Joyful spaces must exist for the black community, where they are affirmed, safe and allowed to express themselves however they wish without fear of consequence, Erika Totten, an activist and co-founder of Black Lives Matter D.C., said in conversation with Deshauna Barber, the first woman to be crowned Miss USA while on active duty in the military.

The two discussed their experiences as black women in pursuit of happiness and validation in all forms during a panel titled “What’s Joy Got To Do With It: Discussing Black Girl Joy” at the BRAVE Summit on Saturday.

Krystal Leapheart, the special assistant and policy associate at the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women, moderated the discussion. Leapheart asked both panelists if there had been times in their lives when they felt their joy did not matter.

Totten recalled an incident from when she was 6 years old, when she was playing with a white classmate in her yard. Totten had allowed the girl to borrow her favorite yellow sweater as the two played. The girl was still wearing the sweater when her father came to pick her up, and Totten watched while the two had a brief exchange.

SOPHIE ROSENZWEIG FOR THE HOYA Erika Totten, an activist and co-founder of Black Lives Matter D.C., spoke with Deshauna Barber, the first woman to be crowned Miss USA while on active duty in the military. Krystal Leapheart, the special assistant and policy associate at the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women, moderated the discussion.

“She took the sweater off and gave it to him and looked back at me and put it in the trash,” Totten said.

Barber discussed her experience as Miss USA 2016 and her decision to wear her hair naturally for her final walk as Miss USA as a nod to her recently deceased mother and to black women everywhere. Barber also recounted a specific time when she was about to walk in a fashion show and the hairstylist commented on her natural hair.

The hairstylist told Barber she was glad she was wearing a wig because her natural hair was “just unmanageable.” In that moment, she decided to push back against the standard of beauty and embrace her natural hair, according to Barber.

“My hair is beautiful, it’s gorgeous and it’s my black hair,” Barber said. “And from that moment, I decided to myself, ‘Gosh, this is something I want to break down in terms of this standards of beauty, whether it has to do with the way that someone looks their skin color or even their hair texture.’”

This realization led to Barber’s decision to take off her wig for her final walk as Miss USA.

“So, for my final walk I had a wig on … and I went backstage, whipped my wig right off, did my little twist out and walked out on stage with an afro,” Barber said. “And that same day, we went on to crown Miss District of Columbia, which was a back-to-back win for D.C. women and for African-American women.”

Leaphart then asked the crowd who had ever been to a protest because they were angry about something, to which most of the crowd raised their hands in response.

“Who’s been to a protest because they were happy about something?” Leapheart asked.

Only a handful of hands stayed raised in response. Leaphart turned to Totten, asking her about the importance of organizing events not only from a place of anger, but also from a place of joy.

Totten described her creation of Black Joy Sundays, a weekly meeting space where black people in the Washington, D.C. area can be affirmed in their blackness, find fellowship with other gorgeous black people and discuss some of the racial stress they experience, according to the event’s Facebook page.

“I remember talking with Aaron and he said, ‘If we aren’t safe in church, where can we be safe?’ and I knew in that moment we needed a space for joy, but also a place where we can reclaim a space where all of our emotions are wanted and valid,” Totten said. “So not just only wanting to be around black people when we are funny and joyful, because that’s dehumanizing as well, but how can we can create a place that reaffirms our entire humanity.”

Totten now organizes a Black Joy Sunday every weekend in Malcolm X Park, a historically black space that has undergone recent changes because of gentrification of the park’s surrounding area. The Sunday meetings offer an opportunity for Totten and the community to reclaim their space and time in the face of environments that are often disempowering for people of color.

“When we go into spaces that are ours, they look at us like we don’t belong here. And so, for Black Joy Sunday, it was just a space for us to every Sunday to gather just to experience joy in whatever that is for you,” Totten said. “Reclaiming and affirming our humanity and being loud and taking up as much space as we want. That’s a part of organizing from a place of joy.”

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