Toward the Preservation of Black Joy in Public Memory

Marcus Garvey Park, Harlem USA; “Harlem knows how to do summer,” Aug. 9, 2014 (Flickr/ J-No)

Representations of Black experiences remain frustratingly narrow in public commemoration efforts across the U.S. For many decades, and especially in response to the “threat” of Black advancement poised by the modern Civil Rights Movement, white interests and ideologies toiled to erase—and in the case of the “Lost Cause” myth, beautify—the nation’s past and present legacy of anti-Black violence. Spectacle lynching, the razing of Tulsa, and forced medical experimentation are but a few examples among many historical atrocities against Black people that were whitewashed from white public memory. The public was only forcibly reminded of this history following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Treyvon Martin, and a list of victims of police brutality so long that Janelle Monáe’s 2021 anthem “Say Her Name (Hell You Talmbout)” lasts 17 aching minutes. Incensed reactions—from white society to the manufactured threat of Critical Race Theory—shows that this most recent racial reckoning has brought progress in elevating Black stories and perspectives, but in the process of showcasing historical violence to confront racial injustice, another form of whitewashing is taking place at the cost of Black Joy.

It has been widely assumed that because evidence of racial violence was intentionally suppressed throughout history, radical transformation is possible through the honest and graphic projection of Black pain and suffering. This hope for acknowledgment and repair can be found in the creation of recent museums, the dedication of historical markers, and the removal of Confederate symbols. Each of the aforementioned examples draws our limited attention to narratives that often fetishize Black trauma by their sheer repetition and commercialization. These interventions are imperative for a variety of reasons, and indeed long overdue. But in the absence of compelling counter-representations of everyday joy, they become nevertheless dehumanizing. Michael Hanchard’s call for Black memory that makes “visible the actual or imagined experiences of black peoples that would have been otherwise forgotten or neglected” helps push against the death-dealing apparatus of the hegemonic imagination that seeks to reduce Black life to struggle.

It is impossible to reflect the complete nuance and complexity of Black experiences in America—as if such diversity could or should be totalizing—but in relation to the overabundance of trauma in public memory, Jessica H. Lu and Catherine Knight Steele argue that joy is uniquely subversive “insofar as it asserts Black people as possessing a full range of emotion.” Violence has the tendency to solidify entrenched power relations because it is imposed in the absence of consent, whereas joy is immanently agential, animating from within and constitutive of human togetherness. When trauma takes up too much memory bandwidth, as is the case today, Black subjects are reduced to receptacles of white supremacy; in contrast, as Tracey M. Lewis-Giggetts writes, “Joy is that thing, as the elders used to say, ‘no white man can steal.’”

Political tensions between Black joy and suffering can be acutely felt in controversies surrounding the preservation/restoration of Black spaces. Faced with limited resources, municipalities must decide which historic buildings and structures in the community possess the rhetorical and economic viability necessary for commemoration. Ostensibly color-blind factors such as cost, safety, and parking are foregrounded to obscure that these are, in fact, ideological choices that communicate social priorities and evoke specific visions of the past with consequences for democratic norms in the present and future.

In the community of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the city government has labored to leverage the town’s history to tap into the growing popularity of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, a collection of roughly 100 locations across the South identified as essential to the struggle for racial equality. Like towns and cities across the U.S., the challenge of narrating our shared history tends to privilege violence. The Old Jail, a literal fortress used to torture and exploit Black laborers located near the economic center of the city, is slated for renovation to become a center for racial reconciliation. In comparison, The Block, a building containing multiple Black-owned businesses during the reign of Jim Crow, including the historic Howard-Linton Barbershop, lies in complete ruin. Can there be any question about which building the community’s Black ancestors would have wished to preserve for posterity?

The Block, like practically all historical places of refuge and recreation for Black people, rests in an economically depressed part of town and has its own connections to racial injustice. It was the Howard-Linton Barbershop where Autherine Lucy, the first African American student to enroll at the University of Alabama, was taken for sanctuary after being threatened by violent white mobs on campus. But the story of the Barbershop, and The Block more broadly, is so much bigger than mindless white rage. Dr. John Vickers, a former proprietor of The Block, describes the everyday importance of the building thusly:

Every barber had a story to tell about something, something that occurred. It was a place for current events, things going to happen, some of the past history. Also there, were newspapers and other things there, things to entertain. In the back of there, of the barbershop, was a beautician where women came and got their hair done. It was a hub of activity for men and women. Because, at that time, there were not a lot of newspapers, especially the Tuscaloosa News did not feature any Black history of anything there. The barbershop was a medium exchange of ideas coming from around Tuscaloosa and other countries.1

Vickers’s account affirms the Barbershop as an institution that Quincy T. Mills calls “the black commercial public sphere,” an energetic space facilitating public discourse and allowing Black people the means to produce communal life on their own terms. Weddings, baby showers, BBQs, spades, family reunions, grandma’s kitchen table, juicy gossip, first dates, sugary sweets, and dope hairstyles rarely make recorded history. They are less vivifying than violence, but they push the meaning of life beyond mere survival, and that reminder resides deep in the bones of joyful spaces.

The nation’s violent past cannot be ignored, but it need not receive so much damn credit. Doing so risks the creation of public memory that not only makes Black life one-dimensional but impedes racial progress by sacrificing the transformative power of joy. Scholars have a particular role to play by strategically divesting from the intellectual trauma economy and presuming the persistence of joy. Through heartbreak and destruction, death and betrayal, Black people have nevertheless enjoyed life, perhaps more than most precisely because of its precarity, and this accomplishment deserves to be etched in stone as much as the memorialization of any riot or massacre.

  1. Interview with Dr. John Vickers, March 3, 2022.
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Jessy Ohl, Shalonda Capers, and Caran Kennedy

Jessy Ohl is Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Political Discourse at the University of Alabama. Shalonda Capers is a Womanist communication scholar and doctoral student in the College of Communication and Information Sciences at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Caran Kennedy is a doctoral student in the College of Communication and Information Sciences at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.