By Lez'li Waller
A Love Letter to Black Joy
I write this today with a mix of emotions. The Black Cal family is losing one of its giants to Sacramento State University. Dr. Mia Settles-Tidwell is and continues to be a Black Cal Bear through and through. Her higher education was here at Cal, and she went on to become one of our beloved administrators. She served as the Chief of Staff & Assistant Vice Chancellor of Equity & Inclusion. To know Dr. Mia is to experience “Black Joy” in an academic setting. Dr. Mia's work, her passion, and her drive for the Black community at Cal to not only survive but thrive, was felt by all even if you never met her. Recently we had the first Black Wednesday of the semester where we centered on giving Dr. Mia her flowers before she moved on. We listened to music, shared prayers, danced, smiled, laughed, and shared stories. JOY!
Yet, within this moment of appreciation for an outstanding administrator and member of the Black Cal family, we were not free from being reminded why people like Dr. Mia are so important in navigating spaces that promote hegemonic ideals and structures. During our celebration, a small group of Black students was yanked out of the moment of safety, love, and support that we came to share amongst our leadership and peers on campus. A harsh comment flung by an onlooker dampened the mood. As we gathered to continue our celebration, some were visibly upset. Some reported back that an older Asian gentleman had taken out his phone and recorded a portion of the send-off speech and was overheard saying, “You hear this, they are talking about Black joy this and Black joy that…Well, what about Asian Joy?” When the onlooker noticed that some of the students had heard his comment and attempted to address his transgression he swiftly turned and walked away. DAMAGE DONE… Even though there was no further escalation of the incident for some they were robbed of the opportunity to be fully present in the moment to experience what we had come to do, share…BLACK JOY.
In many ways it was poetic, we gathered to say goodbye to one of our biggest champions of “At the Table Activism” here on campus. Even in that moment, we were not free from the gaze or policing and weaponizing of our words. Poetic because we gathered to say goodbye to a titan who was skilled in sharing knowledge on how to combat instances just like that one within our institution of higher learning. Poetic because it turned a high beam on why Dr. Mia and people like her are desperately needed in spaces of education and employment.
Why was that comment particularly violent to the students who heard, overheard, or were recipients of secondhand information surrounding that comment on that day? Many reasons but I will highlight only a few:
Divisive: On this campus, there are always identity-specific events happening. For the most part, these events are allowed to take place without incident. Having that kind of energy be present on this campus to at a whim feel emboldened to insert yourself into the mix and have nothing but negativity to offer. It is a divisive act. To assert that the celebration of “Black Joy” in some way shape or form negates or is in direct contrast to “Asian Joy” again is a work of divisiveness. Black Joy should be freely allowed to exist without the policing of others and there should be no hard feelings when you see acts of Black joy. Our joy is our own to express how we feel. There was no concern for the opinions of others at that moment.
Based on Hegemonic Racial Hierarchy: The mere fact that there were at least three other groups actively gathered on Upper Sproul and he chose to ask this question of our group left me wondering. Why was he not upset by the all-white acapella group or fraternity? I wonder if he went over and recorded them and shouted what about Asian acapella or Frats. Why was our group seemingly targeted? I have a theory that it made him uncomfortable seeing a group of people gathering in a place he may have thought they did not belong in. So instead of saying what he felt, he wanted to make that group feel uncomfortable by attempting to show dominance in reasoning on why this celebration was wrong and needed to be disrupted. In Sociology, Omi and Winant speak about racial formation and how the racial state is ingrained in all aspects of American life. The design is for the law, education, and social structures to reinforce a hegemonic racial hierarchy. This hierarchy can show up in many ways, stereotypes, discriminatory practices, a stranger walking into your celebration and not asking permission to record your likeness and saying insensitive remarks because they felt entitled to do so and had no fear of repercussions. Racial aggression and microaggressions are ever constant for Black students on PWI/PAI campuses. Left to their own devices to navigate the same academic rigor as their peers, but also expected to do so while shouldering the bias of our peers, inaction of administration in addressing mental health strain from combating stereotypes that surround their presence on campus.
Unsolicited centering: This last one is the most insidious of all. Instead of outright saying, your celebration, opinion, existence is not important. Often, what happens is our stories, celebrations, and spaces are hijacked. I don’t know how much of this is because Black culture has become so mainstream, some people may feel there are no boundaries to their involvement or input. Or could it be some see us as less than, and seek every chance possible to disrupt Black Joy? Disrupt our culture, existence and compare it to some other cultural or racial experience they believe to be more deserving of joy, peace, or freedom of expression. Whatever the cause it is prevalent in the classroom and in everyday life...EXHAUSTING. Every important identity has a struggle, no one struggle is more important than the other. However, it is concerning how easy it is for some to see Black Joy as a cause for concern or discount our experience and prefer we suffer our trauma and express our joy in silence.
Now that I have given a few reasons why the expression of Black Joy needs to become commonplace, allow me to get back to the love in this letter.
Dr. Mia Settles-Tidwell was skillful in addressing students in that much-needed larger black familial bond discourse. She understood her assignment well. She focused so much of her energy addressing issues that were Black student specific. She coached on the skillset and knowledge needed to address black bodies in a space that can feel foreign and even hostile at times. She was always there with a smile making sure your belly was full and checking on your overall wellbeing. Dr. Mia was always willing to meet for lunch to help us brainstorm our next moves as student leaders, always there to advise on how to navigate conversations with other administrators and always there to remind us of the great shoulders we stand on including her own. Dr. Mia in her last address to us on that Black Wednesday urged us to remember who we are and who is in our corner. She charged us with not letting the groundwork and traditions that we as Black Cal students enjoy fade into the ether. She taught us to believe in the power we hold as individuals and as a group. We are forever grateful for her years of service and centering our joy while keeping us close to her heart, we will miss you Dr. Mia!
As future administrators, educators, or health professionals, how can we ensure a focus on giving Black Joy just as important a pedestal and attention span as Black Trauma? Our conversations, our projects, and our research need to reflect this to make Black Joy a common practice. Working to provide safe spaces free from the gaze, free from centering any other view besides our own, space where our authentic selves are free to express whatever is pressing or causing joy or stress…COMMUNITY. We need to become the next examples of at-the-table activism. When we reach our employment destinations, remember there's a community of people who could use a helping hand navigating the space you have already conquered. Never forget to reach back and uplift. Centering joy to reframe what our conversations , expressions and movements create and embody. Center joy to recharge the battery to continue the fight against Black Trauma. Center joy to keep you healthy, laughing and loving. In closing I am linking some presentations on different expressions of Black Joy that I believe will put a smile on your face, a hug in your heart and a thought for the future.
Enjoy and spread Black Joy
Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960's to the 1990's (Routledge, 1994).