Joy is the Justice (We Give Ourselves)

[Editor’s Note: This reflects a live performance of the poem and differs from the published piece.]

Joy is the justice
we give ourselves.
It is Maya’s bird
sung free past the prison bars,
holding spirits bound—
without due process,
without just cause.

Joy is the steady running stream,
rights sprung up
from moss-soft ground—
under hanging trees,
nourished by blood,
grown through pain,
now seeping sweet,
equality’s demands made clear
from sea
to shining sea,
north to south,
west to east,
flyover heartland
in between.

Joy is the truth,
the crooked lies hammered straight,
whitewashed myths
wiped away.
Joy is Stone Mountain
—just stone.
—no more.
Joy is giving the eagles
their mountains back.

Joy is returning to sacred
the people’s holy lands.

Joy is the paradise
we can claim
right here,
right now.
No vengeful gods
craving prayer,
no tenth and tithes to pay,
no repenter’s cover charge—
no dying required to get in.

Joy is the sunrise
breaking through night’s remains,
shone new
on a shell-wracked shore;
a fresh tide-scrubbed world
redeems what was,
to is.

Joy is no bombs falling
on your childrens’ heads
or mine
because of what you believe
or I don’t.

Joy is on the wings of wind birds;
the wedge of whimbrel in flight,
the curved-beaks’ cries
of wandering curlews
stitching top of the world
to bottom.

Joy is the soul
underneath the journey,
gaze snagged on wonder,
not knowing final destination,
yet blessed as a witness,
moored to ground.
Joy is worshipful tears
dripped into grateful smile.

Joy is Rachel’s silent spring,
an unquieted world
not come to pass.
Joy is the season
dripping ripe full
of wood thrush song.

Joy is all the Black birds,
flocked together,
too many to count,
too many to name,
every one different
from the next,
swirling in singularity
across amber-purpled sky.

Joy is being loved
up close,
not just from the untouchable distances,
or at arm’s length,
for who we are
or might become.

Joy is the last song,
drifting in
as dark curtains fall;
the sparrow’s vesper offering,
whistles lain
through pine-templed woods,
requiem in me-minor—
church in a cathedral nature built.
No stained glass.
No pulpit.
No pews.
Altars everywhere.
Just listen.
Just look.

Joy is the return,
the wandering bird
landed here again,
from who knows where,
to rest,
to give our flagging spirits

Joy is the healing,
broken dreams restored—
Brah Langston’s words
kettling higher
on hopes,
drifting ever upwards
on ragged-mid-lined rhyme,
syncopated verse.

Joy is us mattering.
Joy is equity—
no equivocation.
Joy is actually seeing color,
hue not blinded by privilege,
the piety
of claiming you don’t.

Joy is Baldwin’s grin.

Joy is the respeck
you put on my name,
with no “n” in the beginning
or “i” or double “g” or “e”
in the middle,
or that “r” rolled
hard at the end.
Even if I’m not there to hear you
when you say it to family
or friends.

Joy is the sharp eye
watching little brown sparrows,
and the kind one,
on little brown babies too.

Joy is the generations
come before,
surviving the struggle,
somehow staying strong
in the midst of withering storms;
from shackled ancestors
through Jim Crowed back doors
to gerrymandered chokeholds now.

Joy is the payoff,
for those often down
but never out.
Grit is in the genes,
and boiling hot in the pot,
Indigo blues sung to rebellion over rice,
Cotton stained blood red.
“Making a way outta no way,”
like the old folks say.

Joy is the thriving,
of a people who won’t die
in the midst of all this

Joy is the mind
beyond the skull box,
not wasted on convention,
or what they said
was right.

Joy is the breaths,
one followed easy by the next—
not begging for air
or asking your mama’s ghost
for help.

Joy is the lungs ins and outs,
with no one there
to serve,
or protect.

Joy is the maybe,
the possibilities of empathy
between strangers.

Joy is the drive
with no traffic stops,
with no taillights out,
with no tint technically too dark,
with no speed traps,
with no demeaning “yes sirs, Officer sirs.”
No hands at two and ten.
No wondering
where your registration is.

Joy is the flashing cruiser’s light,
not meant for me.

Joy is the good news,
without new dead names.
Joy is school without fear.
Joy is a night of sleep
in your very own bed
without shots in the dark
—no more waking up,
full of lead.

Joy is the morning jog
without being hunted down.
Joy is getting to eat your Skittles,
drinking your tea,
without harassment.

Joy is no chokeholds,
no more murderous knees.

Joy is the loss
we take to gain,
monuments to traitors
torn down,
lost causes finally buried,
never again to be found.

Joy is the decent act,
the kind word,
the opposite of hypocrisy,
enough said.

Joy is not your great again.

Joy is the prairie,
where billowed cloud
and wild grass meet;
where the soaring hawks glide
from there to here—
is its own choice to make,
no border crossing checks.

Joy is the surrender,
to faith of push,
to trust in lift,
giving over to Sister Toni’s command
to ride the air.
To float on a wish.

Joy is my grandmama’s work-worn hands,
seed thrown through gnarled fingers
on cold ground
for the snowbirds she pitied —
“’Cause it’s cold, Baby.
See how they eat?”

Joy is all the wild left over,
the rarest beasts
with talons sharp,
or long teeth bared,
in the faraway places
we may never go.

Joy is the wayward weed
in the uptown sidewalk seam,
the one I choose to call
that they call weed
because it has the audacity
not to be planted,
or to succumb to control,
to be proudly green.

Joy is at the end
of every cycle completed to
a bruised dimming sky
when the night
comes again,
when fortune can be measured
by breaths taken
without trying.

Joy is the frogs calling.

Joy is the close call
that wasn’t close enough.

Joy is a heart still beating
even though
what could have been—

Joy is that fleeting thing
we grab sometimes,
that slides from possession,
stolen in bits and pieces,
between yawning cracks
of despair.
Those drops of salt water
rivering in the creases
of an upturned smile.

Joy is the necessity
never to be owned.
Joy is what we must have lain by,
joy is what we must keep hoarded up
ever ready to apply.

Joy is the gift,
what we deserve
without asking,
or demands—
when no one else
really cares.

Joy is the reward,
the pay we have earned—
the day off,
just because
we can.

Joy is the kiss of that beloved one.
Joy is that verdict
delivered by the upstanding twelve
for the dead nine.

Joy is the everything,
joy is sometimes the nothing.
Joy is the simple,
joy is the complex.

Joy is silly,
joy is serious,
joy is the trivial,
the tiny,
joy is enormous.

Joy is the murmuration,
it is our stillness.
Joy is the inexplicable coincidence.

Joy is what was meant to be.
Maybe the absurd.
Occasionally joy is some genius.

To my people,
to those fallen on hard times,
pierced by injustice,
torn asunder by hate,
know within the marrow bone
of your soul
that joy is the divine sublime in you.

Joy is for all the dangers,
all the toil,
every last one of the snares
already overcome,
and hopes yet to be born.

What I mean to say is that
joy is a song.


This joy I have, the world didn’t give it to me.
Oh, oh, oh.
Joy I have, the world didn’t give it to me.
Oh, oh, oh.
The joy I have, the world didn’t give it to me.
I say, the world didn’t give it,
The world can’t take it away.

[singing ends]

You see y’all? Joy is that leaky bucket that lets me sometimes carry half a song.

But what I intend for us,
our claim,
joy is the justice
we must give ourselves.

“Joy is the Justice (We Give Ourselves)” from Joy is the Justice We Give Ourselves, by Drew Lanham. Copyright © 2024 by Drew Lanham. Used with the permission of Hub City Press.