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10 exceptional people who are using Black joy as a form of resistance

Black joy is about "manifesting the joy that you need, deserve, or desire," says Kleaver Cruz of The Black Joy Project.
TODAY Illustration / @jonahands / Instagram / Courtesy Derek Blanks / Team Epiphany

As Black people continue to fight for justice against police brutality, discrimination, institutionalized racism, and more, Kleaver Cruz of the “Black Joy Project" is just one of many who have been encouraging Black people to choose joy as a form of resistance.

Cruz notes that Black joy is a type of “internally driven” happiness that can happen when someone consciously chooses pleasure as a way to combat the traumas of racism.

“We choose it all the time anyway,” he told TODAY. “In the notion of choosing it actively and consciously, it then becomes something that you can feel isn’t just happening to people.” He added: “It honestly feels like an ancestral responsibility.”

According to a recent study from researchers at UCLA, discrimination can greatly impact a young adult’s mental health, causing them to turn to drugs or experience "psychological distress," because of higher levels of anxiety and depression.

Other than getting therapy, adequate sleep, and practicing self-care — like Maysa Akbar, author of “Urban Trauma: A Legacy of Racism,” suggests — Cruz notes that it can also be helpful to choose Black joy to get your mental health back on track.

"I think one of the most radical things you have access to is imagination. We literally have the ability to create what does not yet exist that we need," he said. "And Black joy, choosing it as a way to practice that imagination, to make it real. And deciding like, this is what I need."

As a way to celebrate Black history this month, TODAY is here to share 10 exceptional people who are exemplifying Black joy while uplifting their communities.

1) A’Lelia Bundles and Cara Sabin

A'Lelia Bundles is continuing the legacy of her great-great-grandmother, Madam C.J. Walker, who was the first Black female to become a millionaire in America after she sold her Black hair care products.

To pay homage to her ancestor, Bundles teamed up with Cara Sabin — CEO of Sundial Brands, the parent company of MADAM by Madam C.J. Walker — to change Black hair care as we know it.

The duo collaborated to launch 11 new "damage-defying" products for the MADAM by Madam C.J. Walker line, which they hope will evoke more joy in women of color.

"We want MADAM to be that tool that really helps her unleash her individuality and just the depth and complexity of who she is and do it in a way that is really seamless," Sabin told TODAY.

"And I think when you're using the products, just knowing this legacy of Madam C.J. Walker, I think it's empowering for women of all ages," Bundles added.

A’Lelia Bundles (bottom left) and Cara Sabin (bottom right) spread Black joy with their new haircare line, MADAM By Madam C.J. Walker
A’Lelia Bundles (bottom left) and Cara Sabin (bottom right) spread Black joy with their new haircare line, MADAM By Madam C.J. WalkerTeam Epiphany

2) Sage the Flame

In May 2020, the news of George Floyd's death sparked Black Lives Matter protests around the world. Many people of color were impacted deeply by witnessing the realities of racism in America across every news outlet and social media platform, including a woman who goes by the name of Sage the Flame on Instagram.

"I felt physical stress. I was having trouble sleeping. I was feeling like physically unwell," she told TODAY.

To cope, Sage began searching for the funniest videos she could find of Black people laughing — and then she shared her favorites on Instagram.

"I was like, let me put this together and share so that other people can feel something lighter during this time of darkness," she said.

Sage's post quickly went viral with the caption: “Our rage is undeniably justified however our joy is also necessary."

“Feel free to share these glorious laughs,” Sage told TODAY.

3) Kenzo Brooks

While watching Disney's "Encanto" with his parents, 2-year-old Kenzo Brooks felt overjoyed when he noticed that the character Antonio looked just like him.

“He immediately gravitated towards the image of Antonio,” Kenzo’s mom, Kaheisha Brand, recently told TODAY Parents. “It just made my heart smile because I do believe that he thought he was seeing himself because of the resemblance between him and Antonio.”

Brand took a cute picture of the moment and shared it on social media in December 2021. Her post gained thousands of likes, which made her realize just how important it was for people of color to be represented on-screen.

"I think that for me, and for us, it made us feel like there’re so many people that echoed the same sentiments that we felt in that moment that our child was being seen,” she said.

Brand continues to post adorable photos of her son smiling on Instagram like when she shared a collage of photos of Kenzo making faces on Feb. 4 or her January 11 post of Kenzo riding a scooter.

"It's the joy for me," Brand wrote in the caption.

4) Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union's family

Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union and their family do not hold back from displaying Black joy across social media. To start, their 3-year-old daughter, Kaavia James — a.k.a "Shady Baby" — is winning hearts on Instagram with her hilarious facial expressions and honest reactions. She's not even in kindergarten yet, but the toddler already has over 1 million followers.

Union is also a stepmom to Wade's three older kids — Zaire Wade, 20, Zaya, 14, and Xavier, 8 — from previous relationships, and this brood has displayed Black joy time and time again.

For starters, Zaya, who identifies as transgender, came out to Union and her dad last year. Her act of courage made Wade see his child differently. “When I look at Zaya, I get hope,” he told People in April 2021. “Because I’m like, OK, we raised [our kids] to be authentic.”

Zaya, living in her truth, is another instance of Black joy and on Instagram, she's shown what happiness looks like for her. In December, Zaya shared a pic of herself smiling and captioned it "happy" with the yellow-heart emoji. Then, in November she posted a pic of her family having a great time together.

"Thankful 🖤," Zaya captioned the post.

5) Jonah Larson

Even though Jonah Larson is only 13 years old, he’s already a prodigy. Larson taught himself how to crochet when he was 5 years old, and his unique designs and hard work have earned him a massive following on social media and a successful business known as Jonah’s Hands.

“I see crochet as a positive way to bring the world together, and it’s just a craft that everybody comes together and enjoys,” he previously told TODAY.

On his social media accounts, Jonah shows himself making everything from warm blankets to beautiful headbands, and sometimes you might catch him making something cool for his sister, Mercy.

Last Valentine's Day, he gifted her with a cute velvet teddy bear that he made by hand and this year, he made her an adorable plush owl that she can take anywhere.

Jonah's Instagram bio reads, "Let’s bring the world closer together one stitch at a time."

If that's not Black joy, then I don't know what is.

6) Claire Siobhan Sulmers 

As the CEO and founder of Fashion Bomb Daily, an upscale fashion blog dedicated to highlighting fashions from the African diaspora, Claire Sulmers tells TODAY that her website didn't get to 2 million followers on Instagram overnight. In fact, it was the way that she made Black people feel represented in Hollywood that made her an internet sensation.

"I started Fashion Bomb Daily in 2006 as a response to what I felt were imbalanced representations of people of color in the media," Sulmers said. "And I just wanted to express my passion for fashion while also showcasing Black excellence in all its various forms through fashion."

Claire Sulmers emulates Black Joy with her blog, Fashion Bomb Daily.
Claire Sulmers emulates Black Joy with her blog, Fashion Bomb Daily.Derek Blanks

Sulmers clearly achieved her goal, because her blog became so popular that she started Fashion Bomb Daily Shop, a marketplace where Black designers can sell their designs and create generational wealth for their families.

"When you remove that stress from yourself then you can truly be joyful and free," she said.

7) Dr. Thema Bryant

Another great way to choose Black joy is to make sure that you're keeping tabs on your mental health. Black people are seeking more medical attention during the coronavirus pandemic as a June 2020 Washington Post poll found that 1 in 3 Black people knew someone who had died from COVID-19.

Dr. Thema Bryant, president-elect of the American Psychological Association and NAACP Image Award nominee, has been helping Black people deal with their mental health struggles by sharing helpful quotes on Instagram, such as her February 7 post.

She wrote, "Living from a place of panic will have you always prepared for the worst. May you have the safety to settle your spirit enough to embrace good."

On January 19, she also shared an inspirational quote, which read, "Recognize the pattern of those who want to break your spirit. They can't accompany you to the place you want to go."

Dr. Thema's uplifting posts have helped many people of color on Instagram. "Thank you Dr. Thema 🤲 Your voice and words has been a pillar of support along the path," one person commented on one of her posts. "You’re right, growth does look good on me 🥳🥰🙏💚."

Another said, "Thanks for reminding us that we too can have compassion for ourselves. When I started to practice this my healing came thru. I am so proud of myself. Thank you Dr Thema. ❤️❤️."

Sahaj Kohli, founder of Brown Girl Therapy, previously told TODAY how important it is for children of immigrants to get therapy.

“It’s hard to believe that you deserve quality care when the care doesn’t look like you,” Kohli said. “One in 4 children in the United States is a child of immigrants. We deserve quality care, we deserve to be seen.”

8) Davis Jamison

In 2019, Davis Jamison, aka “The Dope Educator," became a face for Black joy when he created a unique handshake for all 75 of his students — and remembered them.

"More black men are needed in the school system!" he wrote on Twitter at the time. "In my 3 years of teaching I’ve never had discipline problems because I make sure that all my students feel counted for. The foundation in maximizing the fullest potential of all students is through love and human interaction."

Jamison's post went viral. People loved it so much that GAP decided to team up with Jamison and a few of his kids for a back-to-school campaign they launched in 2021.

"This is major," Jamison said when she shared the news on Twitter. "You can now find me and my students of @SCSK12Unified on a billboard on Times Square in New York City! The confidence of my scholars has grown tremendously throughout the campaign for @gapkids! We are forever grateful to represent the 901."

But no matter how famous Jamison gets, he says that he'll still greet his kids with a "dope" handshake every chance he gets.

"I remember being asked in an interview last year, 'would I still welcome my students with customized greetings once they return?'" he recalled on Twitter in March 2021. "My response remains the same, you don’t have to physically touch a child to actually 'touch' a child. #thedopeeducator."

9) Wisdom Cole

Wisdom Cole is the National Director of the NAACP Youth & College Division. As someone who works on over 800 youth councils, Cole knows how important it is for Black children to work through the "trauma of the past" and choose joy.

"During this period of time, it can be really difficult to be happy to find joy," he told TODAY. "But finding Black joy is also healing, right? Like as Black people, we have a lot of trauma from the past. There are things that have been unresolved in our family and within our community. And so when I think about Black joy, I really think about this process of making sure that we are good matches for today, but for the future. Making sure that we are able to step into our power."

10) Jessica Watkins

In 1992, Dr. Mae C. Jemison made history when she boarded the Endeavour and became the first Black woman in space. Nearly 30 years later, history is being made again with NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins, who is set to become the first Black woman that will be part of an International Space Station crew.

This April, Watkins will be making her journey into the great unknown alongside NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren and Robert Hines, and astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency. They'll be departing Earth on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, and they're not expected to return until six months later, when they finish their mission known as Crew-4.

Jessica Watkins, the first Black woman set to be a part of an International Space Station crew, displays Black joy as she poses for a picture in front of a plane.
Jessica Watkins, the first Black woman set to be a part of an International Space Station crew, displays Black joy as she poses for a picture in front of a plane.NASA

Watkins, who was selected for NASA'S astronaut program in 2017, told NPR’s Morning Edition in January how happy she was to undertake this mission.

“We are building on the foundation that was laid by the Black women astronauts who have come before me,” she said. “I’m definitely honored to be a small part of that legacy, but ultimately be an equal member of the crew.”

Watkins is currently getting ready for her journey into space as tensions continue to arise between Washington and Moscow over Ukraine. However, she says that Crew-4 can show how cooperative everyone can be since the U.S portion of the international space station is docked in the Russian segment.

“We are all coming together to accomplish this really hard thing that none of us would be able to do on our own,” Watkins said. “I think that is just such a beautiful picture of what we can all do if we come together and put all of our resources and skill sets together.”

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