“Count It All Joy”: The Inextinguishable Light of Black Womanhood

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by Carrie R. Moore

One month before the 2016 American Presidential Election, Solange Knowles released her ode to black culture, A Seat at the Table. Several weeks after its release, the album continues to spill out from my headphones as I click through images of smiling natural-haired women on Pinterest. As I sip caramel tea over books by Elizabeth Alexander, Dana Johnson, and Natalie Baszile. As I try to inhabit my blackness, moment by moment, in full awareness of its precarious place and immeasurable beauty. A Seat at the Table plays like a litany of self-care for black women:

  • You are entitled to anger, but don’t let it consume you. 
  • The world might wear you out, but here, there’s a place that’s yours. 
  • Cultivate your beauty, because that is what it is. Take the time to replenish yourself. Your curls. Your mouth. Your love. 

We have long known how to be tough. Black women have a fraught place in American society, our skin the doormat of white America, our sex the doormat of all of America. Zora Neale Hurston once called black women “the mules of the world,” and mules can travel great distances, carrying other people’s burdens. But Solange has reminded us of how to be vulnerable in the latest evolution of the traumas our ancestors faced. Shuck off that burden. Find your joy.
A Seat at the Table arrived in a period of other cultural movements about black women’s resilience and pride. Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Alicia Keys’ Here. Janelle Monae’s electric ladies. Queen Sugar. The Carefree Black Girl Movement. Our marginalization, as systematic and ongoing as it has been, has not been able to stifle our artistic voices —even if, historically, we have had to find other avenues of self-expression.

In the latest cycle of American backlash, our art is certain to remain unstifled. But what cannot be stamped out is our joy. My own journey to joy has taken far too long. Only recently, now in my early twenties, have I felt confidence in my kinky-coily hair texture, the blemish-prone quality of my darker skin. I am learning to articulate my desires to men —even men who look like me— and to use my voice to talk about how my race and gender collide. I am a writer, and what fascinates me now are how black bodies move through the world, thinking of race sometimes, yes, but also of love, family ties, and how on earth to forgive ourselves for our own mistakes. Black womanhood is everyday humanity, wrapped up in a culture of complexity —a complexity deserving of pride.

And then, in the onslaught of discriminatory politics, fear replaced much of that joy.

I am not alone in this struggle. Following the 2004 election of President George W. Bush, Toni Morrison descended into “an extremely dark mood” that would later inspire her to pen an article for the 150th anniversary of The Nation titled “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear. What she describes are the same emotions I have felt recently: a general sense of hopelessness, punctuated by fear. Morrison writes:

“I am staring out of the window in an extremely dark mood, feeling helpless. Then a friend, a fellow artist, calls to wish me happy holidays. He asks, ‘How are you?’ And instead of ‘Oh, fine — and you?’, I blurt out the truth: “Not well. Not only am I depressed, I can’t seem to work, to write; it’s as though I am paralyzed, unable to write anything more in the novel I’ve begun. I’ve never felt this way before, but the election….’ I am about to explain with further detail when he interrupts, shouting: ‘No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work — not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!’”
Our call to action is nothing new. Though many allies have expressed horror over the changing state of America, it is important to realize that nothing has changed. By the time President Barack Obama took office in 2008, America had declared itself “post-racial,” though it never has been. What we have seen lately is increased media coverage of violence against black bodies, intolerance for the natural hair movement, ongoing treatment of women’s bodies as public property, criticism of declarations of black pride —but disgust for blackness and womanhood is nothing new. Unexpectedly, I feel grateful for this time in American history. I feel like the spouse of an addict, vengeful in his worst moments. This partner has whispered insults, hidden away the goods we should have shared, stolen what I have labored over. But now his addiction has been made apparent. The bottles are no longer under the couch, but on the table in front of both of us. And he is staring me in the face. All of what he is. Underneath the fear, there is a profound sense of relief. Now, we’ve got somewhere to go.

What has arrived now is a time of reckoning. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his 2014 article “The Case for Reparations”:

“[W]e must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.”
We can no longer deny America’s emotional (also played out in the social and physical) inner workings. And that, I think, is a gift far greater than denial. This is our chance to make America what it should have been long ago.

My own budding sense of peace, I must admit, comes from my faith. I have been raised in the Christian tradition, a tradition I am only now beginning to understand as a young woman living in her first apartment, a space that I get to carve out entirely, where there is so much silence and room for God’s voice. I am divinely lovely, formed in the image of a God whose designs and plans have been intentional —even if I do not always understand them. In these times, I don’t know what I would do without that faith.

But for those who have no religious tradition, solace can still be found in the history of our people. In female slaves who managed to resist even as their families were torn apart. In our grandmothers who have survived Jim Crow. In our artists who have written to us over and over again, to tell us: Black women are magic. As are Black men, Muslims, members of the LGBTQ community, Latinos, and other groups consistently targeted by mainstream America. Anyone who has survived this long is a force to be reckoned with. We have an inextinguishable light.
Still, survival is nothing without joy. My experiences with joy will be different from other black women’s, other happinesses sought by different communities. But for me, joy looks like:

Calling my ninety-three year old grandmother and hearing her say, “You go girl” when Beyoncé twerks during a concert taping.

Making scones with the love of my life. Our hands rolling out the dough and cutting out circles. The milk lining the top of his lip. His grin: We have made something together.

Twisting up my sister’s natural hair. Feeling it soften under the coconut oil. Staring at our reflection in the mirror: Our hair has been natural so long it reaches our shoulders.

Skype sessions with my white, Jewish best friend, who regularly tells me my hair looks beautiful as it sprawls in its pineapple. Who encourages my art and personhood. Who provides even a few moments of safety.

Hearing my cousin talk of the woman he loves. Sharing with him stories of my own relationship. Understanding that we are both working to grow in love, to invite new people into our lives.

Putting on episodes of Queen Sugar where blackness is presented in varying forms, written and handled by writers and producers who understand nuance and have made it their mission to make those stories public.

Sitting down to the task of the artist. Writing stories where black people find their happiness —because such an act is not fiction.

Joy is not idleness. It is not ignoring your own plight or the plight of others. Instead, joy is self-care in the midst of action. It is understanding that if society has placed your body under siege, you don’t have to allow it. Hear it. Be concerned. But do not internalize the fear, and instead find ways to act against it. If black bodies are statistically predicted to die sooner, worrying should not hasten the process.

On “Mad,” her joint track with Lil Wayne, Solange sings: “You’ve got the light. Count it all joy.” So when my stomach clenches, I count my moments of joy. Breathe. Begin again.

There are many more moments to come.

Carrie R. Moore is a writer, traveler, educator, and woman of faith living in California. She currently holds a bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing from the University of Southern California, as well as a Master’s in English Education from Stanford. Carrie aspires to be a novelist and essayist, but what she is most excited about is the capacity for love in troubled times. Right this second, she is beloved by herself, her friends, and family.

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