In the midst of sorrow, I practice joy on purpose.
“Joy was never meant to be boxed in. It was supposed to stretch out all over creation…”
— Robert Jones Jr., The Prophets
How are you? I hope all is comfy and cozy for you during this season when things can get overwhelming in terms of the glitz and materialism, moving us away from the things that really matter and the love that really counts.
Speaking of what really counts: I know y’all been seeing these food prices. My supermarket had the NERVE to charge damn near $8 for a dozen eggs. These weren’t ostrich eggs, dodo eggs, or dinosaur eggs, Fam. These were regular-sized chicken eggs. And right next to them, butter had the nerve to say: “Wait ‘til you get a load of me!” This and dollar stores now being $1.25 stores is enough to make you want to scream.
Isn’t wild how the U.S. government always has money for war (and by “money,” I mean our tax dollars) and money for themselves, but always cries broke when it comes to funding policies and programs designed to ensure everyone has their basic needs met?
*Insert long Ancestral sigh*
If this isn’t a laugh-to-keep-from-crying moment, I don’t know what is.
But I digress.
How do you usually spend this time of year? I often spend it in reflection—about the things I regretted doing, the things I was glad to do, and the things I hope to do. I’ve found myself especially in this mode of thinking after I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2019. Honestly, mortality has been on my mind quite a bit lately.
Whenever I hear about how someone, usually a celebrity, is struggling with MS disabilities or has passed away from MS complications, I worry about my own future; specifically, about how much time I might have left. I know medical professionals advise against this, but I utilize Dr. Google more than I should. According to the information I’ve read, the average lifespan of a person with MS is about 76 years (notwithstanding recent medical interventions and the hope for a cure). If it is true that I have about 25 years left (and I hope that’s long enough to meet my potential grandnieces, grandnephews, and grandniblings), I want to be more thoughtful about how I spend that time.
In particular, I want to be more intentional about joy.
And by “joy,” I don’t mean an addiction to feeling good that numbs me to the reality of life; nor do I mean an obsessive pursuit of bliss that overrules all sense (no disrespect to Gladys Knight and the Pips). I’m not talking about joy as escape or façade. I’m talking about a deliberate appreciation for any and every wonderful person or thing that I might encounter or experience. When I say “wonderful,” I really do mean full of wonder; and to be full of wonder, it has to be someone or something that doesn’t commit, revel in, or intentionally perpetuate harm.
For me, then, joy is a practice by which I push myself to be in awe of life’s miracles, however tiny; to celebrate, even if just privately and inside of my own body, all of the things that make life a humane, gentle, empathetic, kind, profound, whimsical, friendly, generous, loving, and extraordinary experience. My anger can remain righteous. My mourning has its place. My fear is justified. I have plenty-reasons to make room for sorrow. But my joy shouldn’t be crowded out simply because the world encourages it—and mercy does the world encourage it!
Consciously, purposefully, for my own health and the health of those around me, I seek out, and sometimes actually find, joy.
What is your joy practice? What brings you joy? How do you sustain it through the myriad of ways other people try to steal it from you? What can we learn about ourselves by examining who, what, when, where, and how we express and receive joy?
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Writing, which is my purpose, brings me tremendous joy. As I write this newsletter, I am over 200 pages into the first draft of my next novel. I have never written this quickly before. The Prophets took 14 years from start to finish. My literary agent, PJ Mark, did tell me that the second novel would come to me quicker than the first one by virtue of the fact that I wrote and finished the first one. And he was right! Additionally, leaving social media (and it seems that I left just in the nick of time; shout out to Bonnie Raitt) has had such a profoundly positive effect on my emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual wellbeing that my creative energy is massively overflowing. My fingers sometimes can’t type quick enough to put down the words as they come from where the Ancestors are sending them! Also, now I write as a fulltime writer, rather than as someone who writes in moments stolen from other things that I’m “supposed to be doing.” I’m blessed to be able to say: What I’m supposed to be doing is writing.
This new project terrifies me, y’all. I’m taking great personal risks with it. But I also know that the fact that it scares me means that I’m on the right track (thank you, Michaela Coel). Furthermore, I feel like I’m a better writer now than I was when I wrote The Prophets. The blessing and the curse of being a writer is: You are always a better writer today than you were yesterday, and you are never as good a writer today as you will be tomorrow. And I am always chasing tomorrow. In the name of the Ancestors, every time I put pen to paper, I want to encourage myself to be a better and better and better artist. Àṣẹ!
When my work brings other people joy, that brings me great joy as well. My editor Sally Kim sent me a screen shot of this conversation in Instagram where actor Gwyneth Paltrow asks for book recommendations and model/television host/food expert Padma Lakshmi responds with The Prophets. Like, for real? WOW. Thank you so much!
A Bookstagrammer friend of mine, Nia J., aka @_pagesgaloree, went on a visit back home to her ancestral Trinidad and found The Prophets at Paper Based Bookshop! I had NO IDEA The Prophets was available in Trinidad and it made me tear up to see it there because it means a great deal to me that a Black nation is carrying my work. The only other Black nation The Prophets is currently available in, to my knowledge, is South Africa. It will, however, also be available in Brazil in May of 2023. Joy on top of joy! (P.S. I just found out that it’s also available in Thailand and the Philippines!)
National Book Award (NBA) winner Jason Mott sent me this beautiful edition of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple from The Folio Society. He gave it to me just because we’re homies and he knows the impact Walker’s writing has had on my own. Random acts of kindness bring unanticipated joy.
At the end of November, I experienced a joy that overfilled my heart. I was graciously invited to co-host a longstanding affair called the Harlem Fête, where I was in community and celebration with some of the most brilliant and amazing Black and Brown artists alive. As you can see in the photo at the start of the newsletter, I had a gay ol’ time, like The Flintstones. LOL! My deepest and sincerest thanks to Jennifer Baker, Yahdon Israel, Mitchell S. Jackson, Tracy Sherrod, and Jaqueline Woodson for imagining something so energizing and restorative, and for asking me to be a part of it. Thank you to my co-hosts Jelani Cobb, Natalie Diaz, Cleyvis Natera, and Renée Watson. And thank you to the organizers for implementing COVID protocols for our collective safety. Plus, big-ups to DP Jolly whose lens is unmatched.
Sometimes, unfortunately, you encounter people who despise your joy; who view joy as a limited resource and believe that if you’re experiencing it, then there isn’t any for them. Some people find joy in other people’s misery. Or, they themselves are miserable and rather than hope that no one else experiences what they’re experiencing, they, instead, want everyone else to be miserable, too.
My understanding of joy extends beyond my own body and circumstances. I find joy in witnessing other people’s joy. Like my homegirl Jennifer Baker securing a two-book deal at Putnam, including her forthcoming debut, Forgive Me Not. My homegirl Vanessa Chan selling both her novel, The Storm We Made, and her short story collection, The Ugliest Babies in the World, to just about every country in the world. My homegirl Denne Michele Norris’s debut novel, When the Harvest Comes, being sold to Random House. My homeboy Maurice Carlos Ruffin announcing that his latest manuscript for his forthcoming novel, American Daughters, has been purchased by One World. My homeboy Danté Stewart recently publishing an essay, “What White Voters See in Herschel Walker,” in The New York Times. And my homegirl Nikesha Elise Williams releasing her book, Mardi Gras Indians.
Y’all already know how I went H.A.M. when Dr. Imani Perry won the 2022 National Book Award for Nonfiction. LOL! There was also a National Book Awards afterparty. And because I am a lifelong disciple of Janet Jackson (and Kid ‘n Play, apparently), I got my whole life on the dancefloor. I had no idea the National Book Foundation (NBF) threw parties like this! (Side note: The NBF is the reason NBA winner Jason Mott and I are not just road dawgs, but homies. Books can bring people together.) The following moments of dancing joy were captured by artist Jasmina Tomic.
Speaking of celebrating good literature: My homegirl Deesha Philyaw passed along this exceptional scholarly analysis regarding anti-trans bigotry and how we often leave out the perspectives of Black trans people on the African continent. I get joy when academics use their intellectual prowess for good (when there is no shortage of scholars who choose to use it for evil) and endeavor to lead us in the direction of more humanity rather than less.
Nothing on television brings me more joy than Abbott Elementary. This show is so funny. I find myself cracking up non-stop over the jokes and one-liners. The entire cast is magnificent and I’m so glad Quinta Brunson was given the opportunity to bring something so thoughtful into our homes every week (the only thing I don’t find funny about the show is the presenting of persistent sexual harassment in the workplace as a source of laughter). It was also a joy to see the legendary Sheryl Lee Ralph win an Emmy.
Craig of the Creek is one of the most hilarious, heartwarming, and inclusive cartoons I have ever seen in my life. It has helped me through some painful times. Sadly, it’s ending soon, but I will always have the one-hundred-and-eighty-some-odd episodes to watch over and over again. There’s no such thing as a perfect show, but this one gets a lot right.
Y’all already know that I’ve been collecting comic books since I was four years old. I have, of course, become more discerning about which comics I buy now that I’m older because so many of them assault the soul. But there are some that help the spirit soar. Here are a few that recently brought, or that I know will soon bring, me joy:
Monica Rambeau: Photon by Eve L. Ewing and Michael Sta. Maria
Nubia and the Justice League Special by Becky Cloonan, Michael W. Conrad, Stephanie Williams, Amancay Nahuelpan and Alitha Martinez
Poison Ivy by G. Willow Wilson and Marcio Takara
Static: Shadows of Dakota by Vita Ayala and Nikolas Draper-Ivey
Superman: Son of Kal-El by Tom Taylor and John Timms and more
Wonder Woman Historia: The Amazons by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Nicola Scott
And don’t forget: Support your local comic book shop!
Musical entertainer Lizzo is a choice example of a person moving in the direction of more humanity rather than less. She used her platform to amplify the voices of those fighting for liberation from every corner of the struggle. There is joy in sharing the stage.
More joy: Brittney Griner’s Black lesbian self is home, y’all! I say Black lesbian specifically because for some reason, some people think those two things, in particular, diminish her humanity rather than magnify it. Those people don’t know that holding that belief threatens to diminish their own humanity, which is the immutable price of dehumanizing others. In any event: SHE HOME, Y’ALL! May she and her loved ones receive whatever it is they need in order to heal. And may the world be protected from the person who was exchanged for her.
Lately, I’ve been finding tremendous joy, smiles, tears, and laughter on YouTube vis-à-vis the happiness of strangers. I experience joy when I witness other people finding the courage to be themselves and live in their authenticity—like Byron Perkins, the first HBCU athlete (that I’m aware of) to publicly announce his queerness.
I’ve been getting my life watching artist Devon Rodriguez surprising people with hyper-detailed and dead-on drawings of themselves and seeing their completely shocked, but joyous reactions.
This little boy’s generous heart is wholly in the right place. What an exceptional kindness and selflessness he showed. Bravo, Romello Early! And peace and protection to young Melvin Anderson. This is joyful! I wish, however, that as adults, we could find it in ourselves to teach children to find their value in something other than material things. People have value for no other reason than they exist. And certainly, we should not instruct them to look down on or bully people who don’t have the irrelevant things society tells us we must have in order to be deemed “worthy” simply because we’ve bought into the sadistic pathology that insists that being cruel, and subjecting others to cruelty, “builds character.” May kindness evolve past materialism. And may these two boys grow into examples that adults can follow!
A woman named Brandi Baxter and her two children, who live in the East New York section of Brooklyn, baked a whole holiday meal in November and served New Yorkers who ride the L Train line, which travels from Canarsie in Brooklyn to Chelsea in Manhattan. Watching everyone embrace and be uplifted by this generosity brought me so much joy.
I’m glad someone is giving Elder Marla Gibbs her flowers while she is still here. I’m not sure why BET, Essence, the NAACP, Soul Train, Source, or somebody hasn’t already given her her lifetime achievement award, but she has more than earned it. Nothing says joy more than watching our worthy Elders receive their praise.
I’m joyful that the brilliant Dr. Robin DG Kelly knows a thing or two about the importance of bestowing living flowers. He wrote this lovely ode to the also brilliant Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin, author of Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature. I first became aware of Dr. Griffin in the Ancestor Toni Morrison documentary, The Pieces That I Am, and quickly caught myself up to speed on her scholarship.
There is so much joy to be found in honoring the Ancestors.
It brings me great pleasure whenever I discover a new Ancestor Toni Morrison interview (I’m a lifetime member of the Toni Morrison Society). In the first video, Morrison is talking to author A.S. Byatt for a series called Guardian Talk (though the interview is marked 1986, I believe it’s actually from 1987 or later because Beloved had already been released by the time they took part in this chat). The second video is from 1978/1979 in which Morrison, in an excerpt, discusses the American pathology. To hear the entire interview, in six parts, please visit Media Burn. Gleaning from Ancestor Morrison’s wisdom is the epitome of joy.
Ancestor Octavia Butler was a seer and a knower and it’s wild to watch the rest of the world finally catch up with what Black folks knew from jump.
Ancestor Zora Neale Huston’s genius was not appreciated in her day. She was, in fact, subjected to respectability politics and scorn (although, she didn’t die in the squalor and obscurity as previously believed). It wasn’t until Alice Walker reclaimed her after her death that she was regarded as the literary icon she’s known as today.
Ancestor Wallace Thurman is one of my greatest inspirations. Black and queer at a time when both were dangerous outside of rare safe spaces, he put colorism on blast. People resented him for that. His life was brief, but he used his genius in ways that still resonate. And he doesn’t get his props enough.
Ancestor Charles S. Wright was a brilliant, truthful artist and is criminally overlooked. I hope the world soon recognizes that what he contributed is invaluable.
For years, Irene Cara brought a great many people joy. I remember when my mother took me to see the original Sparkle back in 1976 and I got to hear her angelic voice. Job well done, Elder-Now-Ancestor Irene. May the Ancestors greet you with great fanfare and song. And may you find the peace elsewhere that you could not find here.
And truly, has anything ever brought more joy to existence than music?
Full of wonder. :)
Well, fam. We’ve reached the end of this edition of Witness. Please share it if you believe it has any value whatsoever. Thank you again for taking this journey with me. Wherever you are right now, whatever you are doing, I hope that, in some way, joy factors in.
Be safe and may the Ancestors always love and keep you.
Blessings upon blessings,