Black Joy

Finding joy in the roots

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Earth has a heartbeat just like you do, little one. Can you feel the Earth’s rhythm along with your own? - JOY TAKES ROOT, Gwendolyn Wallace

The closest I’ve been to actually working in a garden was out on my aunties front porch shelling peas. Or sitting out in the grass with wide eyes and a wet mouth full of fresh watermelon. I didn’t know it then, but I was so close to the earth. Being fed by it, my little running feet carried by it, I even wore the scent of it on my skin, or as the old folks would say, I smelled like outside.

I don’t remember reading any books about nature and, especially not Black kids in nature, so I was ecstatic to learn about Gwendolyn Wallace’s forthcoming children’s picture book, Joy Takes Root. In this book, a little Black girl named Joy visits her grandparents in South Carolina and discovers her connection to the earth and her ancestors through her grammy’s garden.

This story blossomed from Wallace’s own journey back to her body and to the healing properties of the Earth. After dealing with the long-term health effects of Covid, she realized she needed to be more intentional about self-care. She decided to start a garden with her mom and began taking an African Diaspora Herbalism class.

“I was not someone who considered myself very in touch with my body, but there was just something about feeling my bare feet in the soil, touching a leaf and learning to tell what my plant needed. . . searching on my hands and knees for strawberries, talking to my plants. . .those things made me feel connected to both myself and the earth in a way I hadn’t before,” she says.

Through gardening, she nurtured another connection—her paternal grandmother’s garden in South Carolina. Growing up, she remembers visiting her grandmother and walking through her sprawling backyard garden. Although her grandma lives in a retirement community and no longer has access to her own personal garden, she was pleased to hear her granddaughter was following in her footsteps.

“When she said ‘Ohh, you’re taking after me’ [that] became a real point of connection for us. . .it made me feel more connected to myself, more connected to the earth and more connected to her and also connected to all of my ancestors who knew intimately how to grow food and flowers and medicine.”

It was this experience where she found the spark to tell Joy’s story. And while representation in children’s picture books is important, for Wallace, it was much deeper than that. She was interested in writing a book that allows Black children to see themselves as a part of nature.

“When it comes to forming a relationship with the natural world, there are so few gardening or nature picture books that center Black kids. I think it’s so important that kids know that Black people have a unique relationship with non-human nature, that we have folklore [,] herbal medicine [,] unique crafts like sweet grass, basket weaving and Black kids deserve to see and know that Black people have always cared very deeply about the environment.”

But another important function of this book is how it embodies Black joy, how it in many ways represents the ways Black folks, especially our elders, have actively resisted white supremacist attempts to rupture their connection to the land. This is why Wallace rejects the idea that it’s too late to save the planet.

“I’m always amazed at the way that Black people have kind of created these lush futures in the face of death and destruction [and] I am so excited for the life that I will give my children. . . no matter what the world looks like in 10 [or] 20 [or] 30 years, there will be kids who are so excited to plant seeds and watch them grow.”

If you’re interested in other children’s books by Black authors, check out the recommendations below:

Danielle Buckingham

Danielle Buckingham

Danielle Buckingham (she/her), affectionately known as Dani Bee, is Reckon’s Black Joy Reporter, and a Chicago-born, Mississippi-raised writer based in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2021 Lambda Literary fellow, her work has been published in MadameNoire, Midnight & Indigo Literary Magazine, Raising Mothers, and elsewhere.

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