How the Black Joy Project is helping activists deal

Collage of submissions to the "Black Joy Project"

Photos via Black Joy Project/Instagram | Remix by Jason Reed

Meet Kleaver Cruz, the 27-year-old writer behind #TheBlackJoyProject on Instagram.

Black Lives Matter has pushed the national conversation on race—but the trauma and pain behind the fight against systemic racism can weigh heavily on black organizers and the communities they serve.

This was the case for Kleaver Cruz, a 27-year-old writer and community organizer at Black Lives Matter: NYC. A few days after Thanksgiving, he woke up deeply saddened, physically unable to move.

“I began to realize being black in this country, being part of certain actions, just being in this conversation of what the state of being black in this country and in the world—what it means to me personally—it was just really weighing on me,” Cruz told the Daily Dot

Cruz found the remedy to his sadness after taking a photo of his mother smiling and enjoying a piece of art. He loved the picture so much that he posted it on Facebook—with more joyous photos of black people smiling to follow. 

Soon after, he formalized a social media campaign called #TheBlackJoyProject on Instagram.

“So I posted that picture [on Facebook] with a statement that said, ‘let’s bombard the Internet with [black] joy,’ and talking about how joy is a form of resistance and why I thought it was important,” Cruz added.

Cruz created the photo project mainly for black people in his social media circle to see, “some type of smile, [or] reminder that it’s OK to smile and enjoy your life.”

The writer became a photographer—capturing happy moments from a broader spectrum of black people he'd met. He also takes a few moments to have a conversation with each participant in order to write down their definition of what black joy means to them and how they practice happiness in their own lives.

His project’s Instagram has posted more than 90 photos—each caption explaining black joy.

“It’s the ability to smile [and] even have a moment of enjoying yourself in an environment and in a society that is designed for us to be killed, to be imprisoned, to just not enjoy our lives or to survive,” Cruz said.

“To even enjoy it for that matter to then have moments to enjoy your life is a resistance,” he added.

Yet Cruz hasn't been impervious to guilt that often comes with happiness. He wants to enjoy his life while also affirming the lives of black people as an organizer—believing there’s room for both. It's a balance that takes a personal toll.

“That is a form of 'the work'—whatever that means—is taking care of yourself so you can be good and great for other people,” he said. “So often we’re being asked to give and give and give, but we are giving and we are hurting. ... We are not addressing our own pain.”

As a member of BLM: NYC, Cruz said people in the chapter take moments to support one another by checking in with questions like, “How are you actually feeling?”

As of now, Cruz is the one giving. There are no collaborators on the Black Joy Project. Although Cruz likes to solely engage with people directly, he is not opposed to the idea of future collaboration. Either way, he encourages people to immerse themselves in sharing photos of black joy.

“I’m always curious, how do people find me?” Cruz said, acknowledging that he rarely asks people to follow the project. “So I’m pretty sure it’s through searching for black joy, the hashtag.”

The writer thought about creating a black joy blog, but he’s glad the project is a visual representation of what it looks like to be happy and black—noting that smiles are contagious, “even if it’s just for a second.”

“From the people who have reached out to me—it’s been what I wanted it to be [and that’s] to be that moment of pause to think about what makes you happy,” Cruz said. 

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