Why Black people are sick of seeing the media latch on to their traumas: 'More Black joy'

Kamilah Newton
·7 min read
Displays of Black joy are what many in the Black community are pleading for in the face of ongoing traumas. (Photo: Getty Images)
Displays of Black joy are what many in the Black community are pleading for in the face of ongoing traumas. (Getty Images)

After the difficulties of the past year — the devastation of the pandemic, which puts people of color at a disproportionately high risk, plus the racial reckoning prompted by ongoing police violence — many would agree that there’s been more than enough Black suffering in real life. So the fact that media makers keep focusing on trauma as the main aspect of Black life, such as through Amazon’s new race-themed horror series, Them, only compounds it — and has prompted a plea for more displays of Black joy.

“There are vast regions of Black life that have nothing to do with suffering or oppression,” wrote CNN’s John Blake in his case for “more trauma-free Blackness” earlier this year. “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.” He’s not alone in that desire, with calls for “more Black joy” being added to Twitter daily. 

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Some call the saturation of Black-trauma news and storylines a version of “trauma porn,” which refers, according to at least one definition, to “the perverse fascination with other people’s misfortune; a phenomenon which has become increasingly pervasive in a digital era where pain is commodified.”

Writing for the Lily last year, Paulina Jayne Isaac noted, “I first heard the term ‘trauma porn’ last year when my cousin referred to the biographical movie about slavery, Harriet. I immediately became defensive because I thought a biopic about famous abolitionist Harriet Tubman was warranted. It wasn’t until the 2020 Oscar nominations were released that I realized what a problem it was that the only actor of color nominated was Harriet star Cynthia Erivo.”

Isaac then realized that “for some reason, films focusing on the pain of black history gain more recognition than movies highlighting the triumphs. This isn’t just harmful to black viewers, but it also does a disservice to white viewers by contributing to black erasure.” Quoting race and culture writer Chanté Griffin, she continued, “The imagination of white writers, white directors and white Academy members are limited by the white imagination which doesn’t think of black people as full embodied beings.”

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That warped reality was the inspiration for Dr. Chisara Asomugha — pediatrician, poet, actor and former senior health adviser under the Obama administration — to establish her wellness platform, the Joy+Well, with an aim to “inspire and to support women curating and cultivating their own joy-filled life — whatever that might look like for them.” Asomugha also calls herself a “health care futurist,” explaining to Yahoo Life that she “envisions a health system that supports our visibility and ability to live healthy lives,” adding that “one of those ways is through joy.”

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“There is historical context and evidence for there being an interest in fascination with Black bodies being traumatized,” she explains, noting that “if you read the book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson, you get a 3D review on paper of just how fascinated whiteness is with Black bodies being lynched, terrorized and subjugated in a way that allows for the ideology that is supreme in this country to continue.”

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Just this week, the University of Pennsylvania made headlines for continuing to not only possess, but also teach with, the remains of a Black child killed in the 1985 police bombing of the Move Black liberation organization, and without the permission of the deceased’s parents.

Regarding this latest example in a long history of dismembered Black bodies being classified as “tools for research,” the university issued a statement saying, “The Penn Museum and the University of Pennsylvania apologize to the Africa family and the members of our community for allowing human remains recovered from the MOVE house to be used for research and teaching, and for retaining the remains for far too long.” 

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Unpacking the science behind the popularity of such traumas, including their physical remains, Asomugha says, “Regardless of the kind of trauma it is, it’s still affecting the same parts of your brain and there’s research to show that it could mimic [a] reward system that we shouldn’t be interested in,” adding that people generally “see something and immediately have a response — positive or negative ... and they’ll either look to reinforce it or step away.”

Research has found that this is linked to a phenomenon called “negativity bias,” which causes people to both react and respond more strongly to negative stimuli — and sometimes even seek it out, thus revealing the notion behind “hate clicks,” and why indulging in what’s clearly bad may actually feel very good.

But there is additional nuance for some folks, Asomugha says, as some may feel it necessary to keep up only with real-life atrocities but not those depicted onscreen, or vice versa. “There’s a way to consume what is happening to us or to other people that feels appropriate in some spaces and not in others,” she says.

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Ultimately, despite the very real struggles, many people — like Asomugha — have committed to focusing on Black joy in any way possible, with some even calling it an act of resistance. Although Asomugha would not classify her own joy as such, she understands the idea that, for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) women, “our living is counter to what is expected of us.” 

She explains, “I’m not doing joy as an act of resistance, but I know that somebody else has got to see it as that, because [our joy is] resisting the narrative that [many] expect [us] to live. ... I’m drawing from a well inside me that says, ‘I get to live this joy out loud, and though it may seem like resistance to you, I’m not doing it in opposition.’”

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Asomugha adds that in order for the media to be more intentional about sharing Black joy, “There just has to be a desire for it.” Explaining further, she notes, “In American society we put a value on certain things, behaviors, bodies. ... [But] I’m saying there is no quantifiability to my intrinsic value. You should not be able to put a number on that [and yet] we are not in a space — collectively — where the media can see the value of my story without a dollar sign.

“More than just having the feel-good story at the end of a broadcast, it would be interesting to see somebody center joy or center good in their media stories. Can we have more of that?” Asomugha wonders. “I’d like to believe we can. But the [reason] that we have things like the Joy+Well is because we recognize we need to create our spaces for us, by us, that promote the story that we can live our joy unapologetically and out loud.”

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