American culture sees Blackness as the damage it did to us, not the joy we take in ourselves

One cannot fully understand Blackness in America without understanding the joy that we derive from being Black — and why.

By Donald Earl Collins, professorial lecturer of history and American studies, American University

When I was 10, my family went to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, New York, for an impromptu weekend evening concert. It was 1980, and rap trailblazers The Sugarhill Gang headlined the event. Their hit song “Rapper’s Delight” had made Billboard’s Hot 100 at the beginning of the year (it was also the first rap single ever to be a Top 40 hit).

But it wasn’t the music and the dancing that made that night all Kool and the Gang for me. For me, what made it so memorable was being in a crowd of hundreds of Black folk, celebrating life in a nation seemingly dedicated to Black suffering and death. At least, that was the feeling I had about the U.S. after rewatching the miniseries “Roots” that spring — something I could know but in no way articulate back then.

It was one of my first times experiencing Blackness as joy.

Joy in our Blackness is part of what the late civil rights paragon John Lewis called “good trouble.” It plays its part in “how we get free,” to quote Black feminist scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.

It is true, of course, that — from kidnapping and enslavement to rape, lynchings and debt peonage — African Americans have both endured and resisted centuries of oppression. But it is also true that Black folks have salvaged hope and resurrected joy in this wasted land. Blackness in America is greater than the sum of its parts, crafted from struggle and resistance, birthing joy in the process.

One cannot fully understand Blackness and whatever successes Black people have earned in the U.S. without understanding the joy that Black people derive from being Black.

During the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, itinerant Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist ministers brought the good news of Christianity to enslaved Africans in what would become the U.S. Some of them preached spiritual freedom and equality for enslaved people, even as they justified real-life inequality. But the white pastor’s admonishment to “obey thy masters” on the enslaved African’s lifelong journey to heaven was hardly the end of the lesson for Black folks, then or now. The adoption of Protestant Christianity was also Black adaptation.

Among the first Bible verses enslaved Africans deliberately reinterpreted for their own purposes was likely, “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” This is what the governor of Jerusalem, Nehemiah, told the Jews after he helped rebuild the city in Nehemiah 8:10. He asked that they listen to the words God handed down to Moses. The people, hearing those words, wept.

Another likely candidate for Black adaptation is from the New Testament’s Hebrews 12:1-2: “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Neither passage embodies the everyday definition of joy. Both verses describe a joy conjured through pain and struggle, joy despite suffering from enslavement and all its evils.

The Christianity that enslaved Africans took up, then, was a fusion of white religion’s emphasis on salvation in the afterlife with West African understandings of life and afterlife, of the calling on gods and ancestors for blessings and wisdom, of the interpretation of signs and omens, as the late historian Sterling Stuckey showed years ago in his foundational book “Slave Culture.” That merging brought forth Black joy as struggle.

This fusion manifested in two ways: the praise house and the ring shout. Praise houses were informal spaces — usually in the backwoods or other secluded areas near plantations — where enslaved Blacks worshipped while singing what would later become spirituals. The circular call-and-response group dance, known as the ring shout, was central to the praise house. Through both, enslaved “Blacks … were able to transform the [West African] trickster into music and dance and incorporate them into their backstage performances,” as historian Katrina Dyonne Thompson wrote in her book “Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery.”

The music itself contained religious texts that enslaved Blacks used as encrypted messages for when to rebel or escape — like with the hymn “Roll, Jordan, Roll.” And the ring dances conjured for enslaved people the will to resist, even after an overseer had whipped, raped or murdered one of their own.

Calling joy into existence through resistance was what allowed the shards of Ga-Dangbe, Igbo, Yoruba, Kongo, Wolof and other West African traditions to survive the apocalypse of kidnapping, the Middle Passage and Western Hemispheric chattel slavery. This joyful fusion also provided a space where enslaved Blacks could find emotional, psychic and spiritual release, could dance and sing Bible verses until they raged and cried out their traumas and be uplifted and renewed through this process.

Those embers of Africanness that joy kept alive in subversion and resistance through music, dance and religion birthed what we now recognize as the broader American culture. The first spirituals evolved into gospel and morphed with Anglo- and Irish-American folk songs to produce 19th-century American popular music. The ring shout and buck-and-wing led to America’s first dance crazes between 1870 and 1930, including the cakewalk, the foxtrot and tap dancing.

Quite simply, there is no American joy, no American culture, without Black joy, and no Black joy without Black pain from and resistance to American racism and exploitation.

Through 150 years of Jim Crow and Black migration, the civil rights movement, the last half-century of the elusion and illusion of the American Dream and now Black Lives Matter, the joy of Blackness has blessed the U.S. and the world many times over — with blues, ragtime and jazz; bebop and hip-hop; swing and rap; country and rock; and enough dance moves to keep Prince and Michael Jackson occupied in the afterlife for eternity.

But it has blessed us also with the subtext of subversion: of resistance as joy, and of the joy in resisting through Black existence. No amount of white cultural appropriation could destroy, or even truly appropriate, the joy inherent to or infused in Black cultural production.

My last collective experience of Black joy was nearly three years ago, as part of the March for Black Women in September 2017 in Washington, D.C. Being part of that crowd to shout down misogynoir, watching folks dance to go-go — a D.C.-centric variation of funk music — and hip-hop while marching and yelling, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” in front of the Trump hotel was textbook Black joy enveloped in struggle.

If the violence of slavery and Jim Crow couldn’t steal Black joy, then the coronavirus pandemic, naked autocratic rule and the corporate control of America’s democracy don’t stand a chance.