The necessity of black joy

Randy Ford (center) and others dance at Othello Park during an event to celebrate black joy. (Photo by Reagan Jackson.)

The second annual “Where does Black Joy Live? A day of Dance and Celebration” was held earlier this month at Othello Park. Drawn by the beat, a gorgeous sunny day and the promise of community, I found my way to a small concrete stage at the center of the grass.

There Dani Tirrell, the creator of the event, and his friend Alexander Jackson (no relation to me) greeted me with smiles and hugs.

“I don’t do titles,” Tirrell said. “I’m trying to take myself out of titling myself as a dancer. I’m a creator and I think we all are and we put labels on what it is we create which means we are stuck in this box. So, I’m trying to get out of my own box and say I just create stuff, and its all movement based, but I just create stuff.”

Tirrell’s latest creation has been a series of house music pop up dance workshops. “I grew up with house music. In Detroit being queer and black and going to the clubs it was all house music,” Tirrell said. “And it was, it’s just a style of music that speaks to something deeper inside of myself. It’s really where I find my spiritual place.”

For this gathering, Tirrell took his love of house music and love for black community and used it to curate a space for black joy.

The Facebook invitation framed the event beautifully, acknowledging the challenges we’ve all experienced and posing a vital question.

“Yes there is pain, anger, fear and hurt,” the invitation said. “Yes people from the African Diaspora are still getting killed. Trans Black Women, Womyn and Womxn and still getting killed. But can we find a moment of Black joy?”

The first gathering took place last summer. About 30 people attended. For Tirrell it was part birthday party and part love offering for community activists.

“Black people are tired,” he said. “We’re exhausted and it was really last year the height of just protests and people talking about black bodies being killed and I was just like, I need some joy.”

This year’s celebration coincided with the memorial of the dance legend Kabby Mitchell III, who was the first black dancer at the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Mitchell, 60, passed away in May from coronary artery disease. Jackson is an instructor with the Northwest Tap Connection and Mitchell was his mentor.

Both Tirrell and Jackson danced at his memorial before arriving at the park, where they continued to celebrate Mitchell’s life through dancing.

“The party is still going and will be still going because you can’t celebrate his life in a day because he has done so much for this city and this universe,” Jackson said. “We can’t just celebrate him in a day.”

Jackson didn’t attend the black joy event last year, but was happy to dance this year.

“Baby, to be honest I think we’re a lot more comfortable in our blackness this year,” said Jackson. “It took Trump being president. Well, first it took Barack Obama being president to give us the confidence that we knew we already always had. To know at the end of the day, honey, we are beautiful and we can do anything we put our minds to. And so look at us. We are here, honey, and there is something so beautiful about that.”

As the sun sunk lower in the sky, more people arrived, some bearing chips and even a couple of pizzas to share.

“Ya’ll need to introduce yourselves to one another,” Tirrell told people, numerous times. “This is not going to be a thing where people come and nobody speaks.”

An hour into the event, the first white person arrived. I wasn’t surprised. I’ve lived in Seattle long enough to expect that sort of entitlement, but I did find myself feeling annoyed. Tirrell greeted her with the same warmth that he greeted everyone else.

“If white people want to come they need to bring a black friend or something to offer,” Tirrell said to me later. “But I’m not going to tell them no.”

Kate Benak did not bring a black friend, but she did bring a massage table.

“I’m a healthcare worker. I’m a licensed reflexologist. I’m on the board of Washington Reflexology Association,” Benak said.

Kristi Brown gets reflexology from Kate Benak at Othello Park. (Photo by Reagan Jackson)

Benak said the Black Lives Matter movement has drawn her to black communities. She told me that she had a personal revelation during recent conversation with two black women.

“They said health care for black women is the worst of any demographic. Through Planned Parenthood they were telling me the statistics and all that and I thought, ‘I’m in healthcare and I can do something about that.’ That’s why I’m here,” Benak said.

Though her intentions were admirable, and I wanted to support her burgeoning allyship, I couldn’t help but feel robbed. Suddenly this pop-up dance party was no longer about my joy, but about her education.

Over the years my life has been inundated with well-meaning white people who have asked me to share my experiences about what it is like to be black.

“Well-meaning” is a generous term, if I were to be honest. They are white people with privileged curiosity, seeking to have a deeper understanding of race without admitting complicity with systems of oppression and who don’t acknowledge the depth of trauma they ask me to relive in order to educate them. They prioritize their own education over my well being, without giving it a thought.

This has been a recurring phenomenon in my life since I was 16 and took my first class on social justice and I am exhausted.

We are living in a toxic environment where even social media feels like a landmine of exploding trauma — from the latest police shootings and hashtags to the unexpected craziness of former childhood friends turned racist assholes in post-Trump AmeriKKKa. I would say I have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but that implies that the trauma has ended when truly our struggles are unending.

So the idea of taking a few hours to gather together with other black people, not to discuss race, not to bitch about white people, but to simply disengage from society’s problems and and dance and laugh and remember our own humanity is truly powerful. The very best way white people can show their allyship is by not interrupting that time, by not centering their needs to feel included or their desires to “help.”

There will be time for us to come together as a human collective, to educate one another, to argue, to navigate healing and justice, and to do the difficult work of fixing what is broken between us. But there must also be time for black people to come together in the privacy of our own communities to laugh and cry, to dance and love, and enjoy one another.

“We’re not worrying about whose looking, we’re not worrying about whose judging, we’re just like, baby this is us and we’re going to do and be ourselves and just let us be us, for us, by us,” Jackson said. “We are going to live in our black boy, black girl joy, honey, and love it and just embrace it.”