One of the most joyful experiences of 2021 for me was tuning into a Verzuz battle between R&B groups Earth, Wind & Fire and the Isley Brothers.
For the uninitiated, Verzuz is a pandemic webcast pastime that matches groups or musical artists against each other. Think the internet version of what the late legendary DJ Herb Kent did weekly on the radio with his “Battle of the Best.”
For more than three hours on the night of Easter Sunday, we listened to classic discs from the two groups while the audience kept score. Earth, Wind & Fire jams conjured backyard barbeques. The Isley Brothers’ quiet storm melodies inspired romance. The delight of hearing decades-old songs that my parents had exposed me to, such as “Can’t Hide Love” and “Footsteps in the Dark,” warmed me and brought back childhood and teenage memories.
I thought of Verzuz while reading my friend Badia Ahad-Legardy’s new book “Afro-Nostalgia: Feeling Good in Contemporary Black Culture,” a rumination on how today’s Black artists go beyond trauma and racism to evoke positive emotions. Recollection and joy are paramount to the collective narrative about Blackness.
Ahad-Legardy, a professor and vice provost at Loyola University, writes that in the 18th century white people believed that people of African descent could not experience nostalgia. It was thought that they lacked the capacity for the feelings and sensations. The white American view of Africa was so bleak that it was hard to imagine anyone longing for that place as home.
“Black memory is not limited to traumatic resonances of the past, nor are they constituted only through or in relation to histories of violence,” Ahad-Legardy writes. “I consider afro-nostalgia a lens through which we can conceptualize the desires of the African-descended to discern and devise romantic recollections of the past in the service of complicating the traumatic as a singular black historical through line.”
In other words, the Black experience is more than slavery or Laquan McDonald police killings. The past is harmful, but it can also be blissful. Neither perspective is the singular one.
Ahad-Legardy argues that it isn’t elitist or erasure to use the emotion of nostalgia in contemporary Black imagination. Black people deserve a break from experiencing or consuming images of trauma. Let’s face it — living, driving or breathing while Black can be fraught in this country.
“Afro-Nostalgia” focuses on current examples in literature, music, visual and culinary arts that make us feel good — with ample Chicago cultural practitioners featured. Tricia Hersey’s “The Nap Ministry” is an interactive art installation and uses afro-nostalgia to implore Black folks to rest as an act of resistance and reparations for our ancestors’ labor. Kerry James Marshall’s paintings feature dark figures frolicking in the grass as birds fly above. Krista Franklin mines through rituals and history for her beautiful and complex collages. Rhonda Wheatley employs vintage devices such as rotary phones and record players in her art installations.
For me, nostalgia emanates through joy and memory. Remembering Saturday morning chores while the television blared “Soul Train” in the background. Rummaging through my high school senior book and finding pictures of me and my girls rocking asymmetrical haircuts. Listening to Raekwon vs. Ghostface on Verzuz.
The 1990s, which is when I came of age, is a constant source of elation. Even in sadness, remembrance is a tonic. Two friends of mine died earlier this year and I’m wistful as I think of how Damani embodied Black boy joy and Rudy regaled his loved ones with a vocabulary word of the day and succulent brisket.
I tie smell to nostalgia. One day I cooked collard greens and polished my wood floors as buttermilk pies caramelized in the oven. I stepped out on my back porch for a bit, and when I returned inside all the aromas had fused together, instantly reminding me of my grandmother.
Nostalgia is subjective. The political climate in the U.S. has some people longing for the good ole days of June Cleaver and Jim Crow. That’s not the sentimentality Ahad-Legardy writes about, nor one that I would embrace. Nostalgia is the past, but we also get hints of it in the present.
Ten years from now I’ll smile at the joy I currently feel when I hear the beads clink on my 5-year-old daughter’s braids.
Natalie Moore is a reporter for WBEZ.org.
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