Black joy and Thanksgiving
This week we celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday that commemorates a meal the Pilgrims shared with Native Americans who provided food and resources the colonizers needed to survive the first winter the year they arrived on these shores more than 400 years ago. All was not sweetness and light as the myth surrounding the holiday suggests.
The Native Americans’ generosity of spirit was met with colonization and eventually genocide. Despite this tragic history, this holiday has come to represent the wonderful gift of food, family and friendship those Indigenous people gave those European settlers.
Over time, this holiday has provided families and friends with a chance to come together and celebrate their love for each other and welcome home relatives not seen for a long time. The love of family is the strongest tool we as Black Americans have. It is our superpower. Love of family is the strength that we as a people have turned to in order to survive the centuries of struggle.
We call it Black joy — the love of ourselves, illustrated in our culture, art and music that we as a people have created. Black joy has fueled the many contributions we as a people have made to the nation and the world.
From the early days of our presence in this land, Black Americans’ love for one another has kept our people going. Even in bondage, when we were not able get married officially or keep our loved ones close, Black love kept us going. As we fought for our freedom, it was Black love that helped us and our leaders to stay strong against what must have seemed like insurmountable odds.
Harriet Tubman, known as the Black Moses, who set hundreds of us free, talked about Black joy and how she loved her people. “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world,” she said.
The most photographed person in the 1800s was the abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass. In every image that was taken of the formerly enslaved man, he sat proud, displaying his most regal pose so the whole world could see the Black love and joy he had for himself and his people. “I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence,” he said. That is Black joy.
During the 20th century, our Black leaders knew they had to remind us that Black is beautiful and smart and we are just as worthy of love and success as any other Americans, despite relentless assault on our image, intelligence and value as a people.
Our most prolific writers celebrated Black joy by printing the truth about our people in their papers and books. People like W. E. B. Du Bois knew that we as a people were equal to everyone else, and that our Black joy had to keep us going through the hate. “Strive for that greatness of spirit that measures life not by its disappointments, but by its possibilities. There is in this world no such force as the force of a person determined to rise. The human soul cannot be permanently chained,” he said. That is Black joy.
As Black veterans returned from the world wars, their heroic efforts were chronicled for the world to see, despite the fact that they were fighting for a country that did not always love them back. It was love of family and Black joy that gave them the strength to serve and to survive against often insurmountable odds.
In the 1960s, we as a people began to rally behind our own Black power and the love we always knew we had for ourselves. As we became more embracing of the power we always had, we saw our heroes rise, even as many were assassinated. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of the moral power of universal love.
Then there was Muhammad Ali. He exuded Black love and stood tall against all odds, reminding us that we Black Americans can be the greatest, because of the Black Joy we embody.
So as you celebrate your family and friends this Thanksgiving, don’t despair because the challenges ahead are great and the white supremacists are saying the quiet things out loud. We as Black people have a superpower no one can take from us: Black joy, rooted in the never-ending love we have for ourselves and each other. It has kept us rising through it all.