Black History Month takes on new importance as black leaders draw attention to health – including mental and spiritual health – as the theme of this year’s commemoration. With a nod to this inclusive definition of health, USC has adopted the theme “Celebrating Black Joy: Embracing Health and Vitality” for its own campus-wide events and activities.
USC experts pause to examine how the ongoing struggle for racial and social justice weighs on the bodies and minds of Black Americans, and how joy and well-being are crucial to their strength and resilience .
Black Joy is central to black identity
“At the heart or center of black culture, black identity, black art, black ideology and black community is joy,” said Anita Dashiell-Sparks, professor of theater practice and Associate Dean of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at USC School. of dramatic art. “Black Joy is the heartbeat and pulse of our survival, resilience, perseverance, health and well-being.
“Joy has been our weapon and our superpower in the face of injustice and structural racism.”
Joy has been our weapon and our superpower in the face of injustice and structural racism.
Anita Dashiell Sparks,
USC School of Drama
Joy may not be the first thing many think of when it comes to the struggles for racial justice, which have been magnified in the public mind by numerous tragedies, including the murders of George Floyd and other black men and women by the police.
“We focus much of our public discussion of racial justice on the burdens of blackness, including unconscious bias, police brutality and systemic racism,” Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law Jody Armour explained to the USC Gould School of Law and an expert on the intersection of race and legal decision-making. “Therefore, what does not attract enough attention and celebration is the advantage of being proud to be part of the African diaspora and indomitable descendants of American slaves.”
Black Americans suffer a range of emotional distress and trauma from witnessing violent deaths. Shortly after video of the May 25, 2020 killing of George Floyd was widely shared on social media, the US Census Bureau found that 41% of black Americans suffered from depression, anxiety or both, according to the report. office’s 2020 Household Pulse survey of 100,000 Americans.
Previous research at USC has shown that racism also harms the physical health of black Americans.
“The Black Lives Matter movement has, over the past few years, rightly turned the world’s attention to the persistence of violence against black people and their bodies,” said Alaina Morgan, assistant professor of history at the USC Dornsife College of Letters. , Arts and Sciences.
While this singular focus may obscure the diversity of the black experience, she said black people responded to violence by “creating beauty, expressing joy, and radiating pride in their blackness.”
The blessings of darkness are also part of African American history
Morgan’s research focuses on the ways black people engage with religion, particularly Islam, to dream of “a better, fairer, more just world.”
“Examination of these formations, along with other forms of black production such as art, music, poetry and literature, respects the complexity of black people as resilient, creative, productive and, yes , happy,” she explained.
“The blessings of Blackness are many and varied,” Armor agreed. “By keeping their dreams alive, the black community has amplified the energy of our American storefronts and buildings, our cement yards and body shops, our amphitheaters and C-suites. By tapping into deep reservoirs of creativity, he forged original art, music, literature, design and dance that took the world by storm.
He added: “In the words of Tupac Shakur: ‘Long live the rose that grew from the concrete.'”
Tap into black joy through spirituality
Along with Morgan, several USC experts highlight the importance of religious and spiritual practices and beliefs in sustaining black communities through decades of racism and discrimination.
“Despite our existence in an oppressive culture that seemingly seeks to dehumanize us, we have fought with both secular and religious tools to maintain our true worth as human beings,” said Broderick Leaks, director of the council and of mental health. services at USC Student Health and Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at USC’s Keck School of Medicine.
We fought with both secular and religious tools to retain our true worth and value as human beings.
USC Keck School of Medicine
He shared examples of these tools: receiving community and family support, engaging in activism, participating in mental health treatment and support, connecting with faith communities, and engaging in nuns.
Leaks isn’t just a mental health expert; he is also a theology student. “As the theologian Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas points out, our heritage enables us ‘not only to survive, but perhaps above all to affirm [our] sacred humanity,” he said. “In this affirmation of our humanity and worth, we are able to tap into dark joy; a priceless joy that comes with the recognition that we have retained our humanity in the face of impossible odds.
It’s what Miki Turner calls “that something inside”.
Turner, an award-winning journalist and associate professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said that while many hymns and hymns have been written to help black Americans overcome injustice, a song written by pioneering songwriter Lucie Eddie Campbell – the music director of the National Baptist Convention and the daughter of former slaves – is “particularly suited to today’s struggles”.
The chorus of the 1919 song “Something Within” includes the line: “Something in me that banishes pain; something inside me that I can’t explain; all i know is that there is something inside.
“What Campbell is referring to is the inherent strength of our African ancestors whose faith in God brought them out of nowhere,” Turner wrote in a poem inspired by Campbell’s anthem. “Let there be something in each of us that keeps hope alive.
Faith continues to nurture the black community during the pandemic
Rev. Najuma Smith-Pollard, associate director of community and public engagement at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, finds joy in the connection between faith and activism. “My faith informs my activism. I think that’s the case for a lot of people in the black church,” she noted.
My faith informs my activism. I think that’s the case for a lot of people in the black church.
The Rev. Najuma Smith-Pollar,
USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture
Smith-Pollard combines her experience as a pastor and her expertise as a community leader to help faith leaders become full partners in the work of social change. She described how during the COVID-19 pandemic she and other faith leaders have had to go virtual while continuing to serve the community. The experience affirmed that “the church is not defined by its walls, its pews and its pulpit” but rather “by what we do for people – feeding those in need, testing for COVID, providing information to communities of color”.
“It’s also maintained this place where people can come and feed their spirits,” she said. “It’s so important in a pandemic.”
Our shared vulnerability to COVID-19 creates an opportunity
The pandemic may also have created an opportunity to focus on what Americans have in common, said Christopher Manning, senior chief of inclusion and diversity at USC. “The COVID pandemic has revealed nationally and repeatedly the vulnerability of African Americans – and blacks and browns in general – in the context of health care,” he said. declared.
Despite the higher toll of pandemic-related health problems for black Americans, Manning said all Americans, regardless of race, class and gender, feel vulnerable to COVID-19.
“Because this is a shared experience, it is hoped that we can leverage the trauma of having gone through this experience together to come out of it and create more access for everyone together,” Manning said. “It gives us a great opportunity to evolve, hopefully, as a nation and as a people.”
Finding Joy in Black History Firsts
Elaine Bell Kaplan thinks there’s a lot to celebrate in recent history. Kaplan, a sociology professor at USC Dornsife, cited only a few firsts for black Americans as a source of joy: the first African-American Secretary of Defense, retired General Lloyd Austin; the first black vice-president, Kamala Harris; and President Joe Biden’s pledge to appoint the first black female Supreme Court justice.
“Now more than ever, Black History Month remains relevant as it allows us time to learn and reflect on how this history highlights the ideals and failures of the American experiment with democracy,” Kaplan said. “Through social movements and political and cultural traditions, the black community has engaged notions of freedom and equality since its founding.
She quoted the influential black feminist author bell hooks: “My hope emerges from those places of struggle where I see individuals positively transforming their lives and the world around them. Education is always a vocation rooted in hope.
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