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Holding on to Joy

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We yearn for glimmers of joy as we dismantle racist systems and consume traumatic news updates, all while sheltering at home in a pandemic. So, we’re revisiting our very first episode, Holding on to Joy, with an updated conversation between host Tonya Mosley and her grandmother, this week’s Wise One, Ernestine Mosley.

Our question-asker is Dr. Seema Yasmin, who is an Emmy Award-winning journalist, poet, medical doctor and author. She asked:

“How can I feel joy when the world is burning?”

This episode was recorded before COVID-19, so Tonya was able to travel to her hometown of Detroit. There, she talked to her grandmother and New York Times bestselling author, adrienne maree brown. Tonya asked her grandmother how she continues to find joy. Her response: “There is a difference between joy and happiness,” said Ernestine Mosley. "I am happy right now. I am just happy to see you. That’s different from joy. The joy is in your heart and it stays with you.”

For Ernestine Mosley, she gets joy out of helping people and getting involved in change-making. “When I can talk to someone and lift their spirits, or do something for them to help them in spite of everything in the world, it is still beautiful. We have a beautiful world here and we have to change it.”


The self-identified pleasure goddess, adrienne maree brown, also distinguishes joy from happiness. “Joy is not extraneous. .. something you have to earn, or off to the side.” For brown, joy is a freedom journey that allows for pleasure. So much so, that she wrote a book about how to make social justice the most pleasurable human experience, called “Pleasure Activism”. She references Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic As Power” which emphasizes that in order to keep your eye on the prize, you need to experience your full erotic self. How do you do that?

Brown suggests starting with getting to know yourself — learning what your calling is and what work you are supposed to be doing. Next, practice "attention liberation" which is taking your attention away from what you cannot change and focus on the helpers. Then, do an inventory of your life. Specifically, identify the spaces you feel in absolute alignment with yourself and out of alignment (i.e. “I say I care about food justice but I buy McDonald’s every time I’m at the airport” says brown.) Finally, brown emphasizes, “Joy is a practice.”

While our world is undergoing a transformation that some may even dub an apocalypse, brown reminds us communities that have survived genocide do so through laughter, intimacy and connection.

“Laughter is important. Joy is important. It’s not a guilty pleasure, it is a strategic move towards the future we all need to create. One in which our children are laughing, our children are free. They can go wherever they need to go. There are no borders holding them. That is what I am living and loving for.”

Brown leaves us with a powerful quote from Bobby Sands, an Irish nationalist who led a hunger strike in prison in 1981:

“Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.”

Tonya checked in with her grandmother recently to talk about joy in this moment. Ernestine lives in Detroit, one of the places hardest hit by COVID-19. And for the first few weeks of the protests, she was in tears mourning the death of George Floyd.

“I've shed quite a few tears. I remember my parents ... I used to see my mother crying and I couldn't understand what it was all about,” Ernestine says. “But now, I guess I've taken her place since I've gotten older. I think the world is reaching out now for help. We have to cry sometimes. But then there is a time we have to stop crying and pick up the reins again, and get a little joy in between.”

Ernestine says there is something about that joy that is the foundation of her life. “That joy that lives inside of me that my mother and daddy taught me when I was young,” she says. “When things were hard, when I only had one pair of shoes to wear. All we had was each other.” Ernestine reminisces of a time when neighbors and family helped one another and created fond memories of joy amidst the difficulties.

Ernestine has seen lots of George Floyds die in her 94 years of life. She highlights the many generations passing down the fight of racial justice, and everyone doing their part.

“You work so hard and you give so much of yourself, and you're thinking about your children having to fight the same battle over again once they grow up,” she says. “We can't rebuild yesterday. Today is a day. Tomorrow will be somebody else's day.”

As you continue to find your lane in the fight for racial justice, remember: it is absolutely necessary to feel joy in these times. You don’t have to earn it. You deserve it.

Some guidance on finding (and holding on to) joy:

1. Faith/Spirituality: Set intentions, pray, worship, meditate. Reacquaint or deepen your relationship with nature.

2. Rituals: Care for your body (baths, exercise, adornment). Feed your soul (read, write, create, cook). Do anything that brings you joy.

3. Look for the helpers and help the helpers: Find ways to be generous with each other or lift another's spirit. Redirect your attention on the solution-makers in a crisis. Find ways to support those helpers for the collective good.

4. Connect with the self: Go on dates with yourself, take an inventory of yourself and your life, write down the spaces you feel in complete alignment with yourself in your life (i.e. my role as an auntie) or walk around your home naked while looking at your miraculous body.

5. Connect with those you love and who love you: Reach out to people who make you feel loved and check in on someone you’ve been thinking about. Also, try to laugh as much as you can. Laughter, intimacy and connection are necessary to survive and embark on the freedom journey.

Episode transcript can be found here.

Episode Guests:
Ernestine Mosley, Tonya Mosley’s grandmother
adrienne maree brown, writer of "Emergent Strategy", pleasure activist, a sci-fi/Octavia Butler scholar, facilitator, speaker, singer and doula.

Recommended Articles:
Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic As Power by Audre Lorde
The Pandemic, the Protests and the Police: Songs of the Summer 2020 by Pendarvis Harshaw

Recommended Books:
Books That Changed Me In Big Or Small Ways by adrienne maree brown
Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good by adrienne maree brown
Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown
Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence by Esther Perel
How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, Community by Mia Birdsong
Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, Connie Burk

Recommended Listening:
Atlanta-Based Organization Advocates For Rest As A Form Of Social Justice from NPR
Adrienne Maree Brown On Finding Joy During The Coronavirus Crisis from WBUR
How to Learn from A Plague from “Still Processing” podcast
Sustaining Ourselves When Confronting Violence from “Irresistible” podcast
Love & Rage: The Path of Liberation Through Anger from “Irresistible” podcast
Songs Giving Us (Much Needed) Life from “Code Switch” podcast
Tracee Ellis Ross Continues To Hit 'The High Note' In A Sexist and Racist World from “It’s Been A Minute with Sam Sanders” podcast


Pandemic Toolkit: A collaboration between Death, Sex & Money podcast and Truth Be Told, where listeners shared suggestions on how to get through traumatic events like quarantine. There are tons of activities and reflections that can support your journey in finding and holding on to joy.

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