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‘We belong everywhere’: Celebrating Black joy in the Seaport

Following directions from performer Dzidzor Azaglo, Latanya Henderson loudly intoned, “I am Latanya,” during Black Joy Day 2021 on the Putnam Investments Plaza, behind the ICA.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

On a sunny Sunday morning, Teaka Isaac of Roxbury, her sister, and her two teenage nieces climbed into kayaks in the Fort Point Channel. All four are lifelong Bostonians, yet it was their first time on that water, Isaac said.

“The invitation alone was so awesome, because I normally wouldn’t do that — kayak on the wharf,” Isaac said. “And it opened up an opportunity for me to not feel like an impostor, and to be in that space and to feel warmth. It was just amazing.”

The kayaking lesson was led by the American City Coalition, a nonprofit that works to improve the quality of life in Roxbury, and was part of Black Joy Day — a celebration of Black happiness, creativity, and resilience organized by Boston photographer and activist Thaddeus Miles. It was open to anyone, and a few hundred people participated.

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Isaac’s moment of joy, she said, came in seeing her nieces, 14 and 17, leading Isaac and her sister through the water and taking happy selfies along the way.

“It’s exciting, considering the generational difference,” Isaac said. “I can continue to express my way of experiencing Black joy throughout the city. And so, this is an invitation to do more of that.”

Miles, who had organized a day of Black joy last year, this year focused on events around Boston’s Seaport. There was an exercise class from Black-owned fitness studio Trillfit, free entry into the Boston Children’s Museum, and live performances at an outdoor space behind the Institute of Contemporary Art.

The choice to celebrate in the Seaport — a neighborhood where, as of 2017, mortgage lenders had issued only three of 660 residential mortgages to Black buyers — was intentional, Miles said.

“We belong everywhere,” Miles said. “This, for me, was the beginning of developing a sense of belonging. Belonging in the ICA, belonging on that pier, walking and not feeling as if you’re going to be attacked. . . . And so bringing a sense of belonging, I feel like I can walk these piers or anywhere else, and feel comfortable. That’s what a lot of today was about.”

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Miles likened it to a party: Being told about the dance is one thing. Being invited is another. And getting to help plan the party — having a stake in it, making decisions, contributing to it — is the warmest invitation for him, he said.

City Councilor Julia Mejia, who formally recognized Black Joy Day for the second year, said she wanted to make space for discussions that focus on the community’s assets.

“Especially during these times, with COVID and George Floyd and all the racial and civil unrest, I always like to remind people that despite all of the stuff that we’re going through — that as people of color, as Black people, we’ve always found joy,” Mejia said. “Being able to convene and celebrate that so publicly, and calling people into it, is really part of the culture.”

As Cambridge-based singer Miranda Rae performed original rhythm and blues songs, Mejia livestreamed the music for a bit and swayed along with the beat.

“We have to remain grounded in goodness, especially when there’s so much ‘ugh around,” Mejia said.

African folklore performance artist Dzidzor Azaglo’s moment of joy on Sunday came when her mother sent her an out-of-the-blue “I love you” message.

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“That reminded me of the joy I have within myself, how I can be so loved by people around me,” she said. “I know that this day is just in honor of Black joy, but I know that Black joy is something that I could experience every single day. And so I’m hoping that people walk away knowing that they have the power to choose, that they have the power to manifest this joy within themselves.”

By mid-afternoon, Azaglo led the crowd in a call and response, encouraging them to center themselves and find a bit of calm and happiness as they sang along:

“Tell yourself that you’re worth it,

Tell yourself that you are,

Tell yourself that you love you,

“Tell it.”

From the back of the crowd, LaTanya Henderson of Roxbury, founder of All Things Art, an organization that encourages young people from marginalized communities to participate in art programs, said she was touched by the performances.

“I’ll say this to you,” Henderson said. “What comes from the spirit reaches the spirit.”


Gal Tziperman Lotan is a former Globe staff member.