John Blake, CNN, January 24, 2021
I was scrolling through Facebook one evening when I noticed an odd image that someone had posted on my page. It was a screenshot of a solitary Black man on roller skates, freeze-framed in the middle of a country road flanked by horse pastures.
As I clicked on the video I braced myself, expecting to see a Black person being brutalized by police or accosted in public by White strangers. But that’s not what I saw.
The man flashed a wide smile and he started to dance. He had a gray beard, but he skated like someone 20 years younger: rolling his shoulders, shimmying his hips while Mary J. Blige sang “Not Gon’ Cry” in the background. Soon I was smiling, too.
The video had no caption, but I had a name for what I was watching: It was a snapshot of what I call “trauma-free Blackness.”
Here’s my wish for a new year: more trauma-free Blackness.
Last year was a rough one for most Black people. We watched videos of Black men being brutalized or killed and read about Black women fatally shot in their homes by police. We’ve watched a pandemic devastate our community. At times I, too, have felt exhausted by what one writer calls “the relentlessness of Black grief.”
But my boogie-down skater buddy reminded me of something I had almost forgotten: There is a Blackness that exists outside of trauma.
There are vast regions of Black life that have nothing to do with suffering or oppression. We lead lives that are also filled with joy, romance, laughter and astonishing beauty, but those stories don’t tend to grab the headlines. It’s time to change that.
What follows are my favorite examples of “trauma-free Blackness” — striking expressions of Black life that aren’t filtered through the lens of racism.
I also asked my CNN colleagues to join me in creating a list of our favorite trauma-free moments. To do so we pored through movies, TV, music, art, literature, internet memes and other slices of Black culture. It’s by no means an exhaustive list — just a good place to start.
This in no way means to minimize racism’s impact on Black people. I’m a Black journalist who believes such stories are needed now more than ever.
But Black lives should matter outside of trauma. Any true racial reckoning should acknowledge all of our humanity — not just when we’re dying.
These examples show why.
I’m proud of what one author called “the rugged endurance” of Black people. We’ve found a way to laugh, dance and create art of breathtaking beauty despite everything we’ve experienced. None of that resilience, though, would be possible if we hadn’t created a set of traditions that help us survive.
The magic of Black girls’ play — Black children weren’t always allowed the same freedoms as other kids on the playground, but witness the joys of Double Dutch. Here Taylor Blackwell, 9, jumps rope while her mom Danielle Blackwell and sister Jaelynn,12, turn on June 27, 2020, at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC.
Black family reunions — Slavery was designed to destroy Black families. Slaveowners routinely sold the children of slaves or split up married couples. Yet many slaves somehow found a way to maintain family ties. No wonder so many Black families like this one place great importance on preserving annual gatherings.
Homecomings at historically Black colleges and universities are “part family reunion and part revival.” For many Black people like myself, attending a Black college was like joining an extended family. It was liberating to be in a place where we didn’t have to explain ourselves to White people. Homecomings bring back all of those memories.
“Soul Train’s” iconic dance line — It’s hard to decide what’s more impressive — the Afros, the outfits or the retro dance moves from this popular music showcase, which ran on TV for 35 years. The “hippest trip in America” is no longer on the air, but its dance line endures at weddings and house parties across America.
Black Joy Parade — This celebration of Black culture and community brings thousands to downtown Oakland, California, each winter. It’s inspiring to see Black people take to the streets to protest injustice. But it’s also refreshing to see us gather in public to celebrate something that’s often been so elusive for many of us: joy. Just witness Rochelle Westbrooks of Sacramento, dancing at the parade in 2019.
The Internet is a cruel repository for images of Black suffering. But it is also stuffed with GIFs, viral videos and stories about Black people that are clever, funny, inspiring and sometimes strange. My favorite involves a leprechaun in Alabama.
Sometimes it feels like almost every Hollywood story about Black America is framed through the lens of anger, violence or despair. But these movies about Black people offer romantically, funny and inspiring alternatives.
Black music, which gave America the blues and jazz, grew out of the trauma of slavery. But these songs, from the 1960s to the present, transcend the pain that spawned our music’s birth.
For decades roles for Black television actors were confined to criminals, nannies and characters “scratching and surviving.” Now many are thriving in roles and shows where racism and suffering are no longer center stage.
“Atlanta” — Donald Glover created and stars in this brilliant FX series about a college dropout and his social circle in the Black mecca of the American South. Absurd and funny one minute, surreal and scary the next, it’s one of the most offbeat depictions of Black life I’ve ever seen. From a Black Justin Bieber to a freaky, Michael Jackson-like recluse, I never quite know what to expect.
“Black Love” — This documentary series from Oprah’s network is a tender and honest look at actual Black couples in love. I’m accustomed to seeing Black love depicted through anguished stories about single moms and fathers in jail. This was a welcome change of pace.
“The Proud Family” — I rarely saw Black characters in cartoons as a kid. This animated Disney Channel sitcom from the early 2000s shows how a gifted Black teenager navigates peer pressure and her overprotective family. It’s made me appreciate how the choices for Black kids who like cartoons is now so much better.
Some of the most famous books by Black authors focus on the tragic impact of racism. But there are Black writers in sci-fi, romance and other genres whose works transcend race.
“The Broken Earth” trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin — The first Black woman to receive a Hugo Award, Jemisin set this trilogy in a post-apocalyptic planet ravaged by earthquakes. The series centers on a woman who must find her kidnapped daughter while concealing her own secret powers. Its success signaled that authors of color are making themselves heard in a field once dominated by White writers.
One of the most popular slogans from the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s was “Black is beautiful.” No group has reinforced that message like Black visual artists, who have created some of the most gorgeous portrayals of Blackness. Now they’re finally getting the recognition, and museum space, that was denied to many of their predecessors.