Beholding Black Joy


It is right and it is important and it is necessary for white people to understand the history of Black people — particularly (and specifically) the history of people of African-descent who were brought to the United States as slaves.

It is right and it is important and it is crucial that any of us, especially white people, don’t only do this in February. [The shortest month of the year, it is worth noting.]

And…

It is right and it is important and it is vital to not only learn Black history — the devastating and the victorious, the excruciating and the hopeful— but to also be purposeful about looking for sources of Black resilience generally and Black joy specifically.

And this morning, I bore witness to Black joy.

little boy getting his hair cut in barber shop

Boy getting his hair cut in a Black barbershop. Image by Joshua Resnick

My husband and I get our every-other-week haircut in a barbershop in our neighborhood — a Black barbershop. After trying different shops in the area, my husband — a Black man — finally found the right barber for him and suggested I go visit him myself. I have for several months now and walk out each time with a superior technical cut and an appreciation for the sacred space that is the Black barbershop.

As a study on culture and society, the Black barbershop is a site of community, of creativity, of joy. Young Black boys, Black teenagers, some Black women, Black men of all ages — and a few folks of other races, including white and mixed race men — fill a space that functions as much as a community center as it does a site of Black hair excellence.

The shop is centered in the Black experience: Black music, professional sports and the Black athletes that lead them, and Black hair are celebrated in this space. As multiple conversations contribute to the energy of the room, above all there is laughter and there is solidarity. Here, there is a pervasive knowing that Blackness is honored in this space, that Blackness is centered here, that Blackness is sacred and good and honorable.

Fidgety little boys squirm beside old men each waiting his turn to visit the Black man behind the chair — the guardians of the beauty, the creativity, and the power of Black hair. As they wield clippers and scissors creating perfect fades, perfectly shaped beards, and impeccable undercuts beneath cascading braids and dreads, they convey to the Black body in the chair the goodness of Blackness.

I can imagine just how comforting this knowing is for the Black mother or father sitting in the chair watching. I can imagine how crucial this space is for a young Black man to find his Black identity affirmed — particularly when Black hair is used to hold back and oppress people like Texas senior DeAndre Arnold who will not be allowed to attend his high school graduation because of his dreadlocks or New Jersey high school wrestler Andrew Johnson whose dreadlocks were cut on the sidelines because a white referee forced him to do so or forfeit. I can imagine how life-giving this scene must be for the elders to see the vibrance of Black life in this place. And, given stories like this

This morning, I watched with deep gratitude these rituals held among a Black community.

I watched as a young boy felt with his hands the skin on the back of his head, let his twists down, and then smiled broadly up at his dad. Yeah, he knew his hair looked right and I think he smiled also because in that moment, his Blackness had been affirmed. Here, Blackness is seen, celebrated, and held in safety. The world outside tries to tell these kids otherwise; but inside this shop: joy in Blackness overflows.

I watched the exchange of kinship, of solidarity, among Black men of all ages — handshakes, nods, smiles — movements all exchanged with knowing looks that affirmed the dignity of Black hair, Black bodies, Blackness. Outside the realm of the Black barbershop, the world inflicts suspicion, scorn and violence on Black bodies; but Black men emerge from a Black barbershop rooted in the joy of their Blackness.

[It is here that must critique my own observations with the valid question of whether I — a white man — should even be in a space like that. For my part, I will say that it’s important for me to support businesses in my neighborhood, to use my economic power to support Black-owned, Black-run businesses that contribute to our community and the livelihood of Black people. And in spaces that are predominately rooted in the experience of people of color — like this particular setting of a Black barber shop in the heart of Richmond, California or any other business owned and run by people of color to offer the gifts of their own experience and culture — I return only if I get the vibe that I am welcome. What’s more, though we don’t make a big deal about it, my barber also knows I am in a same-gender loving relationship with a Black man; he continues to welcome us enthusiastically each time we’re in his shop.]

Indeed: Black History Month compels us to intentionally understand what’s going on in this country—but for many white people this is difficult. In fact, I find the process of white people stepping into the history of Black people in the United States is hindered because of the guilt that many white people feel and their lack of access [or unwillingness to access] communities of color. It’s easier, I think, to just not think or talk about it. And therefore it’s also difficult for white people to also step into the lives — the present history — of Black people.

But the heinous and heart-breaking sins of this country are not all Black History Month calls us to heed. Black History Month calls us to learn about the important contributions Black people have made to this country, how Black people built this country, how the creativity and spirituality of Black people have enriched our culture.

And there is much to celebrate as well. Black History Month compels me to celebrate Black people in my community, in my circles and friends groups, in this country. To look for and lift up sources of Black joy, to understand them as vital and necessary and sacred toward the inherent resilience of Black people. Not because Black people need me to celebrate them whatsoever but because celebrating Black people interrupts the fog of whiteness that prevents me from finding joy in any other race than my own — the fog that separates me from the human experience of others. Black joy compels me to find joy in Black bodies, in the Black experience, in solidarity with the hopes and dreams of Black people.

And when I do, I find my own joy becoming more and more complete.


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