Bringing the joy to the revolution

July 21, 2020, 11:57 PM UTC

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Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.

This is how writer James Baldwin chose to begin an extraordinary address he delivered to schoolteachers in 1963. He was offering a powerful analysis of the racist society in which they operated and the unique role they needed to play in helping Black—then called Negro—children cope with the realities of American history. Challenge the narrative, he said. “I would try to teach them—I would try to make them know—that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal. I would try to make each child know that these things are the result of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him.” It is the job of the educated person to question the society around them, and not make peace with its cruelty or accept a subservient role for yourself. And give children what they need to meet the resistance that will come for them when they fight back, he implored.

Baldwin’s opening line, somehow delivered in his own voice, has been knocking around in my head for months now. We are living through a very dangerous time. For some of us, it has never not been so. Not ever.

How do humans survive a constant threat? 

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to feel joy in a dangerous time, not the desperate eat-a-pint-of-ice-cream-while-watching-Netflix brand of self-care, but the kind of joy that brings you out of yourself into something that feels like wonder, that makes you feel both bigger than yourself, but exactly like yourself, at the same time.

“Joy is a birthright. It’s a practice as much as it can be an experience,” Mia Birdsong, author of  How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship and Community, tells raceAhead.  In a time of great danger, turning away from the work can feel like an indulgence. “But in a culture built on extraction and the commodification of people, labor, and time, marginalized people’s acts of joy are a form of rebellion and a deep affirmation of life, love, creativity, connectedness, and spirit—and it’s also healing.”

But you gotta work at it.

Shavone Charles understands this. The director of consumer communications and creative partnerships for VSCO, the photo editing software and creativity platform, has just launched #BlackJoyMatters, a new photo series and summer-long initiative, designed to celebrate Black joy. In a world that focuses on Black pain and images of battered bodies, joy is a radical act, she says.

“I’ve sat in front in front of and behind a screen during all of these really harsh news cycles and these really harsh, critical times filled with police brutality, taking in this unfiltered look at just how ugly the world can be to Black people,” she tells raceAhead. Those images as the prevailing narrative needed to be challenged. “We deserve to be happy. We deserve to thrive. We deserve to be human and just be live and celebrate all that we are. Inclusive of the trauma, but not exclusive of the trauma.”

Tapping her extensive network of Black creators, she asked them to take on the challenge of documenting joy. “If you think about James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, if you think about all these people, what did they do during these times?” She answers her own question: They wrote. They created. They told the truth.  

“Joy is freedom. It’s resilience. It’s the sun coming back out after a storm,” she says, riffing on the theme. To build on Baldwin’s own framing, it’s also part of what reminds a Black child that they are fully human, bigger than the vision held out by those who would keep them small.

Charles herself is also a joyful (not just a business) case for diversity. Her story is powerful and instructive, so I’ll be posting a longer interview with her next week. But for now, she wants you to focus on your joy. “Go ahead,” she says. “Share your joy.”

Please do.

Birdsong has some tips.  “So many of the adults I know, myself included, are affirming ourselves as students of joy, relearning and reclaiming it,” she says. “My teachers are my children, my dogs, my friends and kin, the little asshole juvenile squirrel that keeps eating my sunflowers, and the hummingbirds that visit my garden, among many others.” Moments of wonder and presence, humor and aliveness. “Last week I learned from a maple tree and the wind.”

I think Baldwin would approve.

To encourage a student to reshape a racist world is to invite them to consider themselves. “One of [a Black student’s] weapons for refusing to make his peace with it and for destroying it depends on what he decides he is worth,” he said. I believe joy is one of the most potent reminders of human worth. 

Plus, it’s good for you, body and soul. Now, y’all have fun in joy school. Extra credit for just showing up.

Ellen McGirt

On point

Won’t you be my (anti-racist) neighbor? I had a fascinating conversation on this weeks’ Leadership Next podcast with Sarah Friar, the CEO of Nextdoor, the social platform for neighborhoods and communities. Friar, who grew up in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, understands what it means when neighbors are at war. It’s part of the reason she’s been willing to take on addressing the racism that exists in communities around the U.S., and the way it plays out for Black people on the site. We also talk about the progress she’s making boosting gender and racial diversity inside her own company. Please listen, subscribe and share. I plan to post the interview on the Nextdoor app, to see if I make any new friends. I’ll report back.
Leadership Next

Latinx journalists to the Los Angeles Times: Do better, now The open letter directed to the Times’s owner and senior management, but the sentiments are universal. The paper has an ugly history of demeaning or ignoring Latinx audiences; Latinx journalists are woefully underrepresented in the newsroom and in leadership, yet the company serves an area in which 50% of its readers is Latinx. Click through for the clear and achievable demands from the new Latino Caucus, a group inspired by the paper’s Black Caucus, which was formed last month. Here’s one: “Stop treating Latinos as a minority group. The newspaper must center our stories — online, in images, podcasts and L.A. Times Studio projects.”
Los Angeles Times Guild

The number of voters who believe the U.S. is racist is now a slim majority  A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds a growing support for the Black Lives Matter movement and a willingness to say that American society is biased and Black and Latinx people experience discrimination. Nearly 60% in the survey said that Black people face discrimination, slightly fewer said the same about Latinx people, a number which has doubled since 2008. A majority also favors the removal of Confederate monuments (but their destruction) and the right of athletes to express their views by taking a knee. The survey also shows a stark divide between Democrat and Republican respondents, but you knew that.
Wall Street Journal

Get serious about rooting out bias in AI  The Berkeley Haas Center for Equity, Gender and Leadership has published a new playbook for anyone grappling with how to implement predictive and decision-making technologies responsibly. (Everyone should be grappling with this, by the way.) AI represents the largest economic opportunity of our lifetime, they begin, we have got to get this right. The playbook is thorough and I’m still reading it, but a couple of things jumped out right away. Think of datasets as living resources: Data gathering must be intentional and responsible, and important questions need to be asked around who benefits from the data being collected. And bias must be investigated and rooted out at every stage of an algorithm’s development.
Mitigating Bias in Artificial Intelligence

On background

Migos and James Corden know from joy  So, the talk show host’s regular Carpool Karaoke segment is always silly, good fun. And this singalong drivealong bit with Quavo, Offset and Takeoff of  Migos is instantly a classic because of, well, the unlikely chemistry they have with Corden. (Which includes their explanation of their “ad-libbed” noises on their songs.) It’s all fun and games until the foursome manage to pull of one of the most joyful versions of “Sweet Caroline” in history (also known as one of the whitest songs ever, according to Black Twitter.) Their version starts at the 12-minute mark. I think their earnestness is the most joyful bit, but I’m still in joy school, so don’t quote me.
Migos Carpool Karaoke

Documentary: Song of Lahore  In 2011, a group of poor, traditional musicians in Lahore, Pakistan, who had been largely working in Taliban-imposed secret, posted a YouTube video of their cover of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five." It became a sudden, international hit. The surprised men were then invited to play with Wynton Marsalis and his orchestra at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. This extraordinary documentary explores the radical act that playing music in post-Taliban Pakistan had become, and how magnificently challenging cross-cultural team work can be. Don't miss this beautiful film. Trailer here, link to film on Amazon, below.
Song of Lahore

The complicated joy of pandemic babyhood  The first photo in this series curated by NPR will make your heart soar. It’s sweet baby Ria Waiswa, nestled in her parents’ sheets, unaware of the pandemic outside their door. “Babies bring the hope of goodness and light, but 2020 has been a heavy year,” says her mother, Nairobi-based photographer Sarah Waiswa. “I am afraid about the type of world I have brought her into. I hope by the time Ria grows up, human beings will be kinder to each other.” Waiswa is one of 600 photographers who work with Everyday Projects — a global collective of image makers — to document the hopes and fears of parents welcoming newborns during this crazy time. Enjoy.


raceAhead is edited by Aric Jenkins.

Today's mood board

It's surprisingly hard photos of these three looking joyful. This will do, and this is NOT sponsored by Pepsi. 

Photo by Tyler Kaufman/Getty Images
Tyler Kaufman—Getty Images

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