The Black Joy Project: Putting Smiles On Black Faces

A few years after my great grandmother, Ramona passed away, my grandma, Maria, told me that the pain she felt from losing her momma was something she got used to. “Eso nunca se quita,” she told me as her eyes traveled to a time that seemed brighter. It never fully goes away.

Grandma Maria

In February of last year (almost 12 years to the day of Ramona’s passing) my uncle and grandma’s son, Ali, had a fatal asthma attack. We didn’t get a warning or an opportunity to say goodbye. I’m still getting used to that surreal feeling of loss and am accepting it may never fully go away.

Uncle Ali

As the year progressed, the universe continued to place challenges in my way.

Last year I was also a part of political actions, both in person and through the written word, to call out the violence against Black bodies. There were vigils, marches, visual campaigns, poems read, tears shed, contagious laughter laughed, loving hugs, breathes lost, breathes taken, shocks and silence. A collective of moments that were powerful, healing and at times triggering.

A couple days after my family’s first Thanksgiving without Ali, I woke up and my room felt darker than usual. The tan curtains I put up to enhance the sunlight in my room seemed to block warmth that morning and I felt heavier in my full size bed than I usually did. I couldn’t move and I didn’t want to.

I wanted a reprieve from this feeling of personal and communal pain. As someone who aims to inspire and support others to lead lives they love, I was stumped as to how to get myself out of a deep funk I had only genuinely experienced a few times in my life. I wrapped myself under the sheets tighter and stared at the high ceiling.

As I laid there, I thought about my family and comrades. I thought about how they had actively shown me in times of grief and pain how joy provided solace. That looked like check-ins at meetings, sending each other funny memes, having drinks together, laughing, sending heart emojis over group texts and saying, “I love and appreciate you” regularly.

Then an image of my mom beaming her beautiful smile came to mind. She was standing in front of a portrait of Frida Kahlo with hair rollers crowning her head with a bright pink background. Naturally, I pulled out my phone. I tapped the Facebook app and posted that picture along with this statement:

Black Joy

“Let’s bombard the internet with joy. That is resistance too. Trauma is real mi gente. Let’s trigger love as much as the pain as we share important topics we all need to be up on. Love is necessary with the understanding that peace is the exception, not the rule. #BlackJoy”


This was how I could explain and reckon with the sadness I was experiencing and the reality of living at various intersections; namely being Black, queer, latinx and male-identifying. I listened to my spirit when it told me that I needed a new journey to healing and part of it had to be in community.


I thought about the power of joy, and the ancestral understanding that Black joy is one of the forces that has gotten us through many trials and tribulations throughout the history of our existence. Throughout the African diaspora.


There are numerous instances of Black joy in history, more than this piece can address. One to note, however, is the Second World Festival of Black and African Arts & Culture (“FESTAC ‘77”) held in Lagos, Nigeria from January 15th to February 12th of 1977. The opening parade to this month-long celebration had Black folks, artists and intellectuals, from around the world celebrating their greatness and contributions to the globe.


There were delegations from every part of the world present to celebrate their dopeness and be in community in ways that may have never been possible before on an international level. Picture the opening of the Olympics: it was better. It was full on Black joy.


I thought posting a picture of my mom beaming her beautiful smile in front of a piece of art she loved would help me work through the darkness I was fully present to and perhaps offer other black folks in my digital community some reprieve as well. One day turned into a few. A few days turned into a couple weeks and soon it became The Black Joy Project.


An intentional corner of the Internet that could offer smiles as well as a source of joy and happiness for Black people anywhere and everywhere they needed to see someone that looked like them smiling and enjoying their lives. It serves as a reflection for that part of our existence where we enjoy our lives and share that joy with others. A happiness from Black faces across a digital platform that you can see whenever you desire it.


I’m not the first to evoke Black joy and I will not be the last. The intention of The Black Joy Project is to serve as a regular reminder that it is ok to smile and enjoy your life; it serves to articulate the understanding that it is a direct resistance to experience joy while living in a world that tells us we are not good enough or worthy of living full lives. It is direct resistance to smile and enjoy your life when there are so many factors at play to take it from us.


Pain is real, mi gente. It sits and resides in your bones sometimes, at the contours of your being. When we can access our joy and create it, there’s a freedom there. One worth defending. It is a reason to keep going and fighting so that we, all of us in our black beauty, can feel that feeling as regularly as possible. Everyday.


Contributed by Kleaver Cruz

Kleaver Cruz is an Uptown, NY native, a writer, dreamer and lover of travel. His work has been featured in African Voices Magazine, The Huffington Post Black Voices and La Galería Magazine among others. Cruz is the creator of The Black Joy Project on Instagram, an effort to center Black joy as a form of resistance. Kleaver believes in the power of words because they allow him to write what didn’t exist when he needed it the most.


Please follow @TheBlackJoyProject on Instagram and post your own moments, definitions and expressions of Black joy by using the tags #BlackJoy #TheBlackJoyProject

Photo credit for the #BlackJoy Portrait Series: Dominique Sindayiganza

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