“Finding Black Joy in the Face of Oppression”
EL Education is celebrating Black History Month and Juneteenth with the theme “Black joy” to honor the abundance of Black culture and joy in the Black community. In this series, students and teachers from EL Education schools across the country share what Black joy means to them and offer models for affirming Black identity every month so that all students and faculty can thrive.
Stephanie is a first year student at University of Buffalo in New York and a member of EL Education’s Student Advisory Council, a group of 12 students nationwide working to leverage their perspectives and experiences to improve education.
Black Joy is the idea that Black people can be happy regardless of the trauma, oppression, and injustices we face everyday. It’s an act of resistance and rebellion and sometimes even protest, a way to subtly take back control.
Black Joy is essential because, if we can feel joy after we have been told countless times, over many centuries, that we are less than and that our pain does not matter, then there will always be hope.
Creating Space for Black Joy in Schools
Black students deserve intentional spaces for connection and empowerment. At Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, where I am an alumna, we have an affinity group called BAM (Black At MELS), a space for Black students of all ages to gather and talk through their experiences. The group is run by Shatera Weaver, a Black teacher, who makes it really effective and impactful for all of us.
Similarly, the Black Students Union (BSU) at the University of Buffalo has been pivotal in fostering my feeling of belonging during the first year of college. Recently, the BSU hosted a game of Black Jeopardy. I really experienced Black joy during that event because the room was full of Black people and lots of people were cheering for me, the only girl competing. To have all of these other Black women rooting for me, putting their fists up, and celebrating me for my knowledge and abilities was deeply affirming.
Students need and deserve spaces like these where they can be appreciated and celebrated for being Black.
Black Joy Through Empowering Curriculum
In school, Black joy can mean learning about the accomplishments, lives, and contributions of people who look like us. Black kids need stories of Black strength to draw from in a world that constantly tries to push us down. We deserve to read books by Black authors and learn content that celebrates Black people worldwide, to know that there are amazing Black people who pushed past barriers and have done and continue to do great things.
In high school, I advocated to learn more about Black people, not just in Black History Month but year round. My teacher was responsive, and we studied the music, people, and pop culture of the Harlem Renaissance. I was so inspired by the ways authors of that period used their voices to illustrate the pain and joy of being Black that I started to write and share my own poetry. I experienced Black joy through that curriculum because I was seen and validated by my teacher and because we learned new information that celebrated Blackness.
Black Joy Is Telling the Whole Truth
In school, students learn a lot about white people’s accomplishments but not their misdeeds or the experiences and contributions of Black people. When we do learn about Black history, we’re not presented with all the facts. Most of what I learned about Black history prior to my junior year of high school focused on slavery and the civil rights movement. It was the same information and figures year after year: Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass. Students rarely learn about Medgar Evers, Fred Hampton, the Black Panthers, or the Nation of Islam. Schools instead focus on more “acceptable” forms of protest. Students don’t learn about Bessie Coleman or Mae Jemison either, women who made immense contributions in their fields and could inspire little Black girls to dream bigger and aim higher.
I’m taking African American History classes in college, and we’ve been learning about revolutions and rebellions that were never mentioned in my earlier education. Learning about the Maroons—Black people who formed free, independent communities during the period of American slavery—was transformational for me. I had never considered that oppressed people could actively liberate themselves without the express permission from their oppressors.
Teachers should craft lessons that embrace the cultures of the students they are teaching and honor their experiences.
This is especially true for white teachers. Teaching awareness of Black Lives Matter is a good starting place, but it can’t be the whole focus, just as teaching about slavery and the civil rights movement isn’t enough. Schools need to increase the scope of learning to include the diverse contributions, agency, and brilliance of Black people throughout history.
A Loving Foundation for Black Joy
I attended elementary school in a community that was mostly people of color with mostly Black teachers. I watched strong Black women fill positions of authority, and I grew up wanting to be just like them. For Black History Month we had big showcases of different cultures from all over the African diaspora. Students were taught that we are all destined for greatness as long as we work hard and fight for it. I learned much of what I know about loving myself and my skin from that experience.
I have since learned that not all spaces and people are accepting of people of color, and it is essential to give young students this foundation of love for themselves. It is important to not only teach students about their history, but to also encourage them to embrace all the parts of themselves that make them who they are. This is the foundation of Black joy.
To hear more voices from EL Education school communities reflecting on Black joy, discover blog posts from the series below.