“Joy is power. Joy is voice”: How Boston celebrated Black Joy

Spectators watched Miranda Rae perform at the Institute of Contemporary Art
Black Joy Day at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Photo by Youmna Sukkar.

By Youmna Sukkar
Boston University News Service

BOSTON – The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston marked its second year celebrating a holiday that recognizes Black art, history and culture over the weekend.

The Sept. 12 holiday, known as Black Joy Day, was founded in 2019 by local activist and photographer, Thaddeus Miles. This year marked the holiday’s second iteration, but it was also the first in-person celebration, centering on healing, perseverance, and strength. 

Miles first founded the BlackJoy Project in Boston in 2019 to document stories of happiness and resilience. It’s since evolved into a city-recognized time of commemoration and celebration, Black Joy Day. 

“I decided that I wanted to amplify the voice and the narrative of joy to counteract some of the aspects of how people think and see us as Black people,” Miles said. 

This year’s events, which included kayaking lessons, picnic and lawn games, and an outdoor afternoon concert at the ICA, were designed to showcase Black joy and express individualism through the arts on Sunday.

Miles says his choice of hosting celebrations in Boston’s Seaport region was deliberate.

“We belong in these spaces,” Miles said, acknowledging the deficit of Black residents in the neighborhood. “All of Boston is ours, not just a few communities.”

Also present was Afro-Latina City Councilor Julia Mejia, who had not been to the ICA before. The councilor-at-large, who led the city council’s effort to formally recognize the holiday, praised the multidimensional nature of Blackness and vowed to keep the holiday on the calendar should she remain in office.

“When it comes to Black culture, we have to lead with our assets, not just our deficits, and celebrating our joy through our gifts and our talents,” Mejia said, encouraging all to find joy in the everyday things – even traffic.

Miles, who is the director of community services at MassHousing, emphasized the importance of community on the issue of the Black diaspora, comparing it to a party – he did not just want to be invited, but wanted to be part of the planning process. Miles knew he wanted to work in conjunction with the gallery following a visit to the “Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech” exhibit, expressing his desire to educate on—and comfortably express—Black joy. 

John Andress, Bill T. Jones Director and Curator of Performing Arts at the ICA, commended Miles as being “instrumental” in organizing the event, handpicking the entertainment and pushing for a vaccination information tent in collaboration with Mass General Brigham. 

“Pretty consistently in our programming here at the ICA, we’ve celebrated the enormous diversity of voices,” said Andress. “We’ve celebrated some extraordinary Black artists here in this city.”

Specifically, the gallery is currently exhibiting three Foster Prize artists, two of whom are prominent, Black, multi-disciplined artists. Dell M. Hamilton is a curator at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research and Marlon Forrester is an artist-in-residence at Northeastern University’s African American Master Artists-in-Residency Program.

In November, the museum will also begin featuring Black photographer Deana Lawson’s work.

R&B singer Miranda Rae and band Megazoyd were the afternoon’s first entertainers. Rae recalls feeling a sense of honor when being asked to represent the day.

“I just love being Black,” the Cambridge-based singer said after receiving a standing ovation. “I feel like my sound is something that brings joy to people’s hearts when they listen.”

After the event’s pilot, Miles and Andress said they are optimistic that it will remain an annual event, especially with the high turnout and crowd engagement.

“Joy doesn’t have to be laughing, smiling, and dancing,” Miles said, despite trying to capture a sense of joy in his photographs. “For me, joy is like when you are able to lift your voice and speak truth to power.” 

Editor’s note, 9/19/21: A previous version of this article quoted Councilor Mejia as having never been to the Seaport area of Boston, when the city councilor-at-large was referring to the Institute of Contemporary Art. The article has been updated to reflect this.

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