Peterson: A joyful chorus

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Fatin Dantzler of the husband-and-wife duo Kindred the Family Soul will be the subject of a Black Joy article next month.

By James Braxton Peterson

Given this nation's history and our native language's predilection for black connotations, the phrase black joy is a fairly good example of what an oxymoron looks like.

In the first version of his autobiographical narrative, An American Slave, Frederick Douglass chastised Northerners for mishearing and misunderstanding the sorrowful singing of enslaved Africans. Too many Northerners, abolitionists, and others, who were supposed to be sympathetic to the plight of enslaved black folks, mitigated their white guilt by selectively hearing happiness in the harrowing sounds of what W.E.B. DuBois called the "sorrow songs." Douglass exposed the lie in his brilliant way, arguing - to paraphrase - that slaves sing most when they are most sad.

Almost ironically now, some of the brightest, most visceral moments of black joy are embedded in the black church - not in the pulpit, but in the voices of so many black choirs. The black joy of a spiritually uplifting "sorrow song" moves us to tears, sends chills through our bodies, and for some, entices them to move, dance, and shout with abandon. This is black joy: a physical-spiritual connection made through our own artistic cultural production formed historically in the belly of our own program of resistance. We are still here. And we sing and we shout to remind you as much as to celebrate the unlikely fact of our very existence.

In some religious contexts, joy is that blessed form of happiness and solace that can only be derived from a reservoir of spirituality and an abiding faith in an almighty and all-knowing God. Black joy acknowledges this awesome belief in things unseen, but it is also predicated on the facts of our enduring fortitude in the face of transatlantic slavery and the long history of brutal white supremacy, and the cruel crimes of antiblack racial violence. Our collective black head is "bloodied, but unbowed."

Maybe punching a Nazi is not necessarily a joyous occasion. But when black Twitter remixed the video syncing/replaying the punch to the beat of Biggie Smalls' "Hypnotize," the result was, well, the result was hypnotic - and some modicum of black joy was had by all who played and posted it.

The sounds of black joy will always be what's most remarkable about this counterintuitive concept - the laughter of a child, the sobs of joy for the first black president; the clanking and banging rhythms of a black chef preparing a meal in a cluttered kitchen. Black joy must be as mundane as it is aspirational in order for it to be at all.

Ultimately the counterintuitive, oxymoronic nature of black joy might very well be the key to understanding its most potent meaning. Joy in the face of the long history of pain is, for some, what is most remarkable about the black experience on these stolen lands. We don't attain or achieve black joy. We eke it out of this American project. We squeeze every bit of joy out of what at times and throughout history has been the silencing force of our spiritual voices. We sing (sometimes) because we are happy.

James Braxton Peterson is the director of Africana studies and associate professor of English at Lehigh University; author of several books, including "The Hip-Hop Underground and African American Culture: Beneath the Surface"; and host of WHYY's "The Remix," which explores the intersection of race, politics, and popular culture. jbp211@lehigh.edu