A Conversation with Eternity Martis on the importance of Black Joy

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By Tamunoibifiri Fombo

Along with so much else, 2020 has brought legacies of oppression endured by Black people across the world to the forefront of social consciousness. From North America to Europe to Africa and beyond, the conversation is the same, addressing issues like systemic marginalization, police brutality, bad governance and more. 

Long before the rest of the world opened their eyes to the injustice in our systems, Black communities more often than not had their trauma represented by bleak, one-note depictions of their experiences. Black students are starting to feel the compounded effects of ongoing social unrest and a history of suppression. It’s difficult to find happiness in the current landscape, but a significant part of Black culture is to find joy in the most mundane things or exceptional circumstances. It’s one of the ways we are thriving individually and collectively as a community.

Eternity Martis told me the same. Martis is an award-winning Toronto-based journalist, Ryerson alumni and author of They Said This Would Be Fun, a best-selling memoir on the Black experience in predominantly white campuses in Canada. She’s currently working at the Ryerson School of Journalism as an instructor of the program’s first Reporting on Race course.

She defines Black joy as being able to celebrate being Black and the Black experience unapologetically. 

“We see so much Black trauma, Black pain…we don’t get to see enough Black joy. So for me, [Black joy] is being happy and having the right to celebrate who we are, and have happiness despite all of the struggle that we’re seeing for ourselves and for other people,” she said. 

Martis facilitated a writing workshop in late October that aimed to prioritize memories or experiences revolving around joy. This workshop was strictly for Black-identifying members of the Ryerson community. 

During her “Writing Black Joy” workshop, Martis explained how writing and storytelling is a fundamental method for amplifying Black joy and prevailing over trauma to her participants.

Prior to the workshop, Martis spoke with The Eye about the importance of sharing joy and experiences as Black people through writing. 

How can we employ storytelling as a means to share that joy as Black people?

Eternity Martis: In my industry—which is journalism—a lot of young people always want to know how they can get a byline…how to get [their] name on a piece of work. The first thing for young people of colour, especially Black students or Black young people, is that they give away their story and these stories are often rooted in trauma. So I think some of the ways we can start to subvert this is to start writing stories of joy and normalize them. 

They Said This Would Be Fun is very traumatic, but there are moments of joy. I would have never considered writing a book about joy because I didn’t feel I had the option. But I think that if we start pitching these stories and sharing these stories…I think we just need more representation of what happiness looks like. Because for Black people, anytime there’s happiness, there’s this societal belief that we are entitled, obnoxious and we’re loud if we’re happy. And there are so many examples of us being [punished when we are] happy, laughing or feeling joy. One example is the Napa valley wine train where there were about 12 black women laughing on a train in California, they got kicked off. We have events like Afrofest, for example, or events during Carnival season that get cancelled because people are afraid that it’s too loud. So starting to really push for joy, despite the obstacles, is the main way we can start to get our stories out there.

I definitely agree. Especially when there’s now so much heaviness around the world, in North America and on the African continent. Sometimes you want to take a break from the gruesome content on the internet. 

EM: Yeah, absolutely. Well, there’s a lot of really heartbreaking things going on in Nigeria, as you know. But I think that even goes to show that conversations about brutality extend past North America. It’s happening everywhere and we don’t really see it. We have this very Western focus of what it means to be brutalized by the police, or we don’t have this larger idea. And there really wasn’t a lot of media at the beginning about Nigeria, and I thought that was an example of how we need to extend the scope a little bit, but that’s just a side note.

What are some of the ways that you cultivate joy for yourself?

EM: I’m still working on that. I think so much of the work that I do is so rooted in trauma that it can be hard to find joy. But for me…I’d like to say that I have a pretty wicked sense of humour and I don’t take myself too seriously. So a lot of me finding joy is just laughing. 

For me, laughter is resistance. And whether that means calling up a friend if I’m down, calling up another Black friend or we’re just cackling on the phone for hours—that’s joy to me. Or sharing stories—whether they’re positive stories or stupid stories, or stories of dealing with racism and having people to laugh with who understand it. 

It lightens your spirit and your mood. That’s how I find joy. I find joy with people that know what I’m going through, who are there if I need to talk to them about that, but also there to just hang out. I also [find joy] through a lot of weird videos, like cute dogs or cute babies. Anything to make me smile, I think, is how I find my joy these days. 

I noticed this year that I have a frown line from just the year being rough. But I also have a laugh line. And to me, it’s symbolic; it’s both things. You can have a frown line and also have a laugh line. At this point, we kind of need both.

In your own words, why is it important to collectively come together to find this joy, share it and experience it while being in community?

EM: This workshop is a standalone workshop but I think it’s important to be together and for Black students [and] the Black community at Ryerson. School can already be alienating. But places that we would have looked forward to going or hanging out are gone now. So I think having even just this space to write about joy, share each other’s joy, have a laugh and talk about things that are light-hearted or heartwarming instead of us having another discussion about heartbreaking things is really, really important right now.

Responses have been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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