Black joy is beautiful
Black joy is essential
Black joy is revolutionary
Black joy is an important counter-narrative to Black pain and struggle. Yet, Black pain and struggle have been the most readily available topics for decades. Even I have fallen into this trap.
Let me introduce myself and provide a bit of background. That may explain why joy as inspiration has been in short supply as of late.
I am a Black, queer, femme. I use they and she pronouns. I am also a transracial adoptee. I moved to the Twin Cities to pursue a PhD and resided in Minneapolis from 2015-2021
Growing up in the American Southwest, I was uncertain about how I would survive without mountains. Having been an avid rock climber throughout college, I knew, comparatively, that climbing would be hard to find. So upon landing in my new home of Minneapolis, I leaned into riding bikes. I rode every chance I got. Minneapolis is consistently in the top 10 “bike friendliest cities in America”. The infrastructure is truly incredible! There are bike highways built where old rail lines once ran through the city transporting goods from the East to the West.
My graduate program was situated in a suburb of St. Paul, called Falcon Heights. Living in Minneapolis and working in St. Paul meant that I had to cross the Mississippi River every day to get to work. As a little girl growing up in the desert, I remember reading about the Mississippi River and when I moved to Minnesota I called my dad to brag about how cool it was that I got to cross the river every day on my way to work.
Despite never seeing myself moving to the Midwest, I was quickly falling in love with my new home. At the same time, I was feeling an imminent threat growing closer and closer. Four months after I moved to Minneapolis, tragedy struck. Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old Black man, was fatally shot by Minneapolis Police officers, Mark Rinnggenberg and Dustin Schwarze. I attended protests every day demanding Justice for Jamar. We sat in protest at the Minneapolis 4th precinct demanding that the officers involved in Jamar’s death be held accountable.
I was there every night, including the night that a group of four masked men from the area opened fire on the protest, injuring five people. The next morning I awoke to a statement from Minneapolis Police suggesting that “Jamar Clark protesters wanted [the] shootings.” Being on a college campus, it sounded vaguely familiar to what I’ve heard before, “she/he/they were asking for it”, after an assault. The officers were placed on paid leave, no charges were filed, and the city moved on as if nothing had happened–as if the taking of a life at the hands of the state was a routine part of living in the city.
One year after moving to Minneapolis, just eight months after the murder of Jamar Clark, I woke up, rode my bike across the Mississippi River, and arrived at my office building, like I had done so many times before. However, this time was different. Less than a mile, birds-eye-view from my office window, the evening before, a man by the name of Philando Castile was fatally shot by police officer Jeronimo Yanez during a routine traffic stop. Philando was a 32-year-old Black man with a legal right to carry a firearm. Like so many afternoons before, I hopped on my bike, but instead of going home, I showed up to a protest and I demanded justice.
For my first year in Minneapolis I experienced the amazing highs of getting to know a new place and learning how to spend as much time outside as possible. Simultaneously, I experienced some of the lowest lows. I experienced the joys of riding my bike and I experienced the anguish of seeing people like me die on camera. I never knew that one person could experience such vast and conflicting feelings.
I was learning how to survive in my city. I was surviving winter temps of -50 F, no joke. I was learning where I could go and what times of day moving through the city was safest. I was learning how to present myself so as to garner the least amount of attention from the powers that be.
Then, one morning, I awoke to a different city. But it wasn’t really a different city. It was the same city with a spotlight that simply illuminated the ugliness that has always been there. I awoke to a city in which I couldn’t breath. It wasn’t because of the masks that we were wearing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during a global pandemic. It wasn’t because of the pollution caused by a nearby waste refuge plant that just so happened to be located in the historically Black part of Minneapolis–the same plant that would soon close due to code violations from waste leaking into neighborhoods. No, today I was receiving the news that yet another Black man was killed at the hands of police, in my city, in broad daylight.
When 46-year-old George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while 3 other police officers stood watching, the world was witnessing a moment. But for me and many others like me, this was not just a moment. For both, this was the culmination of years of screaming into the void; years of begging for help; years of being denied our basic rights to exist, and be seen as wholly worthy of life.
The six years that I lived in the Midwest were the hardest years of my adult life.
For six years I walked on eggshells when white folks would stare a little too long. Were they threatened by my presence? Do they see me as a whole person? For six years I calculated every moment of life as a risk I was taking. Frequently while out running I would hear police sirens and instinctively freeze in place. I figured that if I looked like someone the police were looking for, or maybe even if I didn’t, my running would be more cause to shoot and kill than standing in place. For six years I lived in fear that the media would and could dig up enough information to justify my murder. For six years, the joy of movement was robbed from me. I witnessed myself become stagnant in a city that seemed hell-bent on stealing Black lives.
Living in Minneapolis for those six years is, I hope, the closest I will come to living in a war-zone. I have a lifetime of deeply buried traumas that are the result of living in a police state. The constant presence of police violence and white supremacist terrorism have caused enormous pain that has been trying to find a way out of my body for almost a decade. Writing is the best medium I have for expressing and making sense of that pain.
That is both the beauty and struggle of Black and brown joy. You can experience moments of joy and grief simultaneously without warning. You can make it your mission to write about Black joy, while acknowledging the very real and ever-present dangers to your personhood. You can learn to hold two opposing truths at once, because that is critical to your survival.
What does this have to do with the outdoors?
Living in the epicenter of the largest civil rights movement in history did things to my psyche. My mental health dramatically deteriorated from living in the city that became a battleground for a long-fought war for racial equality. I feel lucky to have gotten out, but I also have an immense amount of survivor’s guilt that I carry with me every day.
The fear, anxiety, and trauma of living in Minneapolis for the six years that encompassed the public murders of many Black folks weighs on me. During my last year there, I felt that fear more presently than ever before. I’ve been 6 pitches into a multi-pitch climb realizing that my harness was not on correctly and I need to fix it before continuing. I’ve climbed mountains and crossed bodies of water that I didn’t think were possible for someone like me to cross. I’ve encountered bears in the backcountry on solo bikepacking trips above the 45th parallel. Yet, the terror that I felt living in this city at the center of it all, was greater than any fear I’ve ever experienced in my life. I was terrified to leave my house. I was terrified to drive across the city. I was terrified to ride my bike. The joy that comes with moving my body was stolen from me. Like a statue frozen in a moment in time, I was petrified–unable to experience the wholeness of movement–unable to escape those moments of terror.
One of the most overlooked aspects of justice is movement. I argue that movement is one of the most human experiences we can have–to move is to be human, to be alive, to experience the fullness of life. That is why movement is often the most threatened part of our human experience–especially for marginalized folks. Many of our collective battles for liberation throughout history relate to our right to move. From the underground railroad which helped move enslaved Black people out of plantations and into free states; to migrants seeking better lives and refugees fleeing persecution, war, and generalized violence in their home countries; the right to move and the right to be mobile has been threatened for millennia. There have always been those fighting for their right to move, and those standing in there way–metaphorically and physically.
Mobility justice is a vision for a world rooted in social justice where people feel safe existing on the streets and can build lives in which they experience the full joy of movement. Unfortunately, too many are denied this right. As Black people, we cannot experience the full joy of movement if we cannot breathe.
We cannot move, if we cannot breathe.
During my last year in Minneapolis, I patiently awaited a verdict in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin. At the same time, I witnessed the besiegement of my city by the national guard who occupied street corners and rolled through town in tanks on the daily. During that time many more folks were killed at the hands of police. When I finally graduated with my PhD in July of last year, I knew that I had to reclaim my right to move.
The outdoors was my place to do more than just survive. Being outside made me feel alive and in my body. Visiting wild places also helped remind me of the inherent beauty of our world. With all of the ugliness of my city on display in 2020, it was hard to remember that the world is not all horrible things all the time. Being outside, riding my bike, and moving my body in a safe way helped ground me. It helped center me. It helped recharge me so that I could keep fighting for a better world in which everyone has the right and ability to access such joy.
At the beginning of the year I moved away from Minneapolis to a little known town called Bentonville, Arkansas. I carry an immense amount of survivor’s guilt for getting out of Minnesota. My antidote to this is Black joy and the best way for me to access that joy is through movement. I am happy to say that I am finding my way back to safe movement once again. But do not be fooled into thinking that Arkansas is the safe alternative to Minnesota. The threat to Black life is alive and well across the globe. Instead, I find refuge outside in nature. I find joy on my bike. I find joy with my fellow riders. I find joy in the Black and brown folks who choose courage over fear everyday. So, as a radical act of resistance, I choose to move through fear and to create a life filled with joy.