Race & Identity
A reflection on this joy that I have, despite all the pain
This has become my reality — living on tenterhooks, bracing for the next blow, steeling myself for another loss. It is wearying to be so alert, to be so paranoid and watchful, and to be acutely aware that my discomfort, so far removed from any actual tragedy, is still somewhat nebulous and blurred.
However vague, my fear is a constant, enshrouding my bones, prickling my skin. I distract myself in order to maintain my sanity.
Like later this morning, during a break at work, when I rediscovered one of my favorite vines. The vine starts with Justin McCord, a young black man, knowingly telling the camera, “All it takes is three claps--” and proceeding to clap the iconic first three beats of Soulja Boy’s irresistibly twerk-able hit, “Donk.” The camera pans out to a bus full of young black students, most of whom don’t even turn around to see who lit the spark, they just yell “AYYYY!” in ecstatic unison, bopping in their seats. The vine was part of a running series on Heben Nigatu’s Twitter feed, all bearing the hashtag #CarefreeBlackKids2k16.
As black people in America are made to bear witness to their state-sanctioned indignities, injuries and executions again and again and again, we've had to formulate responses that serve as both cathartic public grief and instructional anger. Some choose to perform forgiveness in hyper-speed, in deference to religion or personal morality or both. Some find themselves engaging with racist trolls, stoking their rage with ignorant barbs. Others share images, video, op-eds, willing the world to see and hear and understand, please, understand. Still others disconnect completely, lacking the stamina or emotional bandwidth for continued exposure. None of these responses are necessarily correct or incorrect. I'm endlessly thankful and blown away by the ever-widening scope of narratives of blackness that the advent of social media is bringing to the forefront. We've been saying we aren't a monolith, now the world has the receipts in their feeds, all over their apps, racing down their timelines, whether they like to engage or not. We've harnessed the rallying power and reach of social media and used it as a platform for our rage, our grief, our fear and our pain.
But more than that, we use it to broadcast our joy.
This not to hearken back to that dangerous and pervasive trope of black strength, herculean in its range and endurance, expected to carry us unblemished through centuries of discrimination, rape, degradation and murder. Or to the unspoken expectation for us to “turn the other cheek,” to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” These are beautiful Biblical ideals that too often serve the maddening function of both erasing and invalidating our very real need to process our pain before moving past it. It is the reason our parents and grandparents were discouraged from exploring the possibility of mental illness in our communities, in our families. It is that tiny sense of betrayal you feel when you shed a public tear, as if you’ve somehow exposed a hole in your armor.
When I talk about the proliferation of expressions of black joy, it's in direct correlation with our somewhat recent acceptance of our own vulnerabilities. Allowing ourselves the space to grieve affords us the capacity to laugh. Leaning on each other when the world rejects our personhood creates meaningful bonds that affirm our commitment to lifting ourselves up. Our strength is our ability to feel and experience weakness and despair, and continue loving each other — and ourselves — through it.
In September of 2014, weeks after the nation watched Darren Wilson murder Michael Brown in the middle of the street in broad daylight, Vann R. Newkirk II took to Twitter to declare that week “Durag History Week.” The hashtag quickly went viral among Black Twitter, with photographs and captions celebrating the oft-ignored legacy of the durag — from ancient Egypt to the Underground Railroad to Buckingham Palace. For all that can be said against the vast echo chamber of social media and its slippery avenues to loss of privacy or hate-filled trolling, simple gestures like Vann’s prove its necessity as a community-building tool. Where some might see inane distraction, I see collaboration, history, education, and the simple restorative power of laughter. Of pride.
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This white-out, or appropriation, is nothing new. But in the age of social media call-outs, the clap-back has become more rapid, more visible and more hilarious. When a wayward white YouTuber made acoustic remixes to Rihanna’s “Work” and Beyonce’s “Formation,” Black Twitter’s response was #TrapCovers. It quickly achieved virality and morphed into a completely engrossing phenomenon in its own right.
#TrapCovers are just really damn good.
There’s a gorgeous irony in creating a parody that, despite its original intent, simply fails at mimicking the level of tone-deaf incompetence displayed in the acoustic covers. In typical black excellence fashion, the trap covers that users were rapidly churning out ranged from intentionally silly to accidentally...becoming bops.
The above clip garnered thousands of likes and retweets — not only for the trap cover itself, but for the “Hogwarts School of Baduizm” hoodie he’s wearing in the video. Overwhelming demand for the hoodie led to LaJethroJenkins re-opening his online store for users to purchase (including yours truly) before promptly selling out after less than a week.
The events of the past few weeks have made it abundantly clear that we're still in danger, that we can't take our safety for granted and that there's exceedingly difficult work to be done. We are barely given time to breathe and understand our grief before the next life is senselessly taken. We are undergoing successive traumas whose long-term effects feel both inherited and new. Despair lurks around every corner, waits in the stillness of the night. We ask each other, “what else can we do?” knowing that no answer will be sufficient.
In the midst of that despair, though, we refuse to lose ourselves completely.
We take pictures of ourselves and videos of our friends and caption them “carefree” when we are anything BUT carefree, because we understand the healing power of self-love. We sing and twerk and laugh loud and long, and it doesn’t invalidate our hurt and anger any more than it soothes it. Embracing the complexity of our emotions — every facet of love, each prism of hate — is a revolutionary act, and we have been galvanized. And in these tiny acts of revolution such as writing, drawing, photography, conversing, dancing, and sharing, we are rejecting the notion of a one-dimensional response to pain. Yes, we’re hurting. But we’re laughing, too. Not because we “have” to. Because we want to.