At times I can’t remember my authentic self. The world has pricked and prodded my words, has mutilated my body in several ways to the point that I feel voiceless, shapeless, like my very being doesn’t matter. Am I a person or just material that people can navigate and use freely? In these moments, I try to delve within myself to find ways I have stood for personhood, the many people who vouched for me, and the places I have felt safe.
Often this world tells me that being a black, queer woman does not deserve joy, that joy cannot reside in this body. It tells me that trauma is all consuming in my community, that I should walk in fear expecting violence against this body and many like mine. It tells me life is a constant battle to find something ancient that is virgin from white touch and white supremacy.
Often this world tells me that being a black, queer woman does not deserve joy, that joy cannot reside in this body.
Pastor Delonte Ghalston asked “What does a life of healing, flourishing, and joy even look like for communities that are constantly riddled with deeply traumatic pain?” I too ask myself these questions. Joy can be defined in so many ways and healing can certainly be found in joy. To me, and for many black women, joy is inherently linked in healing. However, joy is often difficult and not seen as a regular sensation but an achievement. The reality is, my body is so accustomed to immediately swing to struggle, anger, grief, and disillusionment before feeling the lightness of joy.
In moments of trauma and pain I try to hold steadfast to images of events I cherished, where I felt genuine happiness. I’m catapulted back to standing on the Golden Gate Bridge peering down into the infinite blue water, my sisters and I bursting out into laughter after we’ve created yet another bizarre and impromptu song, holding hands with those I love and have loved, and many times dancing.
The first time I danced, I mean REALLY danced was before my middle school dance. I practiced moving my hips in the mirror, heel to toeing, Harlem shaking and jumping. But when the day came for me to show my moves, I stood debilitatingly in the corner, clenching my backpack, averting my eyes from boys. Dancing, however, for me, has transformed from a scary endeavor to the perfect image of joy as I became more comfortable with my body. Dancing is a transformative process in reminding me of who I am. In times of pain, dancing can manifest happiness; whether it’s post Haitian funeral reminding us that in traumatic events we still have the capacity to celebrate life and give thanks or at a party where an unlikely co-worker may extend their hand, silently asking you to dance with them to a bop you both are singing along to. The rhythm of both your bodies are rooted in this shared experience, you finally feel alive or twerking at a ratchet dance hall class, unashamed about how many moves you aren’t hitting.
Dancing is a transformative process in reminding me of who I am.
I cried not too long ago, while my co-workers stood staring at me rather than making an effort to console me, after I expressed that a patient’s story about being raped sent me back to mine. Somehow the feeling left by their lack of comfort, which almost immediately affirmed that I’m not worthy of being listened to, and sadness lingered. It seeped into the crevices of the safest place, my home and my head. It passed through the weekend moments with my partner. It wasn’t until I scrolled through my favorite songs and clicked the play button on my favorite Zouk song, that my mind silenced. My hips swayed, my arms flailed, I extended my arms to my partner and we swayed on my bedroom floor, my cheeks became damp, but I then had the capacity to grin, smile, laugh.
If only temporarily, I felt released from all that was bothering me from two days ago. My heart became lighter. Every movement of my hips from left to right I am reminded that this is my body, I open space physically and mentally to reclaim it endlessly in the movement of it all. Although fleeting, I remind myself that in this space I am bypassing the fear and guilt this white supremacist world wants me to be consumed in, I become the arbiter of my value, the creator of this all-encompassing joy. This is not to ignore, dehumanize the very reality of our pain, or perpetuate this strong black women narrative; but to proclaim that joy and pain are not mutually exclusive. The release becomes most powerful when it’s catalyzed from pain.
I become the arbiter of my value, the creator of this all-encompassing joy.
Through this simple act of movement, I think of the many ways black women trudge through with deviant joy. How we flip anti-blackness on its head by constantly empowering ourselves in ways we are told are not for us, through the natural hair movement, through the black joy movement on social media, alike is black girl magic and care-free movement. These cultural modes have transcended to fight against white supremacy that constantly tells us we are not allowed to experience the freedom of joy.
In in these moments I am reminded that black joy will always prevail because black joy is community, self-care, and family. Black Joy is music, dance, poetry, and artwork. Black Joy is a spectrum ranging in everything from quiet to loud, in the books to in your face, or even young to old. Black Joy is resistance, perseverance, and it will always be revolutionary.
And even just a few moments after dancing, I remember my reflection, the sweat beads purifying my body. It’s a transformative process that I will hold onto like an anchor, one that will remind me of who I am: light, freedom and happiness.
Nadia McKinney is a recent graduate from Cornell University. She majored in Biology and minored in Anthropology. While in college Nadia was an advocate for educational equality for under-served communities, women’s rights and health equity. Currently, she conducts clinical research on HPV and sexual histories. She is passionate about empowering women to love themselves fully despite societal notions that constantly shape who they should be. In the future, she hopes to create policies that will improve maternal health for women of color.