A photo of high school students at their graduation throwing their caps in the air


Even Black Joy Is a Crime

White people are free to openly carry weapons. But Black people are arrested for attending pool parties and cheering at their kids’ graduations. What liberties do Black people actually have?

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Jesus Tyrone Christ!  Black people can’t do shit.

On a near daily basis we keep seeing examples of Black Americans being accosted, assaulted, arrested, and even murdered for simply ___________ while Black. Walking, playing, trying to make a living, crossing the street, riding public transportation, sleeping in their homes, the list goes on. Black people cannot even drop their kids off at school or attend an end-of-the-school-year pool party without upsetting scared White folks and feeling the wrath of America’s police force. And now add cheering and graduating with joy while Black to the list.

High-school graduations are a cherished rite of passage that signal a milestone successfully reached. It points to the potential of a bright future, a stepping-stone in the fulfillment of the so-called “American Dream.” And the ceremonies are communal events; they represent a celebration of both an individual accomplishment and the collective contributions necessary to complete the last chapter of childhood. It’s not uncommon for graduation ceremonies to include cheering, shout-outs and hollers, whistles and other spontaneous expressions of pride and joy from family members when their graduate crosses the stage to receive their diploma. I attended a wealthy mostly-White boarding school where parents vociferously expressed their joy on graduation day: “Way to go, Tyler!” “You’ve done it, Fletcher!” “Go, Meg!”

Graduations are a family victory.

Especially if you’re Black.

It wasn’t that long ago that African Americans were forbidden to learn to read and write, sometimes under punishment of death. It wasn’t long ago that American public schools were desegregated, and even with the progress that has been made, Black students are more likely to be harshly disciplined, suspended, and expelled, sent from the school into the prison pipeline.  Black kids attend schools where the majority of teachers don’t have certification. They attend schools that don’t offer Algebra II or Chemistry.  Not surprisingly, given persistent educational inequality, Black kids disproportionately account for those who flunk or drop out of high school.  Politicians and community leaders routinely lament America’s racial educational gaps, lagging Black graduation rates, and the educational failures of the broader community.

So yeah, a Black student graduating high school—any student from any high school—is still a big fucking beating-the-odds deal, especially in a society that’s constantly telling young people of color, through images, news stories, and statistics, that they suck at everything. Graduating is a statement to the doubters and haters, those who lament, without any facts on their side, how Black youth, their parents, and the broader community don’t value education.

So WHY are Black family members in Mississippi Goddamn being charged with a criminal act for cheering their graduate’s shining moment? Is Black joy also supposed to be a dream deferred?

When Lakaydra Walker graduated from Senatobia High School recently, her brother, Henry Walker, waved a towel as a relative shouted, “You did it, baby!” only to be promptly removed from the ceremony. And Lakaydra’s aunt, Ursula Miller, called her niece’s name out as she received her diploma. 

Shut up all that Black noise! Civilization is under attack!

Outraged, Senatobia School Superintendent Jay Foster, who threatened to remove any of those cheering and celebrating “thugs” from the ceremony, went to police to demand charges be filed against the Walker family.

“The goal was to allow all graduates to have the privilege of hearing their name called,” he said. So he sought the arrest of their family members. If it weren’t so outrageous and disgusting, we would have to laugh at the logic of arresting a family so that kids could celebrate this educational accomplishment.

What’s next, the football-game-to-prison pipeline? Or mass arrests for excessive cheering at a basketball game. Not to worry: lacrosse, golf, field hockey and water polo are safe.

Two weeks after the graduation ceremony, the family members were served with warrants that demand fines up to $500 and threaten prison time.

Racism runs deep.

In 2012, Shannon Cooper cheered with unfettered joy as her daughter, Iesha walked across the stage to receive her diploma from South Florence High School in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Soon thereafter she was arrested for disturbing the peace, handcuffed, and removed from the ceremony. That same year, an Ohio school administrator denied Anthony Cornist and four other students a high-school diploma because, you guessed it, “excessive cheering.”

Black people can’t do nothinnnnn’.

Here you have young people that are doing the RIGHT thing: working hard, studying diligently, following the rules, and avoiding Mississippi’s school-to-prison pipeline, which is among America’s most devastating systems. According to Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, Black kids in Meridian, Mississippi, were said have been “escorted from school for crying while being paddled” and for the crime “wearing the wrong color socks” they were given suspensions.

In spite of living in the state with the highest rate of childhood poverty, a fact often used to demonize and dismiss, these students had come and done what they needed to do for 12 years. Mississippi, the state where State Representative Gene Alday (R-Walls) responded to calls for increased funding in face of persistent educational inequality with, “I don’t see any schools hurting.  I come from a town where all the blacks are getting food stamps and what I call ‘welfare crazy checks.’ They don’t work.”  Graduation day is a day to tell Alday and so many others: “We have made it in spite of YOU and the systemic traps of white supremacy.”

Avoiding the traps of drugs, gangs, and premature death, Black kids from Mississippi to Oakland, from Ferguson to Baltimore are defying stereotypes and a society that routinely leaves them behind. 

Yet, for the Walker family the celebration was yet another reminder of second-class citizenship. Her family’s justifiable moment of jubilation is so problematic and disruptive that the law had to be brought in to control them.  Their joy has become yet another moment to try to push them into America’s criminal injustice system.

“It’s crazy,” Henry Walker said. “The fact that I might have to bond out of jail, pay court costs, or a $500 fine for expressing my love, it’s ridiculous man. It’s ridiculous.”

The family members are expected in court on Tuesday, June 9.

This is White supremacy on steroids. It is anti-Black racism meets race-fueled over-policing meets powerful hungry school administrations meets State violence and financial exploitation of the poor run amok.

This is a travesty. It is reprehensible and disgusting—not just for the denied joy to the Walker family and the potential consequences from the criminal justice system, but for the anti-Hallmark card sent to all of Black America: Dear darkies, even joy and jubilation is off-limits! Black people can’t do a damn thing in this country without the threat of being policed by Whites.

Meanwhile, White folks commit all kinds of crimes, push up against all kinds of rules and regulations—flaunting their comparative freedom. They stroll through airports openly carrying semiautomatic weapons. They shoot up movie theatres and schools with no fear of reprisal. And so many in uniforms attack and kill us with impunity, rarely being punished. Hurling racial slurs and taunts at sporting events is OK, but Black families cheering at graduation are a threat to rule of law. White politicians yelling at President Obama is not a problem, but Black joy is disruptive. Yes, racism is alive and well.

This is not just the denied freedom (of speech) and the withheld pursuit of liberty and the pursuit of happiness to the Walker family, but an effort to terrorize Black America. It is a message that there are consequences for simply living, carrying out the most basic, normal day-to-day activities. Just like slavery. Just like Jim Crow.

Ain’t a damn thing changed. The combination of a Black president, a browning population, and Black people daring to live well and be happy has not undone the foundation that is anti-Black racism.

White supremacy doesn’t simply demand that Black people be seen as inferior, unworthy and inhuman. Rather, it is a system where Black people  “have no rights.” As Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney proclaimed in the Dred Scott v. Sanford case in which an African-American slave sued for his freedom, America is a nation where Black people have no rights “which the White man was bound to respect.”

White supremacy demands nonstop vigilance to strike down any and every demonstration, even the most benign sign, of humanity. Any and all indications that Black people have rights, that Black people exist requires a response of containment. When we have the AUDACITY to express our humanity, the racists can’t wait to slap us down.

We dance. We sing. We shout. We holler. We make a joyful noise.

The dangers and crime of Living While Black.

Even Riley Curry, the daughter of NBA superstar Stephan Curry, is not immune. Despite charming millions for being a happy, healthy, spirited child in the public eye, her parents have been vilified and questioned as unprofessional and disruptive to the business of the NBA. She and her parents are policed by living free. The illusivity of Black joy from the NBA to high-school graduations.

So on a day of celebration and triumph, where the only crime committed was by the authorities trying to squelch a fleeting moment of Black pride and joy, we now get to see a nightmare unfold—a nightmare designed to punish loving family members for being so bold as to celebrate a legitimate triumph.

We manage to achieve, to excel, to march across the stages of life, flip our tassels, grab our diplomas and march into futures that glimmer with promise and hope, and the racists are mad and want to steal our joy. Because joy is evidence of Black humanity. Our joy says that we refuse to be destroyed by racism and we reject its demands of compliance and subservience.  White superiority is challenged by a Black joy that doesn’t require its approval, validation, definition, permission, or control. 

Black joy is self-affirmation and love, and we know that White racists interpret that kind of behavior as a step toward tyranny. And that’s why these Mississippi family members might have to go to jail. White supremacy requires us to hate and destroy ourselves, not cheer and bask in our successes. Because Black failure gives their lives definition, and shores up their delusional sense of racial superiority. 

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