The Color of Joy: A Roundtable Discussion

Conversations is a series of critical dialogues between artists, designers, historians, critics, and curators on timely issues in the field. 

Zoom roundtable discussion held on August 13, 2021, with (top row, left to right) crystal am nelson, Michelle Yee, Joseph M. Pierce, and (bottom row) Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson and Ken Gonzales-Day

This roundtable was convened alongside the preparations for “The Color of Joy,” a special forum, recently published in the Fall 2023 issue of Art Journal. The conversation that follows is in many ways a continuation of this convening as well as an earlier conference panel of the same name, presented at the 109th College Art Association Annual Conference in 2021.

In this roundtable discussion, held over Zoom on August 13, 2021, artists and scholars Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson, Ken Gonzales-Day, crystal am nelson, Joseph M. Pierce, and Michelle Yee consider how the quotidian BIPOC subject experiences pleasure and joy in the face of deprivation. This conversation radically shifts the focus from the images of suffering and narratives of trauma that tend to dominate representations of people of color in the United States to a rarely acknowledged affective register. The five discussants foreground community and happiness to tease out the nuances of BIPOC sociality lived in the margins.

crystal am nelson: Let’s jump right in and start with a provocation. Is joy a privilege or a right? Is pleasure a privilege or a right? What I’m curious to know is what are your perspectives on where they fall in our lives? Where do joy and pleasure fall in our lives?

Joseph M. Pierce: I feel strongly about this, that it’s both/and. It’s also neither. Joy is not a privilege or a right, and it is both a privilege and a right. And pleasure is the same.

I would reframe this not in the language of privilege and rights, but rather relations and responsibilities. That would turn it a bit more toward Indigenous praxis, which is where I’m coming from. Joy and pleasure are emergent forms of relationality, and because I am in relation with multiple epistemological, ontological realms and bodies and beings, I have a responsibility to both joy and pleasure and to the fulfillment or the enactment of joy and pleasure in others. My consensual relationship with other beings implies necessarily that we are collectively searching for that, while also not leaving out the bad shit that happens in the world that we also deal with. I would ask a question to the question: What happens if we reframe this from the language of privileging and rights-bearing to the language of praxis and relations?

Joshua Chambers-Letson: I would echo that. It’s funny; I felt myself instinctively bristling at the word “right.” I understand rights as being linked to a Western European juridical tradition that has developed, in the modern world, hand in hand with the development of capitalism. This means that often the only way we can understand “right” is if it is tethered to possession or tethered to property. In a lot of ways, the contemporary discourse of rights, including discourses of civil rights, follows the logic of possession and property. One has rights, one possesses rights. Rights are used to protect our property whether that property is our possession, our body, or our thoughts and the products of our labor. And that is underscored again by property taking primacy over the ostensible “humans” who have such rights. The logic of property inherently creates a lot of problems for folks whose existence is impacted precisely by the dispossession of land or the dispossession of self, body, and labor. From the perspective of the slave, or from the perspective of the Indigenous and colonized, the seemingly intractable notion of property and rights was used to maintain systems of Black and Indigenous dispossession and usury. Yet, given that rights underpin most people’s ability to make a claim in a moment of injustice, rights end up being that thing that (to borrow language from Spivak), people of color, Indigenous folks, femmes, queers, trans folks, and other minoritarian subjects cannot not want. To that extent, I get anxious about affirming or not affirming rights, since affirmation underscores the system of property and possession and not affirming exposes the already abused to all sorts of further abuse.

What is it to have access to joy? What are the conditions under which joy can be produced and proliferated and what will such joy do within the world?

Maybe I’m more interested in critically breaking down how it is that we come to understand something that we think of as a right and asking what that thing can do within the social. Perhaps instead of saying that joy is a right, we might ask, what is it to have access to joy? What are the conditions under which joy can be produced and proliferated and what will such joy do within the world? The language that Joseph is giving us here around relationality and practice is helpful because it allows us to understand rights, for example, not through a logic of privilege or ownership, but through sociality, performativity, and other forms of relation and exchange. Then the question becomes: what does one do with an experience of joy? How can we access and proliferate such an experience? And to what ends?

Michelle Yee: I very much appreciate not simply a deconstructing of the question, but a reframing of it.

JCL: I just looked at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definition of joy: “a vivid emotion of pleasure arising from a sense of well-being or satisfaction, the feeling or state of being highly pleased or delighted, exultation of spirit, gladness, delight.” Joy is not the affect that I first go to, although it is something that I am interested in. As a depressive, I’m always a little distrustful of joy because when I feel something like joy I worry, “Am I slipping into mania?” Which is no better to me than deep depression. There, joy might be just a different loss of affective equilibrium. Further, when one is living within circumstances in which survival or continuance is under threat, joy can pose a risk or danger: “In this moment I feel free, but what am I not paying attention to? What am I not noticing?”

There is also the fact that, as I noticed, joy is often coercive when it is racialized. One of the early examples of joy given by the OED is as a kind of expression, as in [Daniel Defoe’s] Robinson Crusoe in which the character Friday feels joy. Within the framework of US and Western imperialism, joy is an affect that is (sometimes violently) projected onto the racialized and the colonized precisely to justify the logic of colonization, or to justify the logic of enslavement. I’m thinking of Saidiya Hartman’s careful articulation of this within the archives of slavery. Performances of jollity, joy, and pleasure were often violently induced amongst the enslaved so that the masters could say, “Look, the slaves are dancing. There’s joy! What misery could live here?” In this sense, joy is used as a weapon, as an alibi. Yet, experiencing and feeling joy can be a resource or energy that the oppressed may put towards a kind of political work in the service of continuance, transformation, or struggle. Joy can be the fuel that allows you to survive extreme forms of deprivation and give you energy to produce alternatives.

JMP: If you went to the OED definition, I went to the etymology. Joy apparently emerges in the twelfth century from the old French. What was going on in twelfth-century France? It’s interesting to me that it comes from the old French rather than the Latin, that that’s the word that we use that has the most purchase today, at least in the way that we’re talking about it. I really love the idea of thinking about the temporality of joy, the disruptive potentials of joy’s time. If one of the most important vectors of queer and Indigenous resistance is a question of time, then the time of joy is one of those sites from which resistances or worlding possibilities can emerge. Fleetingly, perhaps, but maybe that’s all we need. It just makes me think of the time and the temporality of joy, because we’ve talked about it as difficult to sustain. I don’t know if that resonates with anyone else, but I find it provocative: the question of “What is joy’s time?”

Joy is temporal, joy is political, joy is emotional, joy is about commitment to others, joy is generosity. But it’s also dangerous.

Ken Gonzales-Day: I helped install Félix’s [González-Torres] show at the New Museum in 1998, which was the first big exhibition of his work. My job was to make those piles of chocolate in the corners. I just remember watching so many kids, and adults too, come around the corner and see that pile of candy. And the guard would stand there all day and say you could eat one. And that look on their faces. These were fancy chocolates, and I was a young college student. I didn’t get to have those Italian  chocolates [Baci] ever. I remember having quite a bit of joy watching people when they put one in their mouth. You eat the chocolate, and it dissolves, and then there’s nothing left. And then you want to go back and have another one. The joy goes away, you know. I mean, you can’t just stand there and eat all the candy. In terms of thinking about love and transformation, you could stand there all day long and eat all those chocolates, but that would not be joyful. One of the things that we are getting at here is that joy is temporal, joy is political, joy is emotional, joy is about commitment to others, joy is generosity. But it’s also dangerous. I think that’s what’s on the other side of the color of joy. I don’t know what the metaphor is that we’re countering, but that might be something worth thinking about in terms of the questions of agency we’re associating with it in this particular configuration.

camn: I want to speak to this question about the time of joy or the when of joy that Joseph brought up. It brings to mind what Josh said about how joy is being used as an alibi and a weapon. What came up for me was how joy has also been intentionally withheld. I’m sure this is true for all people of color, but I know for sure historically for Black people from the days of enslavement through Jim Crow and even to this day, outward expressions of joy are heavily monitored and have been heavily monitored and denied. To a certain extent, it was illegal to express joy and love. In the street you couldn’t express love, you couldn’t express the kinds of affects that would be related to joy and pleasure, and so when I think about joyful times or the time of joy, I think about fugitivity and fugitive space and fugitive time and things that are done outside of the disciplinary gaze where it can’t be monitored or can’t be seen because, as Ken just said, joy can be dangerous for people.

JMP: I wonder if we could talk about photography. Maybe this is too simple, but I think about the vast work of, for example, Edward Curtis and the stereotypical images of Native American people. If you imagine any of them from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there’s not a lot of joy in those images. This is where you get the stereotype of stoicism. But then every now and again, there’s a smiling Indian. In a chapter I’m working on for my next book project I have a section called “An Indian Smiling.” And I think that an Indian smiling has really broad implications because of the temporal and technological fixing of affect in bodies and in photography. We are not granted the capacity to smile in this type of ethnographic photography, and yet we do.

Joy is not something that is expected or even legible in the canon of photographic representations of Indigenous people, and I’ll contrast this with my absolute joy at watching Reservation Dogs, the television series that focuses on Native people. I squealed for joy at watching this because it’s never happened before. There has never been a series like this that reflects something of yourself in a way that is complex, humorous, dealing with stereotypes in a way that is subversive, and at the same time it’s innovative, and the storytelling is really interesting. I have a visceral reaction to it, in part because of the other side of joy, which is deprivation.

JCL: I was listening to an interview with—Joseph, I can’t remember his name, but one of the co-writers of Reservation Dogs . . .  

JMP: Sterlin Harjo

JCL: Sterlin Harjo. One of the things that he emphasized in this interview was the important role of humor in the show. He noted that this humor is something that gets lost in dominant representations of Indigenous life. Yet humor, he suggested, plays a very important role in helping Indigenous folks navigate and ameliorate impossible, difficult, and unbearable conditions. That commingling of the humorous with the navigation of negation makes me think of what we’ve been talking about around the role joy can play in making minoritarian life bearable and even beautiful.

It’s weird to me that we talk about feelings as discrete states. Either joy or sadness. Not joy and sadness. That is probably one of the worst ways to talk about feelings. A book that I just keep reading repeatedly—which is problematic in a million different ways— is Melanie Klein and Joan Rivière’s set of essays published under the title Love, Hate and Reparation. One of the things that they continually unpack in that text is that love and hate are not opposing affects. They are in some ways indistinguishable affects. What we understand as love is often woven up in experiences of hate and vice versa. So maybe this is one reason that we’re having a difficult time naming the specificities of joy, since joy is tethered to all of these other affects and these other conditions. For folks of color—I can’t speak universally, but provisionally—it has been the navigation of those commingling of affects that produces the kind of work of living on. On the one hand, I do think that living is actually just slowly dying. We are all experiencing a slow process of annihilation. Our bodies are breaking down. They will eventually come undone. All of the people we have known and loved will eventually not be here anymore. And yet there are all of these forms of living on and continuance that refuse the notion of annihilation, which is utter and absolute destruction, and give over to pleasure, continuance, lingering, and, yes, joy. Joy, in such an instance, becomes part of the material of living in the face of destruction.

MY: I would love for us to return to what Josh brought up about humor and its role in joy and living and considering humor as a particular although different kind of joy. I’m referring to an interview with the late Cambodian American author Anthony Veasna So. One thing that he said about humor is that it is a way of dealing with incongruity. Laughing at what otherwise does not make sense in your life is one way of survival. It is about bearableness, to make what is otherwise unbearable bearable, and to think of humor as playing a role in terms of our lived experiences as people of color. This conversation has made it very clear that we can talk about joy to the end of the world, but that joy is always accompanied by pain, sorrow, death, fear. So, what role does humor play in it?

I also realized that we didn’t really talk about Joseph’s earlier question about wanting to think about photography as an apparatus as well. I would love to hear Ken’s thoughts, especially, about that.

KGD: To some extent, the question of the role of photography in shaping the lives of communities of color has yet to be fully articulated and doesn’t have a presence in the same way that other kinds of texts that talk about the use of photographs do. I think we all probably touch upon that in some ways in this project and in our reliance on images. And then maybe, again back to the temporality of joy, the photograph is just that one instance. So, we keep ending up back in this fragmented thing. What we want to talk about emphasizes the experiential, the durational, the collaborative, the social, the communal. All those things are really hard to represent photographically. The truth of that, the truth of our social networks is not easily rendered. So maybe that could be a starting point for thinking about it.

JCL: My mind jumped to Jasmine Cobb’s book Picture Freedom, an amazing account of the traditions of photo imaging that free Black folk undertook in the nineteenth century. One of the things that one can find in these images is an attention to posing with a sort of stately seriousness. The people in the photos were self-conscious about the fact that they were creating a record of free Black life in that moment. And so, some of these images seem devoid of joy and pleasure because it was about creating a record of the august, serious, and stately nature of Black freedoms. This drew me back to what cam was gesturing to earlier: the conditions of surveillance in relationship to Black life. The conditions of surveillance in relation to Black life and Black folk are such that the expression of spontaneous joy in a public space can lead to death. We get a clear visual materialization of this in work like Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, the Message is Death, where one sees this kind of push and pull between a wide range of affects and expressions, including Black joy and pleasure, which can then be met with brutal violence by the state. Black folk in the US have to navigate a public sphere (outside of Black spaces) where they have to protect the self from precisely those kinds of responses. This is part of the work of the aesthetic in that it can create and carve out these tiny little places in which one can experiment with and come into a kind of social relationship to a more complex range of expression and expressibility.

camn: How do Black people—but, of course, we can talk about people of color in general—how do we start the business of creating safe space for ourselves where we can have that experience of joy. Is it even possible to do that? And when I say create safe space, I’m not just talking about a room at the student union, but a real, genuine, sustainable, safe space that is outside of surveillance. Is that even possible? What do we need to get there, to do that, to construct it? And then, of course, there is the question, should we? Because some people think, well, no, that’s segregation. You shouldn’t do that. But, I don’t know, it seems that it’s cold out there and it’s dangerous out there otherwise.

MY: Right, there’s a part of me that wants to say, No. We live in a world that is structured by the priorities and hegemonies that do not privilege or value the lived experiences of people of color, unless it maintains or somehow reifies those hegemonies. That being said, I do think there is possibility and potential, and I think the work is already being done, oftentimes by artists, to create spaces in which there is not necessarily an escape from, but a place in which contending with is not only possible, but positively generative. One space I’ve been thinking a lot about, this goes back to humor, is stand-up comedy such as in the work of Ali Wong and Hasan Minhaj. They are making this conscious choice through their jokes and the way that they address their audience to really focus on the communities of color that they are identifying with and who identify with them. They’re carving out these metaphorical safe spaces to be able to negotiate some of the internal issues and struggles that those communities go through, utilizing humor as a vehicle to make those traumas or those shared traumas, some with a lowercase t, to make those spaces bearable. In terms of my interpretation, I would say to a certain extent, no, it is not possible, but that work is already being done and continues to be done. And the more it is done, the more there is room for people of color, for these particular marginalized communities to laugh, be happy, find joy, find connection, support each other, tend to one another, as Josh and Joseph were saying earlier. I don’t know, I find hope in that.

KGD: I find hope in you guys in creating a space like this. I’ve actually been at CAA since I was a graduate student. Believe me, there were not a lot of these kinds of conversations going on. And part of it is interesting for our field, when we think about the movement towards decolonizing art history and what that might mean. I mean, CAA is trying to figure that out, too. And I think it’s great that they actually are interested in this question.

So I’m just circling back. The last thing we heard on the color of joy was that it was white, right? That’s what Joshua was just saying. I feel like that’s not a good place to end, that there can be no separate spaces? I’m like, “Oh, shoot! Now we’re really in trouble.” So maybe we need to think for a moment.

I like the idea of thinking about separate spaces. I like the idea about thinking about tools that we could craft. The tool you guys have proposed is this idea of joy, presenting it as a proposition and asking, what are all these people of color going to do in this space? So maybe that’s something we need to take a moment to think about. I wanted to add a question for you guys, because the other thing I see is that maybe it’s about being interdisciplinary, maybe it’s about being mixed. Maybe it’s about the demographics in this nation. If you read the census data that just came out, the country is changing. It’s a different country that you are living in than what I grew up in. And that gives me a little hope. I don’t know if it’s joy, but maybe it’s something about intersectionality. That seems like it’s coming up a lot in your papers, maybe it’s coming from, I don’t know, a tinting of joy.

camn: One thing we can consider here is queer color practices and how those specifically might help generate new modes of . . .  I don’t know if it’s new modes of being, new modes of relationality in terms of how we convene around pleasure and joy and the erotic, if we’re thinking through Audre Lorde’s definition of the erotic, but also other ways of thinking through the erotic. I was really struck because you both get into that in your papers, so maybe you can talk about that a little bit more.

Sometimes joy is found in places of refusal and resistance, and it may not look on the surface like joy, but it is in the exercise of relationality sovereignty and erotic sovereignty that the joy becomes possible

JMP: I’ll speak from my own perspective—I can let myself become caught up in the righteous indignation of pointing out systemic injustices, historical material critiques, et cetera. And that sucks the joy from me, so it’s hard because we are, in some ways, situated within institutions that constitutionally are meant to reduce our capacities for joy. By finding joy, nevertheless, within those institutions, we are actually doing the only thing that we can within that institutional frame; the erotic, master’s tools and that whole discussion. There’s also the other side of this, which is refusal, which draws on Audra Simpson, Glen Coulthard, and a whole host of other people talking about refusal. And if I’m perfectly honest, I get joy out of refusal in some of these instances. I think that there’s another aspect of this that is in the “no.” The “no” also creates the conditions in which perhaps in a different space with other people, I can have another formulation of sociality that approximates joy or, to state it more plainly, I can get off on saying no within the institutional framework that constitutively negates the fullness of my humanity. That can also be as simple as that. It’s not easy to necessarily articulate, but I think that’s something that I would conclude. It’s that sometimes joy is found in places of refusal and resistance, and it may not look on the surface like joy, but it is in the exercise of relationality sovereignty and erotic sovereignty that the joy becomes possible, so I’m not so much interested in the expression of joy as I am in the making possible of joy.

KGD: For S. S. Tomkins, going back to definition, it’s about the social bond. That’s how he defines joy. And you just basically came to that—the possibility of a social bond.

JCL: I was thinking about the question of where our critique might come into this and about safe space, and I think I fall within an intellectual house that has a real interest in queer utopianism. Utopia is a concept that I think about, but I don’t really write with it that much. But the thing I really do like about a [José Esteban] Muñozian strain of queer utopianism is that it is a negative dialectic along the lines that Joe has just been framing. Utopia: no topos, no place. It doesn’t exist. It’s nonexistent. And that’s the thing that I always find really politically, intellectually, and emotionally powerful about a text like Cruising Utopia. It is the framing of negation of the nonplace, the impossibility of utopia alongside the desire for it that galvanizes one to act and to create practices through which new and other worlds and ways of being in the world emerge. These practices won’t actually get you to the utopia because utopia can’t exist. If you actually get to utopia, you’re probably doing it at the expense of somebody else. The conditions for my utopia likely create hellish conditions for someone else. But the desire for utopia might get you somewhere better than this place. The pursuit of better, impossible places and ways of being in the world can create or rediscover other practices for making better and different ways of being in the world. So, in this sense, the utopian desire is not completely disconnected from a call for “safe space.”

What is a person actually asking for with a demand for “safe space?” When students ask for it, the negative faculty response—which aligns with a kind of right-wing sentiment—is to say, “Well, the world isn’t safe, so we won’t be doing that.” But that strikes me as disingenuous insofar as it signals a refusal to figure out what the person is asking for with the (albeit problematic) vocabulary of “safety.” Often, they’re asking for a change in the conditions that make an experience of being in a particular moment, scenario, or exchange unbearable or painful or diminishing. They’re asking for a reorganization of things to make the unbearable bearable, to give them that capacity to move and think and create. Maybe we don’t get to the safe space, but maybe the desire to create a space that is safe is that which galvanizes us to do the work in which we can create the conditions under which safety, or pleasure, or even joy might be possible. We might never get to safety, or utopia. But we might be able to generate an experience and create moments and even sustainable practices of living. We might create ways to enjoy living in relationships of care with and for each other. The desire for a safe space can be galvanizing or tantalizing towards that end and can create the conditions under which we make something different, and something better than this place.

So how do we create the conditions to create practices from which we can proliferate forms of joy or proliferate social practices that, if they can’t create safety, pursue the goal that we’re naming when we use the language of safety? That is a worthy question to explore. That is something that I think we find often in the work of artists. Certainly, in the work of Félix González-Torres, who I think with often. Artists really can rehearse those practices and with an openness to, and capacity for, failure. The failure might not break so hard in the aesthetic realm. Being exposed to, and engaged with, this mode of experimentation can lead one to think: okay, well, what might need to have gone differently? If I didn’t feel safe while I was resting in this space or time, what are the other things that might need to be done to create a different experience of space, time, feeling, and being? Art often plays with that very question. That seems like a worthy pursuit.

crystal am nelson is a scholar, curator, and artist who focuses on race, gender, sexuality, and representation. They hold a PhD in visual studies from the University of California Santa Cruz and an MFA in photography from San Francisco Art Institute. Their writing has appeared in Art Journal, The Art Bulletin, Feminist Media Histories, Contact Sheet, The Brooklyn Rail, Woman’s Art Journal, among other places. They are an assistant professor of African/Diasporic Visual Studies in the Art & Art History Department at University of Colorado, Boulder.

Joseph M. Pierce (Cherokee Nation citizen) is associate professor and the inaugural director of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative at Stony Brook University. He is the author of Argentine Intimacies: Queer Kinship in an Age of Splendor, 1890–1910 (SUNY Press, 2019) and Speculative Relations: Indigenous Worlding and Repair (Duke University Press, 2025). Along with SJ Norman (Wiradjuri) he is co-curator of the Indigenous performance series Knowledge of Wounds.

Joshua Chambers-Letson is professor of Performance Studies and Asian American Studies at Northwestern University and author of After the Party: A Manifesto for Queer of Color Life (NYU Press, 2018) and A Race So Different: Law and Performance in Asian America (NYU Press, 2013); co-editor of José Esteban Muñoz’s The Sense of Brown (Duke University Press, 2020) and Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s China Trilogy: Three Parables of Global Capital (Bloomsbury, 2021).

Ken Gonzales-Day’s interdisciplinary and conceptually grounded projects consider the history of photography, the construction of race, and the limits of representational systems from lynching photography to museum displays. Gonzales-Day’s work has been exhibited internationally and is in the permanent collections of the Getty, LACMA, MOCA, MoMA, the Chicago Art Institute, the National Gallery of Art, National Portrait Gallery, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in DC, among others. His monographs include Lynching in the West: 1850–1935 (Duke University Press, 2006) and Profiled (LACMA, 2011). Gonzales-Day holds the Fletcher Jones Chair in Art and at Scripps College and received a Guggenheim Fellowship in photography in 2017.

Michelle Yee is an assistant professor of Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University. She studies critical race visual culture and focuses on Asian diasporic and Asian American art and visual cultures. She holds a PhD in visual studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her writing can be found in Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the AmericasThird Text, Panorama, and Art, Etc.