Tips for Cultivating Black Joy
As a psychotherapist, I often see clients who struggle to process disturbing experiences. One thing I often ask is, “How do you find joy?” Sometimes I'm met with a quizzical look, and sometimes folks are hard-pressed to answer. But a source may be closer than you think, and tapping into it may be just what you need in perilous times.
Black folks have been staring down racism, aggression, discrimination, and erasure for centuries. Today, the legitimacy of African American studies is being questioned as states fight to remove Black books from schools and stop teaching Black history. Black bodies remain more vulnerable to deadly brutality by police. It can all be exhausting and debilitating.
Why Black Joy Matters
But Black joy has served as the antidote for our pain and frustration—an act of resilience and resistance in the face of that oppression. Black people have long cultivated and nurtured joy because it was necessary for our survival. Our ancestors sang, danced, created art, and maintained our culture during the most treacherous times, and passed down expressions of joy that are uniquely ours.
This legacy continues to give us strength to this day. We’ve sung to soothe our anguish, center us, and bring us peace in our grief. We’ve turned protests into dance and danced as protest. Who else but Black folks would turn a slog through long lines to exercise our right to vote into a "Mississippi Cha Cha Slide" jam session, turning a moment of frustration into a cause for celebration?
As we express ourselves and embrace our music and our culture, we cultivate joy and reinforce the message—for ourselves and those who happen to bear witness—that we shall not be moved.
Black joy is the antidote to the continued violence against our people and efforts to deny our experiences and our history. The science backs this up: Cultivating joy can give us a surge of natural feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin and keep our spirits lifted despite our personal or vicarious experiences of trauma. It can put us back in touch with our emotions when we feel detached or on edge.
To clap back and stay sane, we need to lean into Black joy and continue to bring our whole, authentic selves to the spaces we inhabit.
How to Tap into Black Joy
So, how do you cultivate joy? Here are five key strategies to help members of the community tap into Black joy and build up a capacity to experience it in good times and bad.
Reach out to your networks and social groups regularly. Whether it’s a church committee, book club, your sister circle, or a brother’s brunch, show up or be the one who brings people together. A sense of community strengthens our social support system, which can reduce stress and improve well‑being. It also gives us a chance to witness and express joy with others.
Bond in Times of Crisis
When we hear about yet another case of police brutality or attacks on our culture, instead of turning inward or suffering in silence, know that we can cope better together. Resist anxiety and despair by taking action with others. Donate to and volunteer with organizations whose missions align with your values. Organize and discuss meaningful articles, podcasts, videos, and books, and share resources and information that offer solutions.
When the going gets rough, be especially gentle with yourself. Get centered and de-stress through your own spiritual rituals and mindfulness practices like meditation, yoga, and breathwork. Make yourself a warm cup of tea with honey. Buy yourself flowers or scented candles. Get a massage or special spa treatment. Engage in healthy self-care activities that calm you, nourish you, and restore you to a state where you can receive joy.
Immerse Yourself in Creativity
Celebrate Black arts by watching movies, going to plays, or attending musical performances, museum exhibitions, and book readings. Fill your home with paintings, photos, and sculptures by Black artists that depict Black culture. These creative works are a mirror of and message about our lives and a source of pride. Art can be joyful and healing. Check out offerings in your community and the Black Joy Project for more examples.
Fully Experience and Share Your Joy
What makes you smile and feel good? For some people, it’s an electrifying song like Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul.” For others, it’s cracking up at a comedy show or polishing your trivia at a family game night. Whatever it is, get mindful about it. Notice how it feels in your body—light, or warm, or cool, or effervescent? That’s the feeling you want to re-create in healthy, holistic ways.
Give yourself the gift of what makes you feel joyful often, like putting on a favorite tune and belting it out loud. Then, FaceTime your best bud, sister, cousin, teenager, or partner, and share it with them as if your lives depended on it.
Robin D. Stone, a licensed mental health counselor, is founder and clinical director of Muse & Grace, a holistic mental wellness center in New York City. She is co-writing a book on practices that build resilience in the face of racism for Black women.
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