Writing Black Joy Contest Winners

We're thrilled to share the winners of the Writing Black Joy Contest, sponsored by Thaddeus Miles in partnership with MBK Boston, 826 Boston, and the Black Joy Project.

This contest was launched on September 12th, 2020, which was officially declared Black Joy Day in the City of Boston. Black Joy Day is a time to appreciate and celebrate our power to uplift ourselves and others despite the challenges we face in our world today.

For this contest, which was open to all writers in New England and New York, we accepted essays between 500-1000 words about joy—specifically Black joy: moments, scenes, memories, that celebrate Black families, relationships, culture, and history.

Without further ado, here are the winning essays: 

Winning Essays: 

  • $1,000 First Prize: “House Parties” by Jacqueline Reason
  • $750 Second Prize: “Breakdance” by Yawa Degboe
  • $500 Third Prize: “Black Joi” by Kandice A. Sumner

Honorable mentions:

  • “Christmas Carnival Calypso Conniptions” by T.S.E Allen
  • "Taking Up Space” by Dr. Brandi Monique Derr
  • “Sundays with Dad” by Keena Keel

Contest Judge Intro: 

When GrubStreet asked me to serve as the judge for their contest, I immediately said yes after such a brutal year, I was definitely ready to read about Black joy! My process for selecting the winners was relatively simple: ultimately, I went with the stories that made me happiest.

For first place, I picked "House Parties" by Jacqueline Reason because of how skillfully her story captures a lively and compelling community, viewed through the lens of childhood. In second place is "Breakdance" by Yawa Degboe, who writes about a family basking in the simple joy of each other’s company (a scene which still makes me smile when I think of it). And in third place is "Black Joi" by Kandice Sumner, a tender story about the exciting and profound joy of forging new family in unexpected places.

My heartfelt congratulations to all of the contestants. Your stories have brought light and love into a world that desperately needs it, and I am grateful to you all for the joy that I experienced while reading about yours.

Lauren Wilkinson is the best-selling author of American Spy, an NAACP Image Award nominee, an Anthony award nominee, and an Edgar Award nominee. 

First Prize:

“House Parties” by Jacqueline Reason

Funny that when I think of growing up on the Burnside section of the Bronx, New York, I think of my Dad. He was more of a mythical figure than a practical person involved in raising me. I lived with Dad’s mom and younger siblings in apartment 4E. Our fourth-floor windows faced the street, giving us a bird's eye view of a block he never inhabited but often visited. Daddy was young then, mid-twenties, rocking barely buttoned, psychedelic shirts with platform shoes under bell-bottom pants. A small man in stature but big in charisma and charm. Those early years were simple. My Dad was my hero. 

Sunrise on the block meant awakening to the aroma of just-baked, Italian bread wafting from the bakery at the bottom of the hill. Every other Saturday morning, the day after payday, I accompanied Mommy down the hill to the markets. My favorite was the butcher shop, where they sold fish on one side and meat on the other. The shop was a flurry of activity teeming with neighborhood women. The women jockeyed for position, vying for attention from white men in blood-stained aprons, each hoping to score the best cut of meat or the freshest catch of the day. 

Mommy was a master operator here, showing the ladies how it was done. First, she commanded the attention of the men behind the counter, informing them of her preferences. Once she identified her selections, the men shuffled their feet through sawdust shavings covering the floors. Then, they made loud clanking noises as glistening cleavers chopped off heads and scaling knives flung fish skin through the air like a hailstorm. Though the smell was pungent and roishe, it would be worthwhile after Mommy rubbed on her special seasonings. The Porgy or Grouper would accompany fried offerings of chicken wings, johnnycakes, and sweet plantains. 

On the way home, we stopped at the number spot masquerading as a card shop while the real business went on in the back. Mommy was playing her numbers for the week. She kept market money in her purse, bill money in an envelope, and number money tucked in her bra for safekeeping. On the days Mommy won, she wrapped her winnings in a brown paper to assure she didn’t get pickpocketed. More often than not, however, she was taking money out rather than adding money in. We knew this was a problem when the Con Edison bills arrived on bright yellow paper signaling our lights could soon be cut off. 

On the days when there was extra money, our final stop was the record shop that smelled of incense and sold blacklight posters. I touched the glistening, stalagmite bars of homemade soap while the latest crooning’s of Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, or Millie Jackson played on black vinyl.  Once we made it up the steep Davidson hill, Mommy gave me her remaining silver coins to buy candy at the corner store. I ran effortlessly to the end of the block and blew all my money on banana Now-a-Laters, penny candy, and bazooka gum. The first time I read the Bazooka riddle all by myself, I thought I ruled the world. When I bought gum wrapped in a paper resembling a cigarette and blew the puff of powdered sugar out, mimicking smoke, mommy asked if I thought I was grown. 

By the time I got home, Mommy was in full preparation for the night’s house party. Frankie Crocker's baritone narrated the latest happenings on WBLS radio. Above the sounds of hot oil bubbling in black iron skillets were Betty Wright’s song of liberation, "Mr. Big Stuff" and Freda Payne’s lamentation of a marriage failing on its honeymoon leaving the new bride with only “a band of gold". Once mountains of food were cooked, the house spotless, the iron rod was removed from the police lock to hold the door open. One by one the women from back home arrived carrying musings, cautionary tales, and good cheer along with contributions of food and drink. I always knew the real party was in that kitchen, among those beautiful, bawdy women. 

Somewhere near dusk, Daddy arrived, doused in Old Spice cologne, sporting his freshly cut, natural, with his latest girlfriend slung across his arm. He always introduced me as his daughta, requested some suga, and leaned over so I could affectionately plant one on his lips. On those days, I knew I was a princess. He and Mommy caroused while his friends trickled in with girlfriends wearing white go-go boots, hot pants, hip huggers, and miniskirts. They  accessorized their brown bodies with beads, bangles, teased hair, and frosted lipsticks. These nights were legend. Nobody talked about working in hospital kitchens, laboring on construction sites, or cleaning hotel rooms. 

The milieu (pronounced Millay) was of happenings back home while the men cracked bottles of Johnny Walker Red and the ladies sipped glasses of Punche Cuba.  The house was transformed with young bodies gyrating to music and walls pulsating with laughter. I questioned if somebody had hit the number, but Mommy just said we were celebrating our love and pride for surviving the American dream.  Eventually, American music tapered off, and tones of calypso and reggae seeped in. American girls struggled to keep up with Island girls' winding bodies but soon figured out how to stay in the mix, bodies unifying to the music. 

By the wee hours of morning, the music lowered along with the lights. Lamps with colored bulbs were turned on, and some Aunt Somebody ushered me to bed. I obeyed and then snuck out to hear the soulful sounds of the Impressions, the Stylistics, or the Whispers. Couples doing the bop gave way to slow dancing to Billy Paul’s sultry rendering of "Me and Mrs. Jones." And there, in the midst of it all, was my dad, bigger than life, leading the crowd in being young and carefree, forever my hero. 


Author Bio: Jacqueline Reason (she/her) is an Afro-Caribbean writer born in St. Thomas US Virgin Islands and raised in the Bronx before it became the Boogie Down. Reason is a poet, playwright, Black feminist, and lifelong educator committed to helping others explore stories of identity and intersectionality.

Jacqueline raised three daughters in Northwest Indiana while earning her GED, BA in literature, and MA in Communications and Creative Arts. She is a Voices of Our Nations Arts (VONA) Fellow in memoir whose work focuses on survival and resilience.

Reason's poetry is available online and she is published in the Bronx Memoir Project Volume II and III. She is in pre-production of her original play, Under the Bridge and co-hosts a monthly poetry workshop and storytelling series in Brooklyn, New York. Her greatest love remains spending time with family, traveling, and being an influencer in the lives of her eight grandchildren.

Second Prize:

“Breakdance” by Yawa Degboe

I was laughing and crying at the same time. Bright smiles raised my cheekbones while my eyes glowed with tears. Wanja, my 7-years-old daughter, diagnosed me with bipolar disorder and kept a wary eye on me across the kitchen table.

My laugh was so frank that its resonance woke my baby Anani, who I was hugging with my left arm. He creased his round cheeks and erupted in a strident cry before cooling down. I bounced him back to sleep, but I could not stop laughing. My body was feeding off the endorphin vibes that bumped against the fridge, the walls, and the top cabinets. I could not respond to Wanja’s worried looks either. I could laugh or talk, not both. With the back of my free hand, I swiped right my tears in an attempt to regain control of myself before falling into another series of laughter.

Makeda, my youngest daughter, was sitting next to Wanja and was consumed by her plate. She was sorting the onions out of the fried rice we had just ordered. She lifted her chin and echoed my laughter with a vivid one of her own. Her laugh, vibrating from her round belly, filled the room with happiness. She spilled several grains of rice on the table and the lino floor. On alert, she paused. Then she looked up, waiting for a stern refresher on table manners. I was too busy laughing out loud and tearing down any bit of self-control left. Relieved, Makeda laughed with renewed vigor. She leaned her body in sharp angles while banging her tiny palms next to her glass. The debilitating effects of her guttural vocals did not please Wanja. “ Stop Makeda,” she said before turning to her dad for rescue. After all, he was the reason for this circus.

My husband was standing next to the kitchen counter in front of a takeout container and refilled Wanja’s plate with more rice. He was wearing the bright yellow hoodie and grey sweatpants that had become his domestic uniform in the last few months. My wet eyes brushed the back of his bald head, waiting for him to turn around. Instead, he broke down into the same hilarious dance that had brought me to tears a few minutes earlier. His head flip-flopped front to back. His shoulder lightened up into a wave. His torso collapsed, and his hips swung left-to-right on the beat of a poor rendition of an old tune. He radiated insouciance.

I laughed harder. Anani cried again. I transferred his fragile body on my left shoulder, cornered him with my trembling chin, and rubbed his back in a circular movement. Suddenly, I choked on the peas of the fried rice and spilled water on the table when trying to seize my glass. I will clean it up later. Our communion mattered more than order. Wanja ultimately joined the concert of laughter, amused by her dad’s entertainment and dazed by my unrest. At that point, I was faking it and had forced my laugh a little bit longer. In a slow-motion experience, my mind levitated above the kitchen table. I was hyper-alert of everybody’s moves and moods: my husband’s hip hop, Wanja’s prudence, and Makeda’s folly.

We were all free. Free to be. 

Author Bio: Yawa Degboe's calling is to make the invisible visible through words, art, or data. She is a Digital Marketing professional by day and a poet by night. She uses her analytical skills to cipher through numbers and makes sense of data while her creativity explodes in the late hours of the day. Her duality applies to many aspects of her life. Yawa is of Togolese descent, grew up in France, and moved to the United States as a student. Yawa holds a Master's from Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne, France, and an MBA from Clark University, Massachusetts. She speaks both English and French as well as Ewe. Her writings have been published in her head and online. Her most recent publication was with the Celebrities Series of Boston as part of the project "Black Voices.”

Third Prize:

“Black Joi” by Kandice A. Sumner

We should have known after Kobe and Gianna’s death that 2020 was going to be one long misery montage of a series of misfortunate events. In the span of one month, I lost a baby, a best friend, a mentor, and I had to uproot myself and move twice. The world outside my home was an inferno of Covid-19 catastrophe shut down, the racial uprisings caused by the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the revving up of a Sophie's choice of an election year. I was officially depressed, and I had no qualms about it. Each morning I woke up I accepted that that was enough of a victory, simply breathing.

Within this same month, I also decided to change jobs and return to Boston Public Schools after a short 1-year stint in Newton Public Schools teaching African American Literature and being tickled daily by the irony that the first time in my 11-year teaching career that I was able to teach an unapologetically Black curriculum was at a predominately white school. I had gone out to the suburbs because my dissertation research confirmed that Black children in predominantly white schools are just as damned as Black children in predominantly Black schools, just in different ways. In the words of James Baldwin, “it makes no difference in the way they castrate you, the fact of the matter is the castration.”

In my decision to leave the suburbs, amongst a handful of things that made me sad, there was one that arose to the top of my heart, which was that I wasn’t going to be able to teach and build a one-on-one relationship with one student in particular, Nia. Have you ever met someone in life where something unspoken in them connects with something unspoken in you? I knew Nia peripherally and I knew that once she was in my class "peripherally" would become "personally," but now that I was leaving, what do I do?

One day, I told Nia that there was something I wanted to ask her, so we got on a zoom call together. I informed her of my bittersweet decision to return to Boston Public Schools. The whiteness of the suburbs was suffocating me even more now as an adult than it did when I was a teen traipsing synonymous hallways. As an adult, and graduate of an HBCU who’s cultivated my own circle of Black thriving, I know how good and sweet fresh air feels and tastes. You can endure a lot when you think that's your own option, but when you know how it feels to truly breathe, short breaths of constriction just won’t do.

“Oh no! Aww man...I was really looking forward to you being my teacher next year”

“And I was really looking forward to teaching you. But, I have an idea. How would you feel about being my little sister instead?” The zoom call went completely silent and Nia stared blank-faced at the screen. I wasn’t sure what to do or say, so I just sat there, too, expecting the silence to offer clarity. Suddenly, Nia’s hands rushed to her face as if to catch it before it fell to pieces. “Are you okay?” I asked.

“ is a lot.”

“Yeah, sorry to kinda hit you with all this,” and I awkwardly gesticulated with my face the befuddling nature of the moment.

“I’m really sad you won’t be teaching me but...I don’t think you understand,” and her voice became muffled by quiet whimpers. I wasn’t sure if I had said the right thing or the wrong thing. If I had just healed something or broken something.

“I have been waiting and hoping and praying all my life for someone to call me little sister.” Now, I stopped breathing for a nano-second because in that moment I remembered something that I had completely forgotten. Nia had a big sister that passed away before she was born. Her name was Joi. That unspoken feeling inside me began to make more sense now. Nia broke her silence.

“All my life, all I’ve wanted was a big sister and for someone to call me little sis. And for it to be you...for you to want to be mine...I just..I have no words.”

I have two younger siblings, and from the second my younger sister was born, being a big sister was a badge of honor I took and still take seriously. Being a big sister is something sacred to me. Seeing this reaction in Nia confirmed this sanctity was mutual.

Every day since that conversation, no matter the hellish nature of the raging Covid, racial unrest, and personal internal turmoil, Nia and I are each other’s Black joy insurance with daily check-ins and sister circles.

“Today, my Black joy was listening to Meagan Thee Stallion’s new album.”

“My Black joy today is the neon color of the leaves on the trees.”

“My Black joy today is that my mother is healthy and smiling.”

“My Black joy today was our picnic.”

“My Black joy today was watching Black is King.”

“My Black joy today was hanging out and going shopping with you.”

“My Black joy today was going to the light show at the zoo with you.”

“My Black joy today was waking up.”

My Black joy with my new little sister has been a resurrection. At one point, all I could see this year was what I had lost, what was taken from me, and how small and defeated I felt because of it. But in loving Nia, I have relearned how to love myself and this life.

Author Bio: Dr. Kandice A. Sumner has been a successful urban and suburban public school teacher and leader for over 11 years. While born and raised in urban Boston, she graduated from a suburban school system via the METCO program (Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity); the longest-running voluntary desegregation program in America. Dr.Sumner graduated from Spelman College Phi Beta Kappa with departmental honors. As the feature of the documentary film “Far From Home”, and author of the TedTalk "How America's Public Schools Keep Kids in Poverty," she is invited frequently to public speaking and consulting engagements facilitating difficult conversations about race, education, gender and equity. Dr.Sumner is the sole facilitator for the RACE (Race Achievement Culture and Equity) professional development series and has been a mentor in various youth programs throughout the Greater Boston Area. Dr. Sumner’s doctoral research was a Critical Black Feminist Autobiography that examined the lived experiences of a participant in METCO and calls for further work to be done in the socio-emotional, mental, and racial identity development of Black individuals matriculating predominantly white institutions. Going from being one of a few Blacks in her school to learning at a historically Black college to teaching in underserved and predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods of Boston, Kandice has spent a lifetime traversing the lines of race, class, and gender.

Honorable Mentions:

“Taking Up Space” by Dr. Brandi Monique Derr of Norwood, MA

I was twelve years old when I received my blossoming body. My skin was the bold, bronzed color of cinnamon, and it wrapped itself snuggly around broad shoulders, wide “birthing” hips, and generous thighs. My face was open, and my eyes were dramatic and sweeping. My rich voice was commanding and melodious. When I walked into a room, my stride was sure and deliberate. I held my head high and proud. I felt strong and beautiful. I had no doubt that all who gazed upon me did so with adoration and reverence. I believed the world was a magical place where art was the universal language of life and love. I had no doubt that I was honoring my ancestors by taking up space in this way.

The elder women of my family took on the responsibility of putting me in my place. My mother would tell me to put on looser clothing to hide my curves. My grandmother would tell me that I was too large for a girl my age. My family would congregate around my body with scrutiny and admonishment.

My grandmother would use chemical straighteners and hot combs to tame my hair so that it appeared sleek, like my white classmates. My puffy, natural hair was a “problem” to be solved and constantly hidden from the public eye. When I came home from a day in the sun, the women of my family would shake their heads sadly at my sun-darkened skin, mourning the loss of my beauty with the deepening of my melanin.

Within a year, I had come to learn that all the ways in which I took up space were ugly and undesirable. My blackness, my large size, the naturally open and loving way that I engaged the world was wrong.

Fifteen years later, I was still living out the self-hate script that I had internalized as a young, rejected girl. I walked with a soft step, head tilted down, so as not to appear too proud. I rolled my shoulders inwardly so as not to draw attention to their broadness. I kept my hair pulled back or under woven hair that was more acceptable to the masses. I apologized for everything because just existing felt wrong and intrusive.

One day, I sat across the table from a colleague, a small, white woman. She was becoming visibly upset in our group discussion.  A moment later, I looked up to find her pounding her fists into the table as she growled her points. Our team members sat casually, just listening to her go on for what felt like minutes. I had to intervene. I stood slowly with my hands out in the “hold on” position and gently called her name.

Two team members grabbed me, telling me to calm down and take it easy. I was completely confused. Why was I being coached when a mere 3 feet across from me, this white woman was having a full-on Hulk attack with the table? For the remainder of the day, my peers avoided me. When I walked through the common spaces, I was met with averted gazes and pity-scrunched lips. Somehow, I had broken the silent agreement held for decades. I had allowed myself to become large, to take up too much space. The invisible cage door had become unlatched, and there was no telling what would happen once I walked through it.

I left, buzzing. On my walk home, I felt an internal breeze, the kind of discreet wind-swirl that announces the coming of a much-needed storm. A warm peace spread from my belly to my limbs. As I walked, the peace pulled my shoulders back, lifted my head, and rocked my hips into a generous sway. It felt good to reacquaint myself with this big, beautiful body, allowing it to extend itself into the world, moving with intent instead of apology. It became clear to me that I could not continue to work, to live, to love in my shrunken state. I deserved to take up space again.

I began learning how to grow myself in new spaces, educated, curious and loving. I stood tall and large, even when I felt small. I wore my hair in an afro, loving the way my tight kinky coils shocked people. I wore large earrings that demanded attention. I adorned my body with tattoos, piercings, and metals because beauty like mine was meant to be acknowledged. I reminded myself to let the peace within spread through my body, stretching me out to my full self, until I didn’t have to remind myself anymore. I hated myself and then worked hard to find the love again and again and again. I bargained with my head and my heart and fought silent wars every day. I picked up pieces of myself that fell along the way and sewed them back on, celebrating the scars. I worked hard and gave up and yelled and got back to work (in that order).    

I sit in my office, at the age of 38, looking around at all the visible reminders of who I am. When people come into my professional space, they see the purple wall, announcing my status as a queen. They see the Buddha statues and plants, celebrating my sense of spirituality and love of nature. Rainbow flags fly around my office. I plant them with pride, knowing that I am making a deliberate statement about who and how I love. And then they see me, big, brown, and beautiful. They hear my boisterous laughter, see my unabashed tears, feel my intention. When I stand and walk towards them, they see the whole of me, wrapped lovingly in my shameless, chocolate curves. I smile, remembering how I learned to let the peace spread through me and expand my whole self, how I learned to take up space.

Honorable Mentions:

“Sundays With Dad” by Keena Keel of Devens, MA

While growing up in a family of eight active, music-loving children and a multi-genre artistic mother, we only got to have Dad time on Sundays. I am number three. There is a 20 year difference between the oldest and the youngest. Dad worked nonstop to support us.

I got to spend alone time with him on various Sundays when he went to collect rent in a brownstone that he had bought and rented to friends on Columbus Avenue in Boston. I loved spending time with him. I swept the hall floors to ease his burden of working seven days a week as a machinist, landlord, and electrician.

I didn’t know as a child that Dad had been drafted to serve in World War II while he was an engineering student at Northeastern University. I didn’t grow up during wartime. He was just my Dad.

Later I discovered that he became a Tuskegee Airman Pilot, Bombardier, and Navigator. As a Flight Officer, he was not allowed to attend the officer’s club because of the color of his skin. So he got out of the service as soon as the war ended.

He still played his guitar in a rented studio but did not go back to playing in the religious group that played on WMEX radio in Boston prior to the war. One of the members of the band went on to play with Nat King Cole, he told me recently.

He never played the guitar at home while I was growing up. But I remember marveling at the mother of pearl inlay in his Gibson guitar as we peeked at it in the basement. “Oops. Who broke that piece off?” It turns out that my Dad couldn’t get callouses to stay on his fingertips, and it hurt too much to play. So eventually, he stopped.

We were happy to have him carve out Sunday time. He would say, “Where do you want to go?” And then he would drive us someplace new each week in New England and take us out to dinner. We learned a great deal about our history in the region.

Our last excursion was to Coney Island. We had exhausted our New England adventures. Unfortunately, while returning home, my older sister, who was driving, got lost in some mountainous area. Two white men tried to drive her off the road and kill us. I was in the front seat and still remember the look on their bigoted faces.

So, what did my Dad do? He said that he would build a swimming pool in the back yard and we would stay home. We loved our pool. He didn’t even swim. It was just for us and our safety.

My Dad is quite enterprising. There was nothing that he could not do well while we were growing up. He always strived to achieve the best and to be the best in work and play. He eventually became an electrical contractor.

During one of his birthdays, we decided to take him roller skating that Sunday on Lansdowne Street. We thought surely this was one thing that he could not do. Well, he put on his skates, put his hands behind his back, and glided off with tremendous ease. Meanwhile, we were all falling on our butts, laughing at ourselves. He then told us that he had been a roller-skating champion.

My Mom and Dad moved to Florida 20 years ago. I didn’t get to see them very much. I missed our Sunday dinners. My Dad always needed to know what was for dessert first. “Goodies!”

Mom passed away a few years ago, just shy of age 96. As I get ready to retire, I know how important it is to spend more time with Dad. He just turned 98. You would not believe it. His laid back disposition keeps him young. He still does things in the present that most adults his age cannot do. He drives and goes camping with one of my sisters. They have even camped from Florida to Newport, Rhode Island and back. My sister photo documents their journeys on Facebook as “Adventures with Dad.”

About six years ago, I was looking on Facebook and noticed that he was flying a plane from World War II. Later he told me he was being filmed for the Library of Congress but was a bit rusty.   

Covid has put a slight damper on my plans to move to Florida to be with him and three of my sisters whenever possible. I am isolated in New England while waiting for both of my hips to be replaced. Fortunately, one of my sisters gave him her iPad, and now we can see each other and talk on FaceTime. My Dad is pretty deaf, but he can understand you if he can see you.     

He watches little television due to hearing loss. So I get to make sure that he gets caught up with the news that he may have missed on the Internet. You should see his face light up. He is an avid seeker of knowledge.

Now, every day is Sunday with Dad. FaceTime has closed the distance factor. What a joy! He is now remembering stories from the past that many of us would find to be extraordinary. He is also sharing his daily activities like standing in line to vote in Florida on the first day of early voting. He told me that his hands shake, and they would not recognize his signature if he sent in a mail-in ballot. He would not allow them to reject his ballot.         

I look forward to the precious time that we spend seeing each other and laughing every day. Before we hang up, he always says, “Talk with you tomorrow.” What could be better than that.

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