“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness” - Desmond Tutu, South African Human Rights Activist

“The past of slavery is experienced daily as if it were happening again….” - Toni Morrison, Beloved

In commemorating Black History Month, we can reflect on the various contributions that Black Canadians have made, and continue to offer, that strengthen this nation. This year, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) marks the month by highlighting Black Joy, Resistance, and Resilience. 

The use of the term Black Joy gained popularity in 2015 due to the founder of the Black Joy Project, Kleaver Cruz. Cruz says that Black Joy is not an attempt to replace the pain expressed in Black communities; rather it is about holding the pain and injustices in forms of joy. Cruz notes that Black Joy is not a new concept, and that it is rooted in ancestral teachings. 

Sagal Mohammed describes Black Joy as a form of resistance that recognizes the multiple layers of oppression the Black community experiences globally, on an everyday basis. This resistance centers Black wellness and rest. 

In 2020 #BlackJoy created a global space that was held for collective push-back against the public display of brutality and the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and before them the deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland in America and Sam Loku and Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto. As well as many others before them.

For the Black community, the public healing against the blatant exhibition of Black suffering and vulnerability is necessary, shifting everyone’s attention to positive change. Black celebrations help us affirm Blackness, Black expressions, Black art, Black culture, and Black identities. 

How is Black Joy a Form of Resistance?

The use of Black Joy as a form of resistance has historically existed  in various forms of Black political expression. For instance, American author Toni Morrison in her novel Playing in the Dark, creatively reflects on how American media frames race as universal. Morrison’s novel illustrates how framing race as universal leaves no room to examine how race shapes Black experiences. To highlight Black Joy & resistance, the Playing in the Dark author celebrates and emphasizes the visibility of racial differences, while also pointing out the inequitable power that exists in Whiteness

Black Joy reframes society’s perspective on the Black community; a community who have always found beauty despite the endurance and perseverance of great obstacles. It is important because in a world where Black people are often told to ‘be quiet’, not take up ‘too much space’, and not be ‘too different’, choosing to express Joy becomes a form of resistance. It is a way of demanding systematic change, where Black folks can imagine a different tomorrow.

‘Being’ is Joy, ‘Being’ is Resisting. 

“Black Joy is not found in the absence of pain and suffering. It exists through it.” – Chante Joseph

While we often view Joy through a lens of loud celebration, it is important to note that Black Joy goes beyond expressing what we typically associate with the word “Joy”. Black Joy celebrates the vibrancy of Blackness, but it also holds space for Black people to simply be themselves and form a sense of community. The space that Black Joy creates is critical to resisting systems that devalue their presence.

Resistance, Resilience, and Joy are key to reimagining a stronger future together. At the COH, we found evidence of these traits in our research, where young Black people created a different definition for themselves, pushed beyond their circumstances, and propelled themselves forward, knowing that they are active contributors to creating solutions for themselves and others around them. 

Black Youth & Resilience 

COH and A Way Home Canada’s second, forthcoming Without a Home study, which surveyed more than 1,375 youth experiencing homelessness in Canada, including 179 Black youth, found representations of Black Joy and Resilience. Many Black Canadian youth saw themselves beyond the loss of their homes, being kicked out, or even making the difficult decision of leaving home because “it was not a home.” The Without a Home study found that Black youth experiencing homelessness demonstrated stronger signs of Resilience compared to their non-Black counterparts in terms of “their ability to adapt to change, achieve their goals despite setbacks, remain focused under pressure, and to not feel discouraged despite experiencing homelessness.”

Amid their housing insecurities, many Black youth found the strength to leave shelters when faced with racial micro-aggressions that made them feel unsafe or unwelcome. In the height of distress, Black youth continued to hold positive ideas, “seeing their circumstances as temporary.”  These research findings showed how Resilience enabled some Black youth to focus on the positive and develop “fresh hopes” for the future. 

Joy and Resilience were further expressed in the Without a Home study through self-talk, goal setting, and service to others. For instance, one Black youth involved in the study said: 

“[Education] is a big goal for me. It's something that I don't want to give up. And I feel like going to university would make it so that I never have to worry about housing again. Because I'll have something to help me get jobs and things like that.” – Black research participant

For Black youth, it is about imagining a systematic change that benefits their families, communities and the greater public. Many Black youth understand the significance of paving the way forward. Many shared their desire to become public servants and to give back to the system that provided them with necessary services. As one Black youth put it, “my mindset comes from knowing that my mom needs me, my brothers and my sisters need my help. I would love for them to be in a better situation.” – Black research participant

The stories highlighted demonstrate the Resilience that many Black youth use to push through their circumstances. In these stories, Black Resilience and Joy exist alongside each other, similar to the dynamic between Black Joy and Resistance. 

These stories and others from the Without a Home study are still being unravelled. Our sample of Black youth’s voices are a small highlight from a larger report expected to be released later this year. 

Being Mindful of the Stereotype of Strength

It is vital to remember that Black Joy and Resistance do not mean immunity to hardship and sadness. While Resistance in Black communities has been passed down over multiple generations to overcome extremely difficult situations, this does not mean that Black youth do not feel pain. As such, it is crucial for practitioners to be aware that Black youth experiencing homelessness are resilient, but still require similar supports and care as their non-Black counterparts. In fact, the 2011 National Household Survey identified that factors such as racism and stigma amplified the stressors among Black youth, leading to mental illness and homelessness.

Exclusively seeing Black youth through a strengths-based lens can result in young Black people being overlooked for services. Black youth can also fall into the stereotype of strength, where they are deemed capable of handling things on their own. This leads to further marginalization because it minimizes their needs and ultimately limits their access to necessary care. 

As community practitioners, understanding how strength and Resilience can be used to stigmatize the Black community is important in moving towards a position of healing. As such, practitioners who witness Joy in the lives of Black youth experiencing homelessness should not be fooled into believing they are alright. Instead, similar tools used for non-Black youth should be used to probe and ask deeper questions in providing care that supports their specific needs. Building trust among Black youth is equally important, while recognizing how positions of power and privilege can advance racial inequities in support services. 

February & Forever

As February comes to a close, we acknowledge that it is an important month in the calendar year, forcing us to pause and reflect on the Canadian Black community’s contributions over the years, their different experiences, and noting that as a community, they are more than a singular identity of pain and suffering. 

Such reflections must also go beyond the month of February, and we must work to address anti-Black racism in our everyday lives. Below are some resources that are helpful in reframing our thinking beyond February:

  1. Infographic: Black History in Canada
  2. Video Series: 28 Moments of Black Canadian History
  3. Homelessness in Hiding: Our Youth Between the Cracks (Podcast)
  4. How to Make Black People Happy in February and All Year Round
  5. “They never told us that Black is beautiful”: Fostering Black joy and Pro-Blackness pedagogies in early childhood classrooms

#BlackLivesMatter #BlackJoy