Among 2020's endless carousel of restlessness and trauma, racism and police brutality against Black people have once more sparked protests and outrage. But as the media circulate seemingly endless videos of killings and violence, images of protesters being beaten and kidnapped, and tales of how America's beloved institutions have betrayed Black folks, it's vital to remember these disturbing stories aren’t the whole picture. As Americans remain inundated with images of Black trauma, many creators and activists have focused on Black joy as a way to fight white supremacy and racism.
The police killings of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and, as of August 2020, more than 160 other Black people, reminded Americans that violent racism at the hands of police remains pervasive and reignited the Black Lives Matter movement this year. But in 2020, many Black people are indignant at the low bar of asserting that, as a bare minimum, Black folks deserve to live. “Black people don't just deserve to be alive. We also deserve to be happy," says photographer and model Shavone Charles. She’s the multi-hyphenate creative behind #BlackJoyMatters, a campaign on photography platform VSCO encouraging Black artists to tell their own stories through their own lens, literally.
Charles, VSCO’s director of consumer communications, helped bring #BlackJoyMatters to the photography platform, using the hashtag to allow Black artists to tell their own stories literally through their own lens. Because so many millennials and Gen Zers tend to live “digital-first” lives, a push toward Black joy on social media is important — especially when, in 2020, Twitter, Instagram, and even TikTok are flush with traumatic images of racist violence and aggression. "We deserve to celebrate and be celebrated for the spectrum of our experiences and stories. There is joy and resilience beyond our trauma," says Charles.
In July 2020, the photo platform asked more than 1,000 Gen Zers of all races about how the year’s racial tensions affected their online experiences. Some 90% of Black respondents said they'd like to see and celebrate joy on social media more than they currently do. Unfortunately, what they get instead is troubling: 76% of Gen Zers said they see racial violence "regularly" on their feeds and timelines. Of that number, 75% said it makes them feel upset and angry, and 83% said it makes them feel depressed or hopeless.
Charles — who worked at Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram during the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and police killing of Michael Brown in 2014 — has had a bird’s eye view of the way trauma can be rehashed and recirculated online and what it can do to people. "You're seeing it all unfold. You're seeing the data and you're seeing the cycle. You're living the cycle," Charles explains.
Thema Bryant-Davis, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Pepperdine University who specializes in trauma and womanism-focused therapy, defines trauma fatigue as overwhelming “psychological, physical, and spiritual exhaustion” from experiencing or witnessing trauma, including acts of terror and racial violence. Steady exposure to this kind of trauma can have major psychological effects, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, panic attacks, depression, emotional numbing, and more. A 2001 study from the Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work: Innovation in Theory, Research & Practice, “Racism, trauma, and positive aspects of exposure to race-related experiences,” supported this phenomenon, positing that “exposure to race-related trauma, in and of itself, may be the primary ... factor in the development of an adjustment or stress disorder.” Likewise, a 2011 study published in Psychological Medicine found that lifetime PTSD prevalence in the United States was highest among Black people, at a rate of 8.7%, compared with 7.4% of white people, 7.9% of Latinx people, and 4% of Asian people.
Per Bryant-Davis, a shift in focus from trauma to joy can be healing. “Black joy can be medicine — by not living in reaction solely to the hate and fear of others, but also honoring our humanity, our needs, and our worthiness of joy,” she says.
You’re no use to the fight if you aren’t taking time to care for yourself.
Activist Jae-Lah Lymon, 20, is an organizer with Students for a Democratic Society at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. After the high-profile killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by white police in Minneapolis, Lymon says she found herself “consumed by Black trauma,” particularly because the brutality had happened so close to home. “Every day, I would wake up and go on Twitter, and it’s another unarmed Black person being shot, being killed, or being harassed,” she tells Elite Daily. “I was very overwhelmed with it.”
But, she recalls, “I felt like I had to take on this burden [of activism], otherwise, I wasn’t doing enough.” It was actually her white grandmother, she says, who pushed her to focus on self-care as much as revolution. At first, Lymon felt like her grandmother was being dismissive of the cause because of white privilege. Then Lymon realized her grandmother was just reminding her to give as much attention and energy to her own well-being as she gave to her anti-racism work.
“In reality, you’re no use to the fight if you aren’t taking time to care for yourself, nurture yourself, to eat, to drink water, and just relax,” Lymon explains. “I definitely had to find a balance of self-care and activism.” Just as Lymon had to strike a balance between taking care of herself and standing up for her community, she also believes there should be mutual emphasis on Black joy as well as Black trauma.
There’s precedent for highlighting joy as a revolutionary tactic. Ashley Farmer, Ph.D., a historian who studies Black women and activism, tells Elite Daily that anti-racist activists in the ’60s and ’70s deliberately sought out happiness and self-care as fuel for the revolution. "Joy was an essential part of civil rights and Black Power activism. It was life-affirming in the midst of scary and sometimes deadly circumstances," Farmer explains. "Activists would often sing [protest] songs as they were entering into dangerous situations, when they were sitting in jail for protesting, and when they finished their canvassing or field work," she says. "Such artistry and singing offered the sense that one was not alone and was a release from the tension of the day."
Joy in art and solidarity is relevant for today’s activists, too. During the October 2019 sit-in at University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel’s mansion — a part of SDS’ campaign to disarm and defund campus police — Lymon says she and her fellow protesters did the Cupid Shuffle across Gabel’s yard and blasted Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” “[That song] is just so comforting. I love it. It’s a reminder that we’re all in this together. Our ancestors, our families, our parents, our grandparents have all had to go through those same things. And we’ve made it through,” Lymon says.
Charles emphasizes that self-care is crucial for Black women and femmes, who have often been put into the roles of caretakers and nurturers, encouraged to put their own needs last. This is especially relevant in 2020, with queer, trans, and gender nonconforming Black activists leading the current fight for radical social change. Aria Sa’id, executive director of San Francisco’s Transgender District and founder of Kween Culture Initiative, emphasizes the importance of self-care and mental health for Black trans women, who have an extra burden of constant trauma.
Prioritizing our self-care in the [hostile] environments that we’re normally in is activism.
“So much of what we see on the day-to-day is another news article about a Black trans woman being murdered,” Sa’id tells Elite Daily. In 2019, the Human Rights Campaign documented at least 27 killings of trans people — 20 of them Black women or gender nonconforming people. “It wallpapers, over and over and over again, so much so that you become numb. Black trans people are having that same experience, in some ways, at a more intense level [than cis Black people] because we are such a small population.” According to comprehensive 2016 data from UCLA’s Williams Institute, about 0.6% of adults in the U.S. are transgender and only 16% of trans adults are Black.
Sa’id wants to create spaces for Black trans women to gather, foster friendship, and discuss aspects of their lives such as self-confidence, dating, their journey into womanhood, and the lessons they’ve learned from it. “Kween Culture is sort of the frosting on the cake in terms of transgender empowerment, by creating memorable, lighthearted moments for Black trans people,” she says. In 2019, she organized the Cultivating Black Trans Joy retreat, an all-expenses-paid trip that brought eight Black trans women to Hawaii to focus on self-esteem building, sisterhood, and simply enjoying themselves. “That’s what made [the retreat] so radical,” she says. “We were convening not to organize a march but to prioritize ourselves and our self-care.”
Creating nurturing events and spaces, she says, is not an optional part of a movement. “As Black people, as Black trans people, prioritizing our self-care in the [hostile] environments that we’re normally in is activism,” Sa’id says. “I think philanthropy has to invest not just in our grassroots organizers, but in sustaining our leaders and our community.”
Lymon, the Gen Z organizer, agrees that the future of activism is based in better self-care for Black folks, continuous Black expression, and ultimately Black joy. “We’ve still been able to be creative. We’ve still been able to be innovative. We’ve still been able to survive,” she says. “We’re still here, and we’re still doing this.”
Thema Bryant-Davis, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Pepperdine University who specializes in trauma and womanism-focused therapy
Ashley Farmer, Ph.D., assistant professor of history and African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era
Jae-Lah Lymon, member of University of Minnesota, Twin Cities’ Students for a Democratic Society
Scurfield, R. M., & Mackey, D. W. (2001). Racism, trauma and positive aspects of exposure to race-related experiences: Assessment and treatment implications. Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work: Innovation in Theory, Research & Practice, 10(1), 23–47. https://doi.org/10.1300/J051v10n01_02
Roberts, A. L., Gilman, S. E., Breslau, J., Breslau, N., & Koenen, K. C. (2011). Race/ethnic differences in exposure to traumatic events, development of post-traumatic stress disorder, and treatment-seeking for post-traumatic stress disorder in the United States. Psychological medicine, 41(1), 71–83. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291710000401