteenth Parade 2016, Philadelphia / Photo by Femi Matti

I imagined her going back to her home somewhere, flipping through the album of her trip to Philly for her friends. I imagined her telling them about the beautiful parade she witnessed, what it was for, all of them congratulating themselves for no longer regarding us as chattel.

I felt protective of the Black joy before me. I didn’t want to share it. You did not earn this, I thought. We built this beauty from the ruins granted us. This celebration belongs to us.

Strange things happen when the white gaze settles over Black people. We sometimes stiffen, code switch, withhold, soften, restrict, police ourselves. We sometimes feel judged. We sometimes feel less free. And I was at that parade to celebrate some semblance of freedom.

I’m not suggesting we segregate. I’m not suggesting white people never look at Black people. I am saying that being Black in a white world is exhausting, being on the receiving end of white supremacist dynamics is exhausting, and sometimes Black people need a break. I believe Black people need certain spaces to heal from things that only Black people have endured. We need relief. I don’t think we’re ever going to get it at a public parade, but the change in dynamic needs noting.

I know that many of those tourists meant no malice. I know that they thought it was beautiful, because it was. I know that they believed chattel slavery was barbaric and needed to end, it was and it did. I also know I didn’t feel comfortable being vulnerable, anymore. I felt like my Black experience was on display.

Juneteenth Parade 2016, Philadelphia / Photo by Femi Matti

In October, I wrote a piece about all the racial aggression I’d endured. After it went viral, I received an influx of emails and comments from white people condemning their peers, but offering consolation in the form of praise for the grace with which I’ve handled white supremacy’s transgressions against me. I wasn’t comforted, though, because their consolation was inaccurate . I don’t handle racism gracefully, at all — I am traumatized as fuck. I manage to function. I manage to dance, awkwardly. I manage to display for my son what bellowing laughter looks and sounds like. I manage to do these things in spite of my suffering — not instead of it.

But, because my audience had not lived or known my suffering, from their vantage point I was graceful, not struggling. In their minds, I became someone who pulled herself up by her bootstraps and transcended the trauma. The battle against internalized self hate — erased. The isolating social anxiety — poof. The constant and perpetual fear for my life and the life of those I love — swallowed up. The late night inconsolable crying over how devalued my Black womanhood makes me — nonexistent. The maternal guilt of bringing Black children into a world that hates them — eaten by my eloquence. What would be my consolation if I wrote about that instead?

And it was the same with the parade. Black joy became a universally palatable joy. A joy without heft, nuance. In my eyes, Black joy is beautiful because when weighed against the suffering, it shouldn’t exist. Black joy is Black magic we conjure for ourselves. Every Black person there knew that we have never been granted full freedom, that we’re still restricted, that we still suffer based on Blackness. But we celebrated that things can get better, we celebrated the breaking of chains, we celebrated our ancestors’ joy on the day they got their bodies back.

So much of white approval of Black joy is rooted in the denial of racial trauma and suffering as a concurrent reality. It becomes proof that our lives aren’t so bad, that we “overcame,” that those who don’t overcome are to blame for our own pain. So much of white approval of Black joy is about easing their own white guilt, believing everything’s amended. It’s about pretending the past doesn’t touch and taint the present. It’s about pretending that legacy doesn’t lord over us.

Juneteenth Parade 2016, Philadelphia / photo by Femi Matti

One of the final groups of marchers were men, women, and children waving giant Black Liberation flags. They followed a Black pick-up truck marked with photos of people killed by police, and a reference to the MOVE bombing of 1985 (Philadelphia dropped a bomb on Osage Ave, intentionally murdering a community of Black radicals and their children).

They shouted “I LOVE being Black!” They shouted “We all got melanin!” They shouted “Black power!” And the condoning white smiles around me disappeared. They grew tight lipped. They lowered their phones. Many walked away. A Black woman marching with the group looked at me and smiled. She mouthed that she liked my skirt. I smiled back at her. She raised a Black power fist. I froze. Would the people around me still compliment the cuteness of my son, would they still smile at me? Would they be uncomfortable? Would they feel slighted?

“I LOVE being Black!” The group chanted.

I looked at my son looking at me. I remembered the other thing I loved about Black joy — it’s unapologetic.

“I LOVE being Black!” I shouted back.

And I raised my fist, too — as high as I could — for the ancestors, for us, for our children. I raised my fist in defense of Black joy, in all of its depth, whether private or on display. I raised my fist because Black joy is beautiful, because it’s ours, because we earned it.