Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts, BLACK JOY

Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts, BLACK JOY

Professor and New York Times bestselling writer Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts joins Zibby to talk about her eighteenth book, Black Joy. Tracey shares the traumatic experience of losing her cousin to racialized gun violence, as well as memories of her grandmother that seem to bring her back to life. Zibby and Tracey also discuss how children often bring out a sense of innocence and playfulness in adults, why therapy was essential for Tracey to write this book, and the importance of healing tears and feeling joy.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Tracey. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Black Joy: Stories of Resistance, Resilience, and Restoration.

Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. I appreciate you.

Zibby: Tracey, your stories, they’re so open and raw and beautiful. There’s so much pain in so many parts. I was reading and I was like, oh, my gosh, I wish I could just reach through this book and hug this woman for some of the stuff. Also, you come at it from such a positive point of view and such empowering advice to adopt this black joy frame of mind and own it and everything. I was so moved. I was really, really moved and touched.

Tracey: Thank you. That means a lot because that’s what I hope that people get from the book, not just the pain, but also the joy, obviously.

Zibby: I know I mentioned a minute ago, your grandmother. You did such a great job of describing her, Viola Brown. Right? Was that her name?

Tracey: Viola, yes.

Zibby: Viola, everything from the seven books a week that she read and James Patterson-loving and how your family thought she was kind of bougie, but she loved it, and just how close and the feeling you had, the feeling of safety and protection that you got. How sad when she died, oh, my gosh. As somebody who’s been close to both my grandmothers, it just was so moving. Tell me more about her and more about your relationship.

Tracey: One of the things that led to me writing that was that there were so many things — I think I’m going to start tearing up already. I didn’t mean to do that. There were so many things that I wish I had an opportunity, the presence of mind to say before she passed. There’s so many things that I wanted to know that I feel like are, in some ways, kind of lost in the ether. I just don’t have those answers. She was something else. She was not what people would traditionally envision as the black grandmother that we see in media, the muumuu-wearing, Bible toting. She was very sophisticated. No shade to that. My great-grandmother was that figure in my life. She was someone that you looked, and you admired. What I didn’t know, there was so much behind that. There was so much story behind that. There were so many things that I carry generationally that I wasn’t even aware came from her. Looking back in hindsight, I was able to go back into those memories of her chain smoking while I’m in the bed with her or all of these moments and really unpack them for the way that she showed joy, the way that she showed love, which was not traditional. It was not the thing that people would say, oh, yeah, that was love. That’s joy. It was just the safety and the protection that I felt when I was around her. She traveled the world. She worked with high-profile people and their children, and again, not falling into this model of what some might call the mammy model or the black housekeeper or something like that. She was very vocal, very open about who she was, and blackity-black, black, black. It never stopped her. She was able to reinvent herself over and over again. I take that. I carry that with me.

Zibby: One of the things you wrote about her which I felt so deeply is when you said that — she said that she would be fine. She was ready to go. You’re like, why do you have to take all your stories with you? I feel that way so much about people that I’ve lost. Now I’m going to cry.

Tracey: I think sometimes that that generation, the Greatest Generation or whatever you want to call the Silent Generation, and especially within black communities, you don’t talk about certain things. You don’t talk about your trauma. You don’t talk about the hard things. There’s a fear around it. There were so many things that I learned after the fact from just talking to people. I’ve begun to do genealogical work, so I was able to kind of trace her line. Things I was uncovering, I was like, oh, my goodness, Granny, why? Why didn’t you tell me this? I think towards the end of her life, she was starting to open up, but I was in my early twenties and living in Chicago and not even had the presence of mind. Actually, it wasn’t until I had my own child that I recognized the importance of that. I get it. Those stories, I don’t like to think of them now as lost, though. I like to think of them as part of my journey of uncovering. It’s just going to take a little bit longer for me to do that.

Zibby: Yeah, like they’re tucked in, just buried waiting to peek out again. Most young people don’t realize when their grandmother is depressed. You don’t think about things like that. It’s not even on the radar. I think you should write a whole book just about her, honestly. I feel like that would be so great. Then also, your cousin, oh, my gosh, I am so sorry. For listeners — I’m forgetting half the time that people even listen to these conversations because I’m just deep in it. Your cousin was shot at the grocery store randomly for no reason. It’s so awful. I’m so sorry. You reference The Body Keeps the Score so many times and the way that trauma affects you physically. Then you referenced your own physical side effects, if you will, of all the stuff that comes from that. Just tell me — you don’t have to if it’s too painful — all the emotions from anger to shock to sadness. It’s just so awful. The saddest part for me in reading it is, you’re like, well, this is what I’ve been told. This is just how it is, especially as a black person in Kentucky. It’s just never going to change. That felt like one of the more hopeless moments in a book that was filled with hope.

Tracey: If I could just paint a picture, there I was, a writer writing about racial reconciliation, writing about racism and social justice issues, telling the stories of Philando Castile and Trayvon Martin and talking about these people, these people that were my people, but there was still distance. Then to have this moment where I get this phone call — that day, I had heard, like we all do on social media — we hear about a shooting. Then if it’s close to some place that we know or that we grew up, we kind of check in. Hey, what’s going on? I did that earlier in the day when I first heard about it. I had posted on social media. Hey, heard there was a shooting in J-Town. What’s going on? Check in, everyone. You don’t think that it’s going to hit home, even black folks who move through the world with this sense and this understanding that we are seen, we’re viewed differently. Therefore, the opportunity or the possibility for violence is very present. It never occurred to me that this would hit home until I got the phone call from my mom who lives right across the street from the grocery — it’s my elder cousin, but I called her aunt, Aunt Vickie — and said, “It was Vickie.” I lost it. I was in the kitchen. I just sank on the floor. She was the sweetest person. Not that anyone would ever deserve that, but certainly not someone who would have helped this man. You said something, for no reason, that she was shot for no reason. I wrestle with that. On the one hand, it was something random that nobody expected. On the other hand, there was a reason.

Zibby: I’m sorry. You’re right. I meant the choice of her specifically.

Tracey: Exactly. Absolutely. For him to say to another bystander, “I’m not going to shoot you because you’re white –” He had just been, fifteen minutes earlier, at my parents’ church trying to get into the church. Because of Charleston a few years earlier, they had put security in place. My parents were just there the hour before for their afternoon Bible study or whatever. It was going to hit my family regardless. The knowledge of that really sent me — you were talking about the body — really sent me into a grieving space that I didn’t know how to navigate. I’ve had loss in the past. I’ve had trauma, my own personal trauma in the past. This felt like something different because it was the same old story around race that I had been writing about for all of these years. Only difference was that it was my family. It was my home. In unravelling that, though, I will say, is how I found joy, how I understood that joy was living in that same space with me. I had to go through this process of unpacking and accessing joy, which is black joy because it lives in this context that other groups don’t necessarily have as an experience.

Zibby: Wow, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

Tracey: No apologies.

Zibby: Okay, now we’ve both cried. It’s only been ten minutes. If we had the day together, we’d be a mess on the floor.

Tracey: Healing tears. They’re healing tears.

Zibby: They’re healing tears, yes. We would feel much better at the end. You wrote this paragraph sort of as a thesis statement to the book, essentially, about black joy. I thought I could just read that if you don’t mind.

Tracey: Sure.

Zibby: You said, “When attempts are made to define what liberation and equity looks like for black people, we often hear the language of striving and collective burdens, and rightfully so. Our history is filled with the evidence that struggle and dogmatic persistence has been integral to our four-hundred-year-long freedom project. As more and more studies reveal, the lens of struggle as the means to freedom has not come without a cost. The physical, psychological, and spiritual impact of racial trauma has often found us crossing the finishing line of every battle war-torn and broken from the inside out. As a writer, storyteller, and black contemplative, I’m not sure I can ignore this for much longer, especially when there is another significant tool in our arsenal, one that not only deeply disturbs the racist systems we are trying to dismantle, but also offers a direct path to healing and wholeness as we do. That weapon is powerful and all-encompassing and necessary. That weapon is joy.” So beautiful.

Tracey: Thank you. Thank you so much. The writing process is such a weird thing for me. I was writing these essays. I’d written the essay for The Washington Post that kind of sparked the whole thing, the whole process of putting this book together. I had to go back. I’m like, what am I trying to say? What is the core point of this book? I think that’s really it. Our experience as black people in this country, what we’ve seen has always been around struggle, around the trauma, around fighting against stereotypes and biases and all of that, fighting against white supremacy. All of those things, very real, very necessary. That’s the work. That’s the work of liberation. I also felt like there was another work happening simultaneously that wasn’t being talked about. I’m not presenting anything new. I’m not saying, hey, I got the answer. I’m the black joy expert. No. What I did was I went and unpacked all the stories of how these two things, this trauma and this joy, live together. I went to my grandmother. I went to my great-grandmother. I went to my own personal experiences on the job or writing or with my husband making him chili, any of those things, and said, oh, we’ve been doing this. Everyone says black folks are the most resilient people on the planet because of that four-hundred-long freedom project. I wanted to know where that resilience comes from. How can we tap into it? How can we wield it even as we’re fighting for voting rights, for all of these things? How can we wield this so that we are not so broken once we arrive at wherever policy we’re trying to get, whatever action we’re trying to take? We’re not so broken on the inside. That is essentially what I tried to do by telling my own stories, the stories of my family, and observations of just life in general.

Zibby: Wow, and the stories of your daughter. The story you told about dancing in the rain during the pandemic, I loved that. It was just beautiful. One time, in this rainstorm — it made me think of this. This is not, obviously, relatable. It wasn’t in some sort of societal context, but just as an individual moment. We were caught in this rainstorm. The water pressure where we were staying — there was no water. The water had turned off. I was like, we’re going to do our shampoo and — we’re doing it out there. I went inside and I grabbed the shampoo and conditioner. We all stood in the rain. We all washed our hair and let it all come out. We were in our clothes. We were dressed and drenched. It was one of my favorite memories with the kids even though at the time we were freezing and whatever.

Tracey: That’s totally a mom move too. That’s totally a mom move.

Zibby: Right? I know. I’m like, let’s get this done now.

Tracey: That is definitely a mom move forever and ever. My daughter has taught me so much. How I even understand joy, I’m learning it from her because she doesn’t have the stuff that I have.

Zibby: How old is she now?

Tracey: She’s ten. There is a level of freedom that she has, and confidence and sometimes lack of boundaries. There is a sense of self that I know that, just because of various circumstances, I didn’t have. As much as I love on her and I’m challenged by her sometimes because I’m a mom, also, I study her. There’s a purity of it. There’s an innocence to it. If we can find a way to return to that inner child, that child inside of us, then we would find the joy that maybe we can’t access all the time. I’ve just been doing work around her. Oh, you want to go to the park? Mommy, get on the swings. Oh, me? Me on the swings? Yeah. I get on the swing. I swing. It’s this moment that floods back these emotions that just flood back. Oh, I really used to love to swing. That was my thing. How high could I do? Could I jump off? That kind of thing. She’s teaching me all the time.

Zibby: I recently — not that recently. Maybe a couple years ago. When my little guys were on the swings — I have four kids. Now my little guys are seven and eight. I was pushing them back and forth. I had, all of a sudden, this flashback that when I was a little girl my mom used to do “one, two, three, we.” We’d go, “one, two, three,” and then would run under my swing and forward. I was like, oh, my gosh, I can do “one, two, three, we.” I did for the kids. The joy on their faces, it does connect you to yourself and that part of us that is so optimistic and innocent and hopeful. I feel like when all of that has been crushed when we don’t know if we can walk safely on the street for COVID or racial issues or whatever, tapping into that elemental human emotion that we all share, that capacity for optimism and joy despite whatever else is out there is incredibly powerful. I feel like you captured that just so perfectly in this book.

Tracey: It is, it’s so powerful. Guess what? It’s healing. I’ve been doing a lot of reading around somatic experiencing and all of that. It is physiologically helpful to go there. I tell a story in the book about, the first time I recognized or was at least aware of what joy felt like in my body was watching This Is Us. I’m a writer, so I love good storytelling and character development. I was sitting in front of the screen like, . My husband was like, weirdo. What’s going on? I had had these conversations with my therapist prior about, what does it feel like? Do you even know what it feels like? I was like, no, I don’t. I know I’ve had joy, but I don’t know what it felt like. That experience of stopping and saying, oh, wait a minute, my hands, my arms, I’m really happy, this is what this feels like, then the next week when there’s another unarmed black man shot, the next week when COVID feels like it’s this huge, never-ending thing, I’m able to go in my mind, in my heart, in my quiet moments to that moment of joy. It’s not like the red pill or the blue pill. It’s not all-encompassing, healing thing, but it helps me. It helps me get over the hump of that fear and that anger and that rage, which are all valid emotions also, but it helps me manage it a little better.

Zibby: Wouldn’t it be funny if there was a whole thing about memoirists and the therapists behind them? I feel like there should be a pillow. “Behind every great memoir is a wonderful therapist.”

Tracey: Absolutely. The other side, “Or not.”

Zibby: Yes, “Or not.” Exactly.

Tracey: It’s kind of clear in the writing.

Zibby: It’s almost like the best supporting actor nomination or something.

Tracey: Seriously, Black Joy could not have been — I could’ve written it, but I don’t think I could have stepped outside of myself enough to be able to tell those stories without complete breakdown without my therapist. That is a non-negotiable for me on my schedule. It’s necessary.

Zibby: The power of therapy cannot be underrated.

Tracey: I also recognize how much of a privilege that is.

Zibby: I know. I should’ve said that too. Yes, it is a privilege.

Tracey: I say that, but I’m also super conscious of, I have health insurance, and people don’t. I have access. Some people don’t. I always try to be super conscious of the fact that what I’m talking about is actually a privileged standpoint that I wish for everybody in this world to have without stigma.

Zibby: Yes, I agree. Thank you for saying that. Tracey, what’s coming next in your life? What do you have going on?

Tracey: The release of this book and all the things that come along with that.

Zibby: Very exciting.

Tracey: Yes, extremely exciting. I’ve been at this for twenty years. I just realized that — in 2002, I published this little, tiny poetry collection on my own. I’m twenty years and eighteen books later. Now with the major house and all of the things that come with that, it just feels like a real moment for me. I’m just trying to sit in the gratitude of that and hope that these stories and these essays really help folks really see something that they can take from it and begin their own healing journeys. Begin just paying attention. If everybody just begins to start paying attention to the joy in their lives even just a little bit, I’m good. That’s the goal. I have another book that’s coming out in the fall. Then They Came for Mine is actually me unpacking how I’ve been healing from racial violence in telling that story. It’s built around the story of my cousin’s murder. That’s coming out. I’m just trying to sit and be still and take it all in and talk to wonderful people like you.

Zibby: Aw, thank you. I want to get a copy of your next book. That sounds so good. Amazing. Wow. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Tracey: I said this before. Somebody just asked me that.

Zibby: I’m sorry to ask route questions.

Tracey: No, no, no. I always say that because I think my answer caught them off guard. I said that, don’t take advice. Honestly, I have been writing for twenty years, independent and then mainstream and the whole thing. I just realized that, write your story. Write what you feel compelled to write. Definitely, study the craft. If you need to take a class or whatever, do so. Tell the story you feel led to tell. Over the years, I’ve gotten so many advice. Do you write every day? Some people say yes. I can’t because I have kids. Just constant opposing viewpoints. I think it’s less about advice. I would just tell a writer, write. I have so many people that come up to me. Oh, I have this book I’m thinking about writing. Write. Please, just write. The biggest part of writing is rewriting. It’s not like you’re going to write something and put it out next week. Tell the story that you’re called to tell. Then utilize your resources around you to be able to make that story the best it can be. I tell my students that. I tell anyone who’s interested. It’s less about me giving you my path because my path might not be yours. It’s more about, chart your own way, basically.

Zibby: I love that. That’s very important. I feel like until you experiment with a page or two, how are you going to know if it’s any good or not?

Tracey: How are you going to know what the story is?

Zibby: You got to play on the page a little bit.

Tracey: Absolutely.

Zibby: It has been so wonderful getting to know you. Again, I just felt such affection towards you from the book, and especially having gotten to know you. Thank you.

Tracey: Thank you. Can I just say this? Thank you for the work that you’re doing. I’ve been following you for a little bit. I’m so grateful. I’m just so happy for you, all the things that are happening for you. I’m like, oh, my gosh. You’re opening doors for moms, women. It’s awesome. I just wanted to give you your flowers also because a lot of times people don’t do — you do these podcasts. I’ve done on the interview side. People don’t know the amount of work it takes to be able to do what you do. Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you. That made my day. Thank you. Thanks, Tracey.

Tracey: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts, BLACK JOY

BLACK JOY by Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts

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