The Joy of Being Human

Joy has been popping up in my feeds a lot lately. One of the more recent posts was an image of a jazz musician, Jon Batiste, playing freedom songs and hymns on a joyfully decorated upright piano at a protest march in New York. He has been doing that at marches all over the city, according to the caption accompanying the image taken by Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times’ Instagram account.

I met Jon Batiste once years ago after a concert in the gardens at the Museum of Modern Art, before he became the bandleader on the Stephen Colbert show. The image conjured up the fun I witnessed him and his band, Staying Human, having, weaving in between the audience at the MOMA, making music by beating out rhythms on steps and poles, besides playing their instruments.

Another post was a quote by American activist and writer, Audre Lorde — “in order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change” — which led me to the website of Ingrid Fetell Lee, the author of Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness. Her book is about “living a more joyful life through design”. She speaks about joy as an act of resistance and observes that it’s a curious fact of autocratic regimes that sources of joy, like music and dance, are often banned. And indeed, the South African government banned musicians of different population groups from playing together or to mixed audiences, banning or forcing them into exile. This helped to produce a unique style of jazz that originated in Cape Town, drawing on the talents of a multi-cultural community who resisted the attempts by the government to force them into boxes.

I was once arrested during a peaceful protest in Cape Town in the 1980s and what I remember most about spending the night in a cell with about 40 women is not how scared I was, but the feeling of being part of something larger. All night long, we defiantly sang freedom songs, much to the irritation of the police officers who must have wondered what we had to sing about so jubilantly! It was a celebration of a community united by a common cause and belief, in a spirit of camaraderie, of sisterhood, of support and solidarity. And it was joyful.

A few years ago, I came across South African journalist and historian, Jacob Dlamini’s book, Native Nostalgia. He writes about ordinary people with spirit, values, and pride, living in the township of Katlehong, east of Johannesburg, under apartheid. He ponders on the conundrum that Black life under apartheid was not “one vast desert of doom and gloom” — rather, he muses that there is a lot of which ‘Black’ South Africans can be proud of. Not everything they did was a response to apartheid, and, in spite of the oppression, they still managed to produce art, literature, and music, and raised morally upright children. His critics were appalled that he could speak with nostalgia for the time that he lived during apartheid but it is exactly those moments that Lee says can empower resistance by affirming our humanity. It shaped the people we were to become, the people our parents raised, despite their hardships.

This brings me to the old photographs I have been sifting through while writing about growing up in South Africa during apartheid. They are unremarkable photographs in our family album, capturing images of us doing ordinary things — getting married, celebrating birthdays, playing sports and going to the beach — not because apartheid wasn’t so bad, but because we were determined to live life holding onto the practices of freedom that human beings everywhere participated in. There’s the picture of my parents as a young couple, one classified Cape Coloured, the other Cape Malay, walking through the city centre, a photo of us on a segregated beach, my father in his rugby kit, and family dancing at a party for my grandmother’s 50th birthday. It is as if the photographs are saying, “try your best, we will still have fun, create, share, tell stories, dance — we are human in spite of your trying to prove otherwise!”

Despite often being out of focus or badly composed, the photographs record those frozen slices of everyday joy, creating a sense of self-worth that defies the apartheid laws that would portray us as less than or other. There is little evidence of the harshness and cruelty of life or the struggle to survive. What they offer is proof that we mattered, the knowledge to be passed down, held, spoken about, allowing us to touch and feel the past.

Last year, towards the end of an emotionally intense trip through the South of America, I bought a button with a quote by Sojourner Truth in a museum bookshop. “Life is a hard battle anyway and if we laugh and sing as we fight the good fight for freedom it makes it all go easier”, she said. Truth was an abolitionist and women’s rights activist who was born into slavery in New York in 1797. She was bought and sold four times and eventually escaped in 1826 and two years later, successfully sued for the recovery of her five-year-old son who had been sold into slavery in Alabama. That she could celebrate the moments of joy in a life marked by the brutal oppression, some of which I had just borne witness to, came as an opportune reminder of what it means to be human in spite of enduring the worst that humans can inflict on each other.

So, what I have learned is that joy is fleeting, like the moments visually captured in photographs that people take during oppression, moments that we can return to and that remind us that we are human, and perhaps give us a glimpse of what it feels to be free.