Resistance, Persistence and the Pursuit of Happiness: A Juneteenth Meditation

“This joy I have—the world didn’t give it, and the world can’t take it away.”

Resistance, Persistence and the Pursuit of Happiness: A Juneteenth Meditation
A painting by Megan Gabrielle—Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn’s goddaughter—an artist based in New York, entitled “Rebirth.” (Megan Gabrielle)

Growing up in the church, this often-exalted axiom has been ringing loudly in my ears as I watch footage of white people in black masks spray painting buildings with “Black Lives Matter,” and police officers breaking storefront windows captured by peaceful protestors seeking justice for average Black citizens whose names we should not collectively know—now as common in the cultural zeitgeist as the most celebrated Hollywood star.

I was reared at First A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles under the pastorship of Rev. Dr. Cecil L. Murray. I was raised on the stories of persistent Black folk— like founders Biddy Masson and Richard Allen, who were part of the everyday stories of Black history-makers I learned about beyond the 28 days in February. A mural was painted in the sanctuary, displaying a visual history of what my people had overcome since arriving to this land in 1619.

I was in the sanctuary for a town hall gathering the evening verdicts of the Rodney King police beating and the subsequent uprising that ensued. Although I was safe, I didn’t make it home that night.

My parents joined the First A.M.E. soon after they married in June of 1966; their happily-ever-after having begun on the night of the Watts uprising in 1965, following another incident between a Black man and the police. I sometimes wonder if I would have even existed had it not been for that horrific incident.


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I was born in the summer of 1967, heralded by a number of high-profile uprisings against racial oppression across the country, and the headline “Negro Youth in America: Anxious, Angry and Aware,” sprawled in red across the cover of Ebony Magazine—John Johnson’s legacy publication, a declaration of Black lives.

Protest is a language I know well. Struggle, anxiety and rage are part of my DNA. It’s a lineage I share with scores of Black folks whose ancestors came to this country enslaved on ships from Africa. What I rely on, however, is joy, and Black folks’ capacity for so much of it, even in the midst of turmoil. It is what moves us through the intergenerational trauma we’ve carried over centuries, in our quest to protect our portion of this life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness deal.

This Juneteenth—June 19—marks the 155th celebration of the liberation for African Americans, marking the reading of federal orders by Union general Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas rendering the last state of enslaved people in the United States free. And while the trauma of legalized dehumanization of Black Americans continues still, I am asserting the right to my joy.

Joy not just in a spiritual sense, but in the simplicity of receiving a letter from a friend in the Bronx, now well after she and her husband had contracted the coronavirus.

A call from Mom. From my brother.

The video culmination of my nephew from elementary into middle school; two of my goddaughters graduating high school.

Joy in my morning walks meandering through the park-like oasis of historic Village Green, as teams of squirrels forage tree nuts for their breakfast; the smell of bacon wafting outdoors mingling with the fragrance of blooming magnolias, agapanthus and freshly cut grass.

Sidewalk chalk drawings of “#BlackLivesMatter” and handmade window signs demanding “Justice for George Floyd;” red, white and blue placards heralding “JOE” from a front door.

Resistance, Persistence and the Pursuit of Happiness: A Juneteenth Meditation
(@okaymarnie / Twitter)

“The nod” I get from Black people as they pass; those calling me “sis” or “daughter”—not because we’re related by blood, but because we are all heirs of stolen families. We have a kinship.

The hug I give to a neighboring tree, since embracing loved ones is off-limits in the midst of the pandemic.

Joy in the sight of Confederate statues toppled; the removal of the name and bust of Rufus Von KleinSmid from a prominent historic building at USC’s University Park Campus—which I passed daily as a graduate student and now on staff—after years of push by various groups on campus due to his active support of eugenics.

A petition to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge after Representative John Lewis; and social media “black outs” bringing attention to the work of Black artists and current ones urging the purchase of books by Black authors to populate bestsellers lists; a call for support of Black banks and Black business.

Reading “The Book of Delights” by Ross Gay, and his chapter “Joy is Such a Human Madness” borrowing from Zadie Smith’s essay on “Joy” in her collection of essays, “Feel Free,” which I am also now reading.

Educating and registering new Black voters.

Joy in those someday children of my young nieces and nephew who may never have to experience a season of rebellion for atrocities against Black bodies—because in this moment the nation finally understood one simple truth, as the poet Emma Lazarus wrote, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., echoed:

“Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”

It is with this hope of freedom without fear, as Nina Simone once asserted, that I celebrate Juneteenth—honoring the dreams of forefathers and mothers who resisted and persisted so that I could lay claim to these simple, immutable pursuits of happiness that are part of this nation’s promise.

This, despite the headlines reiterating GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell’s insistence that eight years of President Obama’s presidency somehow makes up for more than two centuries of the enslavement of Black people. Despite Kentucky Senator Rand Paul proudly holding up an ages-old anti-lynching bill, just as two Black men in Southern California are found hanged in public spaces.

Joy doesn’t always come easy, but I owe it to myself, and those who came before me to continue to be mindful of my blessings, and my privileges. It is in remembering these joys I have today that will help me make it through the fight for the battles that come tomorrow.


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About

Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn, a Los Angeles-based journalist and author, is currently writing stories for a forthcoming collection chronicling life, love, and rediscovery during menopause. Her website is www.janicelittlejohn.com.