Black Joy

Can I get an “ayy”-men and a yee-haw

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Happy Juneteenth weekend, y’all!

The largest celebration of Black liberation is upon us! The grills are sizzling, parades will course through city streets and the Beyhive is buzzing with the jubilant news that Beyoncé is dropping an album next month. Of course, everything is so tight-lipped when it comes to Bey. So all we have are pictures from the British Vogue photoshoot that she slayed to piece together what’s to come.

It’s fitting a Texan is kicking off our festivities for Juneteenth, which commemorates the day enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned about their freedom on June 19, 1865. They were told this news two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The following year, freed Black people gathered to celebrate through food, freedom songs and parades.

Juneteenth is the official end of enslavement. So I’m opening this newsletter with Black cowboys since many Southern, Black freedmen (and women) contributed to a culture that is still full of Black pride today. Juneteenth also lands on Father’s Day and is smack dab in the middle of Pride Month. So I chatted with a married Black, gay couple who prayed their way through the adoption process of their two kids.

Let’s give an “ayy”-men and a yee-haw to all you’re about to read!

Juneteenth became a federal holiday last year, thus many of us are looking at enjoying a long weekend. Before y’all clock out and hit the streets, forward this email to your friends and fam so we can all have a good time together.

— Starr

A horse named Black Lives Matter

Don’t let those old westerns your parents watch fool you, now. Those cowboys rippin’ and running across the wild wild west were very much Black.

Historians believe that one in four cowboys were Black, but pop culture has whitewashed our rich history out of those literature and films. Black-owned Saddle clubs and rodeos have been reclaiming our culture and making sure folks are getting their facts straight when it comes to our history.

Hatley Bros. Racing Stables is ran by the first Black family in Texas to race quarter horses. James Hatley Sr. kicked off the legacy by purchasing the family’s first racehorse in 1961. Segregation didn’t stop him from beating both Black and white racehorse owners on the track in Dallas. About 60 years later, James’ sons, Ke’elronn Hatley and James Hatley Jr., are now racing horses in his honor. They have continued the heritage of bringing racial justice to the racetrack by naming their latest stallion “Black Lives Matter.”

Reckon sis and videographer Kavolshaia Howze spoke with the Hatley family about Black Lives Matter, which became TikTok famous after winning a race at Louisiana Downs Casino and Racetrack in January. Check out the video below or you can watch it on our YouTube channel.

James Hatley Jr. gave us the run down about their family’s history in horse racing, which is still a predominantly-white sport. They weren’t welcomed to the racetrack at first, but as the Hatley family said on TikTok, you better “put some respect on my name.”

How did your family get into racing horses back in the day?

James Hatley Jr.: “My dad was from a little town called Douglasville, Texas, and he had horses while he was there, but when he moved to Dallas, for a while, we didn’t have horses. But in 1961, we bought our first horse and we started racing our horse against Black people and other communities that had horses.”

What was the responses from white people when your dad started?

James Hatley Jr.: “When the word got around to the white community that we had racing horses and we had out-run everybody we have raced, I guess, they was gonna come and put us in our place and show us and we didn’t have racehorses. But when they came over to race us, we outran them also. And so they asked us that, well, you guys got these horses, why don’t y’all start racing on the track… We went there and we weren’t received so well. But my dad covered every bit of ground he walked on. So they had to accept us. Once we started winning, they accepted us.”

How did integration change things on the racing track?

James Hatley Jr.: “By the time 1967 rolls around, we weren’t in segregation anymore. It was integration and it made things just a little better. But there were still those people who held on to the adage that they wanted to ‘make Texas great again.’ So we had our little stumbles and bumps along the way. But we persevered.”

How did you make sure your father’s legacy lived on?

James Hatley Jr.: “My dad was a catalyst in this industry…When he died, we basically just put racing on the back burner for quite a while because it was so devastating to us. Once God healed that broken heart we had about losing my dad – the fire still was there, it just needed some kindling. So over time, we kept saying, ‘We’re gonna buy us a racehorse.’ And then 2020, our dream and our vision came true and we bought two racehorses and that’s where we at today. In 2022, we’re racing horses again.”

For those of y’all who want to follow the Hatley brothers’ journey, swing by their Instagram and TikTok.

‘Our rainbow is diverse’

Parenthood started off as a wild, wonderful journey Damion Lewis and his husband, Donald Holden III.

After a nearly three-year-long adoption process, the couple became fathers to 17-month-old Cooper and 11-month-old Reagan Joan Elizabeth within a matter of two weeks. From the time they married in February 2016, Donald and Damion knew fatherhood was next on their life goals checklist. Now that they have their children, their Raleigh, N.C., home is full of warmth and love. Damion enjoys watching the kids be in their own little worlds as they play with picture books and toys on the floor.

“It’s just a surreal moment thinking about how fortunate I am right now that we’re home with our babies,” Damion said. “It’s just peaceful and it’s all just natural in a way that I never could have imagined.”

Donald and Damion are living the life they could only dream of as teens in the 90s. Even during a time before same-sex marriage was legal, Donald said he always imagined himself as a dad.

“I tell people all the time: I never dreamt about my wedding, but I always dreamt about being a dad,” Donald said. “I never thought I’d be allowed to have a wedding or didn’t know what a wedding would look like, but I always knew I wanted to be a father.”

Another gay couple’s successful adoption gave Donald and Damion the hope they needed to start planning their own family. They were warned about the slow adoption process as they waited to be chosen by a birth parent. But they passed the time by fantasizing about their lives as dads as they researched the best baby gates and what the nursey was going to look like.

About two and half years into their adoption journey, the big day finally arrived. They got a call from their adoption agency saying an interested mother wanted to speak to them about adopting her two-week-old son, Cooper, who was born on Feb. 5, 2021. After talking to the mom that evening, the couple was on a plane to New York the next day.

And the moment they met Cooper their lives became brighter. They took him to their hotel, where Donald and Damion celebrated Cooper’s arrival into their lives with close friends and family.

“Your heart stops. Your life stops. Nothing else matters. It was such a beautiful and emotional moment,” Donald said.

But then the celebration came to a halt four days later when Cooper’s birth mother exercised her right to change her mind about the adoption.

“It was one of the most traumatic experiences I think we’ve ever shared together, and as a family I will say it brought us closer together as a couple, because we were broken,” Donald said.

The devastation rocked Donald, Damion and their village. Buoyed by the time spent with Cooper, and by trusting God, the couple persevered through grief until they were introduced to Reagan’s mom in May 2021.

With Reagan’s due date in September, Donald and Damien enjoyed the experience of pregnancy. They got 3D ultrasounds of Reagan and even planning a surprise party for family and friends to share the news that they were “expecting.”

Then in July, they received a mind-blowing text: Cooper’s birth mother asked if they were still interested in adopting him. They prayed before calling Cooper’s birth mom. Not interested in going through that trauma of giving up a child again, Donald said they waited for God to reveal why they should accept the opportunity or why Cooper’s adoption didn’t go through the first time.

Donald said there were multiple green flags during the conversation and the couple recognized the difficulty of the birth mother’s decision.

“I don’t think people give a lot of credit to these birth mothers for what they’re giving up and what they’re sacrificing,” he said. “No matter what the situation is – whether they became pregnant on purpose and or accidentally – when you carry someone inside of you for that long, you are always going to be connected to them.”

Cooper’s birth mom did feel bad about the amount of pain they went through. But when they reconnected, Cooper’s demeanor shifted as if he missed Damion and Donald.

“She said, ‘I’m always gonna be his mom, but I really feel like y’all are supposed to be his parents,” Donald said. “When she said all that, we called the agency and they were like, ‘Go get your son.’”

Cooper’s birth mom was right. Donald and Damion’s second time getting Cooper was just as jubilant as the first, even at 12:30 a.m. when they picked him up. Cooper’s eyes lit up and his smile grew wide when he saw his parents.

“It felt like he knew our scent,” Donald said. “The next morning, we woke up at the hotel and he looked over and made sure we were still there and smiled some more. It was one of the most fulfilling moments of our lives.”

But what about Reagan? Adopting two kids at once wasn’t the plan, but they reasoned: “I always said I would be happy with two if they come at the same time,” Damion laughed. “So this was God’s way of balancing the scales.”

But the surprises didn’t stop there. The couple got another jaw-dropping phone call the moment they brought Cooper home to North Carolina: Reagan was born six weeks early on July 25th, 2021. The village who cried with the couple in February, celebrated with them when they all found out that not only did Cooper come back, but Reagan was born.

Donald believes Cooper and Reagan were destined to become siblings just like him and Damion were destined to become parents. He said LGBTQ+ families can thrive in the South – it just depends on safety of the village that surrounds them.

“A lot of the LGBTQ people don’t think it’s possible, or they think their village has to be strictly gay and that’s their life and it’s not,” Donald said. “Our rainbow is just as diverse as we are, and it comes with straight, Black, white, gay, yellow. Being able to identify safe spaces is the key traits to staying happy and in a positive space.”

‘Black love is joyous’

It’s about to be a year since Damion and Donald’s family multiplied from two to four – and it’s been full of milestones: they dressed up as the Power Rangers during their first Halloween, snapped their first holiday pics with the fam, and they celebrated what would have been Donald’s mom’s birthday by dedicating Cooper and Reagan to God during a ceremony on March 26th.

Here are some lessons and moments of joy Damion and Donald have shared during their first year of parenthood.

  • Donald’s favorite book to read to Cooper and Reagan is “Daddy’s Arms” by Fabian Ferguson, which celebrates Black fatherhood as it follows a child’s everyday interactions with his dad whose arms are full of safety and love. “I never saw stories like that growing up and it’s not necessarily a gay or straight book. It’s just about a Black father loving his kids,” Donald said. “Especially as Black dads, being able to give our kids this experience, I live for it. I can be out in the streets if I wanted to, but I want to be home and make sure I don’t miss those moments.”
  • Although they are toddlers, Damion said the kids’ personalities are starting to play a game of peek-a-boo. “Cooper is adventurous and likes to push the boundaries of exploration and climbing and getting into everything,” Damion said. “While Reagan remains an ever-joyful baby, except when she is hungry. She is always smiling and laughing but enjoys playtime. While her brother, right now, is the explorer, she can be content as she focuses attention on specific toys and things. They both continue to enjoy books and love being read to.”
  • Donald’s journey with his marriage, his family, his village and his children has taught him a lesson about the power of Black love. “It’s been such a beautiful symphony of safety and security that I was not aware that I even needed or wanted,” Donald said. “I think Black love is so joyous. Even during the hard times, we are a people who know how to make laughter out of the darkest situations because it keeps us alive.”

Spread the Black joy during this Juneteenth. I will be spreading mine while at the beach in Florida. So my Reckon sisters Clarissa Brooks and Alexis Wray will be hitting up your inboxes next week. Until next time!

Jonece Starr Dunigan

Jonece Starr Dunigan |

Jonece Starr Dunigan (She/her/hers) is a journalist who gives the microphone to communities that are often ignored by mainstream media. Guided by empathy, her reporting centers the stories, movement work and voices of Black, brown and queer people. Her writing strives to amplify and empower readers instead of exploiting them of their traumas.

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