Finding Black Joy Amidst Black Pain

‘If you look at the world as one long brutal game between us and them, then you bump into another mystery. And that’s the mystery of the tree-shaped scar. There seems to be such a thing as grace, such a thing as beauty, such a thing as harmony. All of which are wholly free and available to us’ (Morrison, 1975)

Black joy as anomalous

As I write this piece I wonder about timing. Toni Morrison has passed, it was just a few days ago, and at this hour of deep sadness for so many, I am trying hard to remember one of the lessons that I take from her work. The mystery of the tree-shaped scar. The importance of finding joy and beauty within ourselves and in this brutal world. Beauty and joy amidst the dehumanising and violent reality of white supremacy. Joy in the mist of pain.  Powerful instructions in their simplicity. Powerful also in their humanity. Something that reminds me of the genius of Morrison. Her mastery of the art of making the complex and sophisticated not only accessible but so viscerally beautiful. And so relatably human. 

There are not many moments in my lifetime when I can honestly remember a collective sense of Black joy. Perhaps a handful of moments. The coming out of Black Panther last year was such a moment. Black joy could be found in abundance, and it was heart warming to experience. At least for some of us. Sadly with that joy came a significant backlash, or whitelash to be precise.

I have observed it mainly online. I have seen its bitterness in places of employment and in random conversations with white strangers too. Simply seeing Black people feeling joyous over a movie that centred them, attracted vitriol and much racism from white folk. I recognised this dynamic and how deeply loaded it was. I nonetheless took it to Twitter where I often check and test my thoughts and ideas. It resonated, as expected. Hundreds came out to comment and confirmed that they recognised it. Many shared experiences of the dynamic. Including white people. It was clearer than ever in my mind. So many find Black joy intolerable.

Black joy disturbs because it is humanising and because it is transgressive of the social order. If you think about it, the hoarding of material resources by those with social power is the hallmark of colonial and racialised capitalist relations. This structural reality still leads to internalised expectations of priority which can be observed for example, through everyday grievances such as ‘they’re taking our jobs’. They being of course, those racialised Others.

Black joy and whiteness 

The conviction that jobs that you have not performed, that have not been offered to you, that you may not even be qualified for or be willing to do, ‘belong’ to you or an entire group, simply based on whiteness is the height of narcissistic white entitlement. Between feeling entitled to material resources and, feeling entitled to psychological resources or states, there is a thin line, if indeed there is a line. A sense that good fortune, joy or other ‘positive’ affective states and experiences should first go to white groups, is omnipresent in society too. In that sense, ‘they’re taking our joy’, is a genuine grievance within white supremacy, although it may not be spoken in these terms. The anecdote below may help illustrate this.

A couple of years ago I was involved in a disturbing exchange at mother’s, in France. I had just returned from Paris (she lives just outside the city) with the kids who I had taken out for a treat. As we returned, I found one of her long-term friend, distressed. Her husband had been in a bad way and had had a double amputation as a result of complications from his diabetes. That friend, let’s call her Marie, had been coming to my mum, eating our food, crying hot tears for years and years. She had been in financial troubles, struggling on benefits for as long I can remember. Marie it is worth stating is a white woman. So, as I see her distraught, I ask her what is wrong and if her husband is ok.

She cries louder as my mother holds her hands. She’s sick of this shitty country she says then declares, ‘I’ll be voting for Lepen, because when you’re Black or Arab in this country, you get everything but people like me struggle, with no support’. She drops these words casually. In front of all of us, my children included as I repeat, my mother is holding her hands. Then she adds, ‘I’m sorry for people like your mother’ at which points, she almost stops weeping. I was so taken aback, words failed me. My mother did not flinch. I could still see the warmth in her eyes. She dried her friend’s tears.

Marie again, is a long-term friend of my mother’s. She’s been a permanent fixture in most of the family events. Births, weddings, birthdays. She knows of some of our struggles. None of us are actually dependent on state benefits. But in a moment of pain and suffering, her racism jumped out. She’s suffering and we’re comfortable or at least, look it. Something does not add up. We should be suffering since we’re Black, something is off and, she’s being scammed. Clearly these imaginary ‘socially progressive policies’ which provide for the ‘Blacks and Arabs’ and which leave her, a white woman behind, are to blame. White people should come first. She should come first.

Sadism and joie maligne

This experience hit me hard at the time. I tweeted about it and had to take a break to process it. Racism had found its way into our home and showed up in my mothers’ living room. Something in the image of my mother holding these white hands as she was being hit in the face, hit me right in the heart. This image will stay with me for a long time, if not for as long as I live. This disinhibited cruelty toward a friend who has shown you nothing but love, compassion and nurture needs attention. There is something about it which speaks to me about that so-called ‘economic anxiety‘ and of ‘white anger’. Something that so poignantly captures the whitelash and neo-nazism of our time. Something too that is about whiteness’ compulsion to inflict pain, particularly when it feels threatened in its place, in the social hierarchy, thus something about sadism.

Sadism is all about deriving pleasure often sexual, through inflicting pain, discomfort or suffering onto others. To derive such gratification, emotional (or physical) cruelty, manipulation or threats are often employed. There has been much theorising of sadism within the psychoanalytic literature not much though (surprise, surprise) has linked it to race dynamics. That is an oversight worthy of reflection too given so much of race relations is rooted in sadistic and sexual violence. I have written about these issues in my neuroses of whiteness piece. Within it, I posited that white envy is a core dynamic underlying racism. Envy and sadism are intrinsically linked. Envy often leads to sadistic acts and both psychological dynamics can result in pain and suffering in Others. The function of pain in sadism however, is pleasure per se, while in envy pain is more of a by-product (which can be equally gratifying) of the desire to destroy in order to return to some psychological equilibrium.

I have previously proposed that envy is a way of reclaiming in the targeted objects, something lost through our own projections. It would be difficult to make sense of Marie’s reaction without touching upon envy ‘s impulse to destroy and harm and jealousy’s impulse to possess. These are feelings and impulses in any event that are socially sanctioned. We ‘Blacks and Arabs’, including the Blacks who are feeding her, are living a good life, a pain free life according to Marie and, this is a cause of disturbance to her. The callousness Marie displayed in her being prepared to throw her best friend ‘under the bus’, and the disregard for the impact of her words and indeed vote on those she considers her friends, is further evidence that us experiencing pain and suffering would appease her turmoil. Even the anticipatory thought that we would suffer should Lepen be brought to office was enough to bring her some relief. Perhaps even some joy. She calmed down.

This anticipatory joy, is what the French refer to as joie maligne which would roughly translate as ‘malignant joy’ in English (Schadenfreude in German). The feeling of joy we experience when faced with the suffering of others. Others’ pain and affliction are conceptualised as a sort of psychological capital used as faire valoir or as a reminder that others suffer too in those moments unhappiness strikes us. This capital is believed to ease our pain. French philosophers have written we experience satisfaction through joie maligne because we all suffer from an existential malaise linked to inherent human insecurities, fear, anguish, pain, regrets, suffering etc… Joie maligne allows us to feel equal to others when we see them suffer, which helps us manage feelings of inferiority. It equalises us.

On being deliberate

‘There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilisations heal… I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.’ (Morrison, 2015)

Wether we formulate Marie’s reactions using joie maligne or sadism, there’s obviously something about black pain that is deeply, deeply satisfying to whiteness and therefore these psychological dynamics must be racialised. Doing so is complex and unpleasant nonetheless these very dynamics can be triggered when white supremacy is challenged. They have sustained centuries of white terror;  unspeakable violence, torture, lynching, rape, mutilation, mass murder. Today the violence of the past is arguably no longer. I stress here, arguably. Some of it has transformed and adapted in the same way white supremacy has shifted. Some of it however, continues to shape social expectations and relational configurations. Some of it has permeated our social unconscious. Some of it has been internalised by us all. All of it continues to impact how we relate and, our capacity to find joy. In Black people and in white people alike. Many come to see me because they struggle with finding joy.

Finding joy in intimate relationships. Finding joy in connection. Finding joy in sex. Finding joy just existing in the world, while Black. When you can’t find joy for long enough despair can come knocking and it is easy to let it in. Morrison reminds us, there is no time for despair and that we cannot afford to indulge in self-pity. Make no mistake, these are harsh words. They are harsh, but they are kind at the same time as they are also full of love. The kind of tough love Black mothers give, the gift of survival. I think about joy much more these days. Perhaps because I have had my own struggles, but I have learnt that many of us have to work hard at finding joy. And, that this quest must be strategic and that it must be deliberate.

But this can be hard to hear. Despair is easy. Some will resent me for writing this, but I am writing it all the same, despair is easy. I can so easily fall into its embrace. I know how to feel at home in the darkness. It’s a familiar place. But again, Morrison is right. There is no time to stay there for too long. We struggle in ‘our’ culture, I think to celebrate and to mourn at the same time. The few funerals I have attended were a mixture of sorrow and happiness. Of cries and laughter. Of pain and of joy. This is the part of my African ancestry that has survived migration and displacement. The capacity to contain that complex ambivalence, is a life force. Morrison dug deep into the depth of our human experience; she gave it central stage, always leaving us feeling seen. Including the scars we’re left with on our back. She shifted the gaze and unapologetically taught us we were worthy of love, of care and of experiencing joy. And above all that doing so was not only possible amidst Black pain, but that it was necessary.

What a wonderful way to honour her that is to practise seeking and experiencing joy. In its fullness. This is not about turning away from the painful and the violent but it is about making efforts to notice the beautiful. Intentionally. Every day. This is about deliberately trying not to drawn in the world’s misery or, to be disappeared by the fury of white supremacy and the entitlement and sadism it breeds. If only temporary, it is to breathe easy. And if only for a few minutes at a time, it is to engage with the fullness of our humanity. What a beautiful habit to try to form. It did not come naturally to me either. But I am deliberate in surviving and I see beauty in thriving, a beauty so many want to rob us of. It helps when I ‘count my blessings’. I try to be thankful for them. I try to catch the little acts of kindness. The smiles. The warmth. The support. The humorous aspects of the absurdity of racism. My indulgement in writing. My breaking of silences. But also the sun caressing my skin and emboldening my melanin. The music and art that move my soul, the food that feeds it too. And the holding of hands.

The humanising hands of my mother even while under assault.

I may not always succeed. But I try.

I try because I need to.

Centering on Black joy is not about dismissing or creating an “alternative” Black narrative that ignores the realities of our collective pain; rather, it is about holding the pain and injustice we experience as Black folks around the world in tension with the joy we experience in the pain’s midst. Black joy is healing, resistance and regeneration. The two, joy and pain, are not mutually exclusive, and often we need the latter to get through the former’ Kleaver Cruz, The Black Joy Project 

Thank you Toni. Eternally.

Thank you too for reading.

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