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Embracing Collective Joy: The Essence of 'The Black Joy Project'

Updated: Mar 25

By Alejandro Heredia

Why should an emotion be racialized? This is the question I ask myself as I open the first few pages of Kleaver Cruz’s The Black Joy Project, out Dec. 19 from Mariner Books. 

I have my doubts about the ways in which our contemporary moment demands that we silo ourselves and only experience the world through our identities. Why can’t a book centering Black people be titled Joy? Is the suggestion that Black people only ever experience joy when we are around each other? What about Black folks, like this reader, who grew up in communities with people from all over the world? Is it Black Joy when I hang out with my East Asian friends? My Arab friends? What are the limits and purviews of this racialized joy?


I am a suspicious reader.


But the nuanced tapestry of narrative and images presented in The Black Joy Project makes a convincing claim for the necessity of Black joy. Cruz — a Black queer creative, writer and educator — highlights the cultural and historic threads that connect Black folks across the globe, while demonstrating that we might not all experience joy the same way according to geographic location, history, language, or personal preferences. 

Black joy is not a box to check off, and it is not monolithic. Rather, it is a well of collectivity and tradition that Black folks may tap into in search of relief, community, and resistance.


Cruz spends some time (maybe too much time) arguing that sitting with joy need not mean ignoring the harsh realities for Black folks across the globe. One can experience, say, the sheer joy of partying with other Black folks in Amsterdam, in the same breath as we can (and in these pages, we do) explore the societal struggles of Black people in The Netherlands. Black joy does not paralyze, blind, or necessarily reduce its practitioners’ struggles. Cruz tells us, “resistance and joy go hand in hand, fist in fist. In fact, when we choose joy in the face of obstacles, we are seeing reality clearly, yet being brave enough to imagine something better: a world fit for us, not the other way around.”


Cruz also provides plenty of examples of Black joy in historical moments. Most striking among these is the story of William Dorsey Swann, who, in the 1880s, organized private Black queer parties in the Washington D.C. area. Swann was formerly enslaved. A self-proclaimed “queen of Drag.” A party host with a rebellious streak (Cruz tells us that these parties appeared in newspapers and were often raided by police). I can’t imagine what it might have been like to live as queer Black person in the 1880s. But Cruz demands us to try. Though much of Swann’s life is still being mapped out, primarily by the historian and writer Channing Gerard Joseph, Cruz’s insightful inclusion of Swann’s story shows us how persistent, necessary, and specific Black joy is even in the midst of deep violence and marginalization.


This book is capacious. It is contemporary and historical, feminist and queer, personal and deeply invested in the collective. It does not privilege one corner of the Black world over another, while still offering nuanced perspectives about differences between Black communities. For example, Cruz explores some of the tense history of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It is refreshing to hear from this and other corners of the Black globe as central, not peripheral, to collective Black experience. Similarly, Cruz skillfully critiques the ways in which our conversations about Black joy sometimes center Black American experiences in a global context, while we in the U.S. sometimes remain ignorant to the experiences and histories of Black folks elsewhere.  


Alongside these narratives, The Black Joy Project presents dozens of images that depict Black joy, in Africa and in the diaspora. We see photos of children playing with yo-yos in New York, paintings by South African artists, and collages that feel futuristic and intergalactic. These images are not analyzed or discussed in the body of the text, which can leave the reader wanting a bit more of a connective thread between the visual and textual narrative of this book. 

Is there a logic to the sequence of images? What does the writer think of some of the images which show joyful moments, but also show, for example, the harsh reality of a neighborhood? Though the images work to reflect, generally, Cruz’s argument that Black joy is everywhere and various, a lot about the function of these images is left to the reader’s interpretation.

I am particularly drawn to images in this book of Black folks in mundane environments. The photograph Nola Couple by Eva Woolridge, for example, features a Black couple, a man and a woman. They wear hip shades, hot-pink and bright-red shirts. She is in front, he is behind her. His arm is around her chest. Her head is tilted slightly to make a crevice for him to rest his head, to pull her close. With one hand, she holds her wrist in front of her. With the other, she holds a plastic cup. She was drinking water or tea or coffee. Before this moment was frozen in amber, she was in the middle of something, her day, her life. Behind them, a car and a home. They could be your uncle and auntie, your cousins, you. Not the extravagant or poised or excellent or royal or celebrity you, but you, the regular degular Black person, joyfully in love.


In this way, and in the inclusion of three short pieces written by contributors, the book itself feels deeply communal. Cruz practices what they preach by sharing these pages with dozens of other artists equally invested in depicting the Black experience.  


All of this works well on the page. But what is most striking to me is Kleaver Cruz’s writing of their own experiences traveling and working with people in Africa and across the diaspora. In the hands of a less adept writer, this might read as a toneless flex. But even if they did brag, we’d have to give Cruz their flowers. The Bronx, Cuba, The Netherlands, Pittsburgh, São Paulo. These are just a few of the places we get to see Cruz in community learning with and from Black folks about collective struggle, and most importantly to Cruz, the moments of joy that someway, somehow we manage to create through dance, literature, medicine, or liberation movements. Cruz makes it clear that they’re about the work, within these pages, and most importantly to this reader, out there in the world, where it matters most.


A book this expansive about Africa and its diaspora might quickly become trite and stereotypical in the hands of a less capable writer. Our contemporary moment is rife with diaspora wars, selective gatekeeping, and disingenuous performance of community. But Cruz knows their people, and holds the tradition of Black joy with equal care and rigor. 


In a world that continues to only value Black life and art when we are killed, enslaved, hurt, struggling, or reduced, what a balm it is to spend two-hundred pages basking in joy as resistance, as a valid way to be in the world —outside the gaze of the colonizer and his descendants. The Black Joy Project is a gift we can return to again and again. We are so lucky to have it.

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About the author:

Kleaver Cruz is a lover of words and their meanings across languages. They were born and raised between The Bronx and Washington Heights in New York City with their twin brother and close knit Dominican family. Kleaver is a Black queer creative, writer and educator who has presented and conducted work across the African Diaspora in places like Brazil, South Africa and The Netherlands, among other countries.

Kleaver is the creator of The Black Joy Project, a digital and real-world affirmation that Black joy is resistance. Kleaver is also a member of We Are All Dominican–A U.S.-based grassroots collective that works in solidarity with movements led by Dominicans of Haitian descent fighting for inclusion and citizenship rights in the Dominican Republic. Kleaver believes in the power of words as the means to write the stories that did not exist when they needed them the most.


Alejandro Heredia is a queer Afro Dominican writer and community organizer from The Bronx. He has received fellowships from Lambda Literary, VONA, and CUNY Dominican Studies Institute. His chapbook of short stories, You’re the Only Friend I Need (2021), explores themes of queer transnationalism, friendship, and (un)belonging in the African Diaspora. Alejandro’s work has been featured in Teen Vogue, Lambda Literary Review, LitHub, and elsewhere. He is currently the Ann Plato Post-Doctoral Fellow at Trinity College.

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