BLACK BOY JOY
WORDS BY JOSH RIVERS
An invitation to read some of my writings at an open mic night last week left me baffled. The topic: Black Boy Joy. At the request of the host, I rummaged through my writings frantically, looking for something that was even remotely uplifting. It’s only in the past six months, in the wreckage of a previous life, that I’ve written anything I actually like; and while much of it ticks the boxes “Black” and “Boy,” none of it immediately screams joy. In fact, as I read through what I’ve written this year, it all reads terribly macabre. That’s where I’ve been, if I’m honest. I’ve been feeling downtrodden, listless and seriously questioning what the fuck I’m going to do with my life.
The writing, though, does proffer some joy. It’s between the lines and tied to more abstract ideas of what it means to be happy, but it’s there. I think we can’t truly appreciate joy without experiencing pain, and as I reflect on how much a life changes in the course of six months, I begin to see more clearly the joy. There was the serendipitous purchase of Audre Lorde’s Your Silence Will Not Protect You, my deepening connection to the queer Black community here in the UK and, of course, the launch of Busy Being Black, my podcast exploring how we live in the fullness of our queer Black lives. There were countless dinners, hugs and smiles; comfort, solidarity and lending hands; and a best friend who moved in with me and made sure I was looked after. And while I wrote about all of these in notes tapped into my phone through the lens of someone who’d just been hung, drawn and quartered, the joy is there. I’ve found that establishing more robust connections to my history, community and self has helped bring joy from between the lines to punctuate my life more fully.
Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and philosopher, reminds us “no one is born fully-formed: it is through self-experience in the world that we become what we are.”
My conversation with Marc Thomspon, a writer and HIV-activist, was more life-giving than I recognised in the moment. Listening back to our conversation for Busy Being Black, I’m reminded that we get to joy through the act of living, that the gateway to joy is action. Joy was not bouncing around him begging to be appreciated as the AIDS epidemic ravaged our community, but surfaced when he realised that he was still alive and that we honour the dead by living. Joy was not found in the objectifying gaze of white men, rather in the tenderness and care of Black love. Joy was not found in slurs, bricks and tears, but in activism, community and purpose. Joy isn’t passive. Extracting joy from our toughest moments and holding onto it when it’s here requires fortitude and grit: I deserve to be joyful and I have to work to be so. And when we work for the joy we deserve, its impact can be felt globally.
Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and philosopher, reminds us “no one is born fully-formed: it is through self-experience in the world that we become what we are.” At the open mic night queer Black men shared how they’ve come to recognise, capture and appreciate their Black Boy Joy, and it became clear to me that, while each of us had taken different routes to get to where we are, we shared in common our pursuit of joy. And as Jason Jones and I embraced, celebrating his momentous win in Trinidad and Tobago and my tepid step back into activism and public life, I understood for the first time in a long time that in working to find the joy in ourselves, we do it for others, too. Whether we recognise the joy as it dances in and out of pained words or as it pulses from rainbow flags, whether it runs down cheeks in floods of elation or hides in memories behind doors we’ve long left locked, our Black Boy Joy is there. Our experiences as queer Black men can leave us battle worn and weathered, but it is from living and surviving that our joy is earned. And it’s a joy powerful enough to change the world.