“Come celebrate with me that everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.” -Lucille Clifton
My mom’s laugh shakes the room. As a kid I sometimes wondered if she had to practice to get it like that, in the mirror throwing her head back, tuning the pitch of it, perfecting the way it projected. It used to annoy me. I’d be sequestered in my room, writing depressive adolescent poetry, and then it would crack through the walls in the hours she spent on the phone with my many aunts. Nothing is that funny, I’d think to myself.
At dawn on New Year’s Day 2014, after supplying my champagne drunk friends with enough blankets to make a bed of the floor, I went to my bedroom, closed the door behind me, and fell to the ground laughing. It erupted from somewhere deep in my belly and caused my whole body to convulse. Once it started I couldn’t contain it. My husband took one look at me, rolling on the floor in my black velvet dress, and asked me if I was okay.
Over breakfast the next morning, my friends said they thought I was sobbing. They said that from the living room my bellowing sounded like some kind of wailing. It might as well have been wailing, but I corrected them anyway.
“What was so funny?” they asked.
“I don’t know, champagne makes me goofy,” I answered, because the truth was more than I felt like getting into.
If I had gotten into it, I might’ve said: What’s funny is that I’m here right now. What’s funny is that I’m alive. What’s funny is how many days in the last year I woke up certain it was all enough to kill me. What’s funny is that I made it. What’s funny is that I can laugh like this. I can cackle like Eartha Kitt at the end of the day. I can rumble the floor like my mother at the end of the year. What’s funny is that I’m laughing.
2013 was the most challenging year of my life. It was the first year I couldn’t come apart, because it was the first year I spent outside of the home my mother held together for me. It was the first year I was tasked with forging and holding together my own home. All of the delusions afforded to me in my mother’s safe haven had left me. Emotional, marital, bodily, financial, and mental crises swarmed me. And those private plots played out against the backdrop of a world where I felt simultaneously invisible and targeted.
I worked as a cleaning woman for wealthy white people, and they either pretended I wasn’t in the room, treated me like I was incompetent, or regarded me as though I was a menace. I was afforded little dignity, and I had to take what was afforded to me — because I had a home to hold together. I felt like a muted scream. I felt like a ticking time bomb. Like I could burst out of myself in a clap of thunder that would bring the city to its knees, and scatter me like confetti over the ruins. But all year, I managed to wake up and make it to bed in one piece. And when I finally burst, that morning on the floor, what poured out in torrents was laughter.
When I think about Black joy, I think of my mother’s loud laugh, and the dark blue morning when I inherited it. The gift, and the legacy of that release. A way of unmuting the screams we both carry and converting them to hollers and howls. Black joy is the anti-composure, a rejection of holding it together all the time. In the spirit of the innovation that has carried us through generations of suffering, we created a glorious way to come apart. We loosen our reigns, uninhibit ourselves, unfurl. When my husband smiles, it’s like his face breaks open and glows. It’s a sight to behold. It’s a glitch in society’s grim plan for us. A declaration of unrelenting vitality.
That my Mom Mom, who raised six children with the KKK on watch, now does the wobble at my family reunion is a miracle. That my Pop Pop, who’s survived multiple strokes and cancers in America’s racist healthcare system, still cracks slick jokes is a miracle. That my Dad, who spent decades running from and captive to the prison industrial complex, can sit next to me and snicker at something cute his grandson does is a miracle. That my Mom, who raised my brother and I alone in my father’s absence, has a laughter that startles me from four rooms away is a miracle. That in the midst of my deepest depressive episodes, I can blast the volume on a Kendrick song, put my babies on my hips, both of them squealing, and swing us around the room dancing — it’s a miracle. That this miraculous laughter is in my blood makes Black Joy my birthright.
Black joy is the individual and communal celebration of something only we understand the true depth of — that we’re here, that we’re alive, that we can still feel it. My expressions of joy have the hyperbolic boom of someone who knows what it means to exist in spite of the ordinary horrors of daily living. In spite of the catastrophic and sweeping hand of history. In spite of the unknown nature of the future. I cackle at what an affront I am to my enemies. I laugh loud because this joy is my endowment. It’s my safe haven. My best weapon. My nourishment. My wealth. My heirloom. My freedom.