wo years ago, I made a vision board: a collage of words and images I hoped would serve as a reminder of my goals. Right in the middle of it, larger than anything else, was a cut-out of the word “joy.” I knew I’d felt happy on a number of occasions, but I’d heard in a Kirk Franklin song that joy was happiness no one could take away from me, and I knew I hadn’t felt that way in a long time.
Over the past few years, I’d lost friends over petty disagreements. I’d become terrified of relationships because it seemed like each one I got into was unhealthy and abusive. I wanted to build my career as a writer, but I couldn’t seem to find a way in. All of these things were making me unhappy, but according to the Kirk Franklin song I played on repeat, if I could find joy as opposed to happiness, the feeling would persist even in the face of challenges.
As a woman of color, I am acutely aware that, no matter how hard I try, sometimes life will only hand me lemons. My intersectionality means that I have dealt with discrimination uniquely and often, and as hard as I’ve tried to change that reality, it often feels beyond my control. When I decided to seek joy, I hoped it would serve as the sweetness my life needed.
When I was a little girl, I used to take mental snapshots of joyful memories I wanted to keep. I’d pause, look around and try to capture every detail for later. When I was seven, I vividly remember running outside to dance in an afternoon rainstorm. I remember sitting at the top of a rollercoaster with my brown elementary school Girl Scouts troop when I was 10. I remember the way raindrops looked beneath the surface of a swimming pool I swam in with my cousins when I was 12. I remember jumping up and down on the sofa with my father when my younger sister was born when I was four, and how big the snowflakes looked when my older sister came to New York from California 11 years later.
As I got older and began to understand my unique experience as a black woman, I took less of those joyful snapshots. I thought about joy less in general. Even though I was constantly working to understand myself better, and constantly reminded of my goal by the vision board propped against my furnace, those two intentions seemed separate in my life and in my mind. But they shouldn’t have been. I didn’t know it yet, but in order to find joy — happiness that would stick with me — I needed to understand how the joys of my black, female identity, not just the struggles of it, belonged explicitly to me.
In January, I reached out to other black women to pose the same question I needed to answer for myself: When did they feel that unique sense of #blackgirljoy? Below are 13 women’s answers. Reading and relating to their words helped me reconnect with the present, joyful version of myself I’d almost forgotten. They reminded me that even if you don’t have anything else, you always have yourself.
Fashion & Beauty Editor at the Houston Chronicle, Year of Joy Project Founder, Houston, Texas
“I started what I like to call ‘my joyful journey’ three years ago. I was overworked and underappreciated. When I’d felt like that before, I ended up in the hospital. I promised myself I’d never let what I felt inside manifest physically again. [When] I read Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes, a light bulb went off. It resonated with me. [Being joyful] was as simple as taking a trip for my birthday or salsa dancing. I’d always wanted to learn how to tap dance.
At the end of , I [organized] a skating party for children without access — and the euphoria of being able to show them something I grew up doing, of seeing our girls feel good about themselves [brought me joy]. The key to being in a joyful state is bringing joy, spreading joy. It keeps you up, it keeps you lifted. When people say joy is contagious, it’s so true.
So many things can pull us down as black women. Being joyful doesn’t mean everything’s all rainbows and unicorns. I had some dips but I didn’t stay there. That’s what joy is.”
Jessica Willis, 30
Creative Director, Los Angeles
“I thought answering this question would be easy, but it’s harder than I thought — mainly, because I’m not sure if the joyful moments have been from me being black, a woman, or both. But I will say that, as a black woman, I have been told stories and welcomed into conversations with other black women that I probably would not have been otherwise. That source of privacy and trust, even if the stories are painful, brings a feeling of joy because of the sheer sense of community and support. Our strength brings me joy.”
Shannon Miller, 30
Sales Manager, New York City
“I definitely felt a sense of pride and unmitigated joy as I reflected on the election results over these past two years. I realized that we had a strong impact on the presidential election, on the election of Kamala Harris and in the Atlanta and Alabama elections. We challenged the stereotype that black people don’t vote and also flexed our power to the world.”
Aneisha Shelton, 26
Photographer, New York City
“As a black woman, I think the best joy is when you share commonalities with another black woman — a great twist-out, singing out loud to a well-known song, cooking together, crying together. It’s joyous.”
Adriana Díaz, 31
Hospitality Supervisor, Madrid
“I was the first woman in my dad’s family to finish a university degree and a master’s. That was something huge in my family! And of course for me, it was a way to demonstrate that as an Afro-Latina woman, I was able to accomplish that goal. I’m always proud of what I am.”
Jaleesa Myers, 28
Psychotherapist, New York City
“I experienced unadulterated happiness [the day] I decided to cut my hair off and wear a short ‘Caesar’ — a style often wore by black men.
I remember the day when I decided to do it. I was waiting at the 135th street train station on Lenox Avenue [in Harlem, NY] and saw a woman walk by. Something about her screamed confidence. Maybe it was her red dress, sunglasses or her short Caesar that sat like a crown on her head, illuminating the golden [quality] of her melanin skin.
That was the day I wanted to define who I was as a person, as a black woman. In the same way that woman was confident, I wanted to be too, in my own way. I decided to cut my hair off that day because, in a way, I wanted to define who I was without judgement of my hair getting in the way. For so long, women have been subjected to other people’s opinions about how their hair should be.
In my family, [I ] often [heard opinions about] how long or short [my hair] was, whether it was combed and its upkeep. I guess, in a way, I was removing other people’s opinion of myself when I cut my hair. I began defining a new path of my own.”
Sydney Sua, 26
Copywriter, San Francisco
“[I experienced joy] the first time I saw someone that looked like me in a hair tutorial in a magazine. They always feature tutorials for people with straight hair. The outcomes are beautiful but can’t be achieved with mixed-race/textured hair. I didn’t notice how excluded I was until I saw an article that had one straight hair tutorial and one for textured hair.
Yo, I cried. The feeling of seeing that beautiful girl, who looked a lot like me, was moving. I’ve been reading fashion magazines for over ten years and was never able to really benefit from them because the advice is for white women.”
Tabitha Sloane, 23
“Over my lifespan, I’ve struggled very much with my racial identity. Being that I was raised by a white mom, grew up [going to] a culturally Latino school and didn’t so much ‘look the part’ of the black woman that I am, being comfortable and experiencing joy in my skin was not something I felt until later.
I always felt like I fell between the gray area of racial identity. Even though I would check the box ‘African American,’ people would expect me to check anything other than what I am.
After a long, hard look in the mirror and multiple conversations with other biracial women, I realized that I didn’t need anyone to see me how I saw myself as long as I was happy with my reflection. Now I am able to accept myself because I know my truth. I think that’s what it means to be joyous and happy in your own skin — that you are who you choose to be. I choose to be an independent, loving and strong woman!”
Anna Moss, 25
Chemist, Washington D.C.
“I’ve always felt comfortable in my brown skin. It is a part of me that I find flawless and beautiful. Everyone knows there is a magic that radiates from black women. I feel that magic within myself and I feel it even more when I am surrounded by my girlfriends.
I recently moved to D.C. from a predominantly white area and it’s the best decision I’ve made. I feel a sense of belonging here. There is pride in black culture that only gives me more confidence. Joy for me is walking past elementary schools and seeing little black girls running around laughing and during yoga class when I look in the mirror and I see myself amongst unique shades of beautiful black and brown women.
We all compliment each other so so well. I find even more value in myself and my culture when I witness the support and love black women give to each other.”
Melissa Bronson-Tramel, 25
Graduate student, Washington D.C.
“The first time I’ve experienced unadulterated happiness was through one of my friends.
My life and my friend Shayanna’s are pretty parallel. We both graduated from Syracuse University a year apart and worked for the same company. We both accepted the job because we felt it was the right thing to do at the time.
Secretly, this isn’t what [either of us] wanted. We came home (then roommates), complained about our work lives, lack of development and not making an impact, the typical millennial crap that people talk about.
[Then Shayanna] got a job at Google — a dream company. She was hesitant about accepting the role because it was in California — away from everything familiar — but she took a leap of faith and made the move. Since then, she’s been walking on faith and I’ve seen her blossom from being my homegirl into a woman I admire, someone I look up to.
Shayanna proves to me daily that although we, [as black women], have to work twice as hard, it’s nothing to her. She does it with grace. She makes an impact because she sees to it that she does.
A year later, she inspired me to quit too. I didn’t have a job at Google lined up, but I did go back to school for my master’s full time at Georgetown.”
Olivia Stevens, 25
Paralegal, Washington D.C.
“My joy comes from knowing that my strength is imbued in my very being, that no one has endured as much as a black woman and no one has triumphed like a black woman. Living in a country that was forged in a legacy of marginalization, it gives me absolute joy when I see a woman succeeding, like Kamala Harris, or becoming a standard of beauty, like Lupita Nyong’o. We thrive.”
Caleigh Alleyne, 27
Travel journalist, Toronto
“One of my happiest moments as a biracial woman was truly accepting that my curls were beautiful.
Growing up, popular culture and others around me constantly told me my hair was ‘so much nicer’ when I straightened it, or suggested that I get it relaxed. But I am glad I never did. I love how every little curl is unique and my own and changes as much as I do. I proudly wear my natural hair curly and I am not afraid for it to be big and beautiful.
I saw the shift when I finally decided to wear my hair ‘naturally’ on TV more often, and how freeing it was to me not to flatten it with heat every time I was interviewed.”
Ennica Jacob, 23
Graduate student, New Jersey
“‘Being a black woman means finding joy in all things, even when others try to find ways to strip it away.’
That’s the first thing that pops into my head [when I think of joy as a black woman] because it’s something my mother would reiterate to me religiously, just in Creole. Over the years, that quote resonated louder as I faced more experiences in life.
When I went to the Afropunk Music Festival in Brooklyn this past August, being surrounded by so many confident, melanin-skinned human beings brought a smile to my face. The many different African clothes expressed individual love of culture and country. The feeling of creating a bond with an absolute stranger who empathizes with my struggles, pain and happiness is a blessing. It reminds me that I’m not alone.”
Collage by Emily Zirimis.