The Audacity of Black Pleasure


by Jallicia Jolly


I adore Detroit summers. The calm of the crisp summer breeze creates a soothing serenity. The cacophony of laughter, music, and car horns filled my ears while strolling down the river walk with my friend. As I reveled in the joy of witnessing black and brown pleasure, I remembered how revolutionary these public expressions of love are amidst tides of hate and violence.


Suddenly, my friend and I noticed a crowd gathered around the parking lot. Tow trucks, police officers, and families filled the space of the open lot for what seemed to be a massive towing event. It was a public spectacle!


“It looks like they’re towing all those vehicles,” my friend exclaimed. As I nodded in astonishment, my wide eyes wandered to the bike holder on a silver 2006 Ford Fusion that was gradually lifted onto one of the trucks. “That’s your car!” I yelled in disbelief. My friend raced across the pavement and towards the crowd. I followed.



With focused dedication, the workers of the towing company lifted at least 10 vehicles. As we approached the tow truck driver, he explained that the city hired him to pick up cars “illegally parked” near the river walk. After accepting my friend’s frantic plea to pay the cost ($200) to receive her car, the workers released the vehicle. They chuckled as one joked: “do I get to have $50 out of this?” I cringed.



I felt incomplete as I saw sullen black and brown faces while driving away. The assaults on pleasure meant more than just no more fun. It meant no transportation to home and work. It meant possible unemployment. In the context of constrained income and an increasingly dehumanizing carceral state, it meant arrest for minor offenses. “That was the money I just worked for today,” stated my friend.


I thought about witnessing working class people enjoying the suffering of other working class people. I pondered the psychic toll that arises from such explicit and implicit acts of terror that occur alongside quotidian activities such as parking, driving, and playing music. I wondered how marginalized people could develop a sense of community that moved beyond the deep feelings of non-belonging in a world that tells you that you are not deserving of pleasure.



Black pleasure is a political act in the era of anti-black (& poor) state sanctioned violence. It is more important than ever to secure healing spaces that revive spirits as they uplift souls. As I’ve learned, calls to embrace black joy become revolutionary in the wake of the dehumanization of the militarized carceral state.

From backyard get-togethers to evening lounges, daily religious practices to public recreational activities, streetside rebellions to artistic vibrations, the varied sources of black pleasure have historically provided the light of hope alongside dark brutalities. Sacred and affirming, these spaces offer comfort to the devalued, opening up possibilities for sharing connections and building coalitions as we learn how to live more meaningful lives.


But what happens when these spaces are under attack? When the sources of black pleasure become threats to state power? When thriving while black assaults the core of public profit and private ownership?


Amidst the fraught intersection of law, race, and class, ferocious attacks on black pleasure and life become commonplace and integral to the militarized carceral state. The carceral state includes a myriad of laws, practices, and institutions that coalesce to systematically punish those who defy the codes of civility as it rewards the most “law-abiding.”  The ubiquitous and synchronized system of criminalization it creates derives from notorious bloodlines stretching from its grandfather – the school-to-prison pipeline – and its not-so-distance cousins – zero-tolerance policies and broken-windows policing.


Centering this approach to policing is the criminalization of public spaces and services, especially in predominately poor inner-city communities of color.  City spaces remain demarcated by class and race distinctions that determine who can access the benefits associated with citizenship. These include the right to life, safety and protection as well as access to public services.


The ongoing privatization of public services has not only reduced public ownership of traditionally communal spaces such as parks, street parking, and beaches, but has also shifted the care for dependent members of society from governments to communities. Amidst this backdrop, black pleasure becomes both a privilege and a threat, reminding powerful authority figures that black people demand meaningful living beyond the terms of survival outlined by an oppressive state.


Such control over public goods and spaces severely diminishes the sense of community and quality of life that these services can offer. In the era of anti-black anti-brown domestic terrorism, this reduction of access to public spaces births a character of dehumanization that subjects everyday acts of survival to lethal and often soul-killing scrutiny. The ultimate result: a militarized carceral capitalist state that profits from the criminalization of black and brown joy.


The disruption of pleasure spaces is a variation of the state’s long-term tactic of divide and conquer. Through the recruitment of marginalized people – particularly the poor, the working class, and people of color – the state cultivates and reinforces a dynamic policing system that veils racism as it destroys solidarities among groups with similar interests and needs. This exploitative cycle erects a vocabulary of survival that subjects the liberatory potential of pleasure to the economic and political incentives of the state.




Can we still live meaningful lives in the wake of this dehumanizing logic?


It starts with diverting our attention, energies, and resources to abolishing interrelated processes and practices of anti-black, anti-poor, xenophobic, and gendered violence. By naming and concretely addressing these violences, we can appropriately address their manifestations in our psyches, relationships, homes, and communities.


Like many people who experience, witness, and retell the terrors of living in an anti-black, white supremacist, militarized carceral world, I continue to weather intense trauma while trying to live with dignity. The Russian Roulette style of terrorism occurring throughout inner-city communities is maddening. The pain is incomprehensible. The wounds deep.


Yet, we must survive the paralysis game. Amidst the ongoing struggle between life and death, we must secure spaces of vibrancy that allow us to strategically address American barbarism and domestic terrorism. Spaces that bellow deafening calls for liberation amidst lethal demands for complacency and silence.  That straddle the cracks of hope, as they birth orgasmic glimpses of freedom. That restore as they resist.


My pleasure is armed with compassion. It is jolly, raw, grounded, and honest. Along its contours are the beads of possibilities that link the love for life to the joy of living. It’s not just naïve bliss, it’s strategic optimism mixed with fierce truthseeking. It’s revolution. It’s abolition. It’s radical rehumanization. It’s inner peace. It’s love and hope. And it’s always ready.


In solidarity,



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