Balloons greet festival-goers at the 2022 Black Joy Parade in downtown Oakland.
Balloons greet festival-goers at the 2022 Black Joy Parade in downtown Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

Black communities in the United States have been experiencing tragedy and trauma from the moment we first landed on this soil. So much so, that holding onto joy can sometimes feel like trying to keep sand from slipping through your fingers. Especially in thinking about the recent tragedy of Tyre Nichols, sadness can seem all-consuming and never-ending within the Black experience. 

The Black Joy Parade

Sunday, Feb. 26, downtown Oakland

The parade starts at 12:30 p.m. at 14th and Franklin streets.

The main festival entrance is on 19th and Franklin.

More info here.

In response to this, Black joy is a topic that has gained momentum in recent years—the use of the social media hashtag #BlackBoyJoy taking off in 2017 is one example. Black joy is also a topic that’s been bringing people together in Oakland: This Sunday, Feb. 26, thousands will gather downtown for the sixth annual Black Joy Parade, a “trauma-free” celebration of Blackness and Black culture.

The festival’s founder, Elisha Greenwell, moved to the Bay Area in her early 20s. As a mixed-Black person who’d grown up in a predominantly non-Black community, she said Oakland made her feel excited and grounded in her Blackness in a way she’d never experienced before. 

“When I moved here, I thought, this is what it means to really love your identity and be proud of it,” said Greenwell. “You know that feeling you get when you’re suddenly with people who get you and who find joy in the same things you do, and you feel comfortable around them and you don’t feel isolated anymore? I couldn’t articulate it at the time but, now, I’ve come to think of that as joy,”

Black Joy Parade founder Elisha Greenwell. Photo courtesy of Elisha Greenwell

At the time, the Trump presidency was in full swing, the #MeToo movement was on the rise, and Black Lives Matter was reaching another peak. In the midst of it all, Greenwell realized that the only times that we, as Black people, seemed to gather en masse was in response to communal pain. It wasn’t until she went to San Francisco Pride and saw another marginalized community experiencing joy together that she knew she wanted to throw a parade for her community—a Black Joy Parade.

The initial meeting happened at Red Bay, a Black-owned coffee roaster in Oakland, with about 12 people. By the day of the inaugural parade in 2018, there were thousands of participants, including many families and kids. Fast forward to 2023 and the event has become much more than just a parade; Black Joy Parade-themed small-business and local art events now stretch throughout the month of February and culminate with the parade and a major street festival in downtown Oakland. Last year’s festival drew over 10,000 people from across the Bay Area.

A celebration of Black communities, artists, and entrepreneurs

Greenwell wants festival-goers to understand that the Black Joy Parade isn’t just any other “party”—but a gathering to celebrate the beauty of the Black diaspora and the joy that we hold. Everyone is welcome, she said, as long as they come with that intention. “True allies need a way to genuinely support us, and we’re going to give it to them,” she said.

This year, the parade will start at 12:30 p.m. on Franklin and 14th streets and should last about two hours. Feel free to stop by a happy hour at one of the Black-owned bars and restaurants nearby, or check out an open mic in the area (there will be many) as the parade makes its way to the main festival entrance on 19th Street. Expect to see dance troops, Black cowboys, car clubs, and more.

The McClymond’s High School cheer squad marches in the 2022 Black Joy Parade. Credit: Amir Aziz

Once you’re inside the festival area, you’ll have a lot of options for entertainment, including two music stages, with Parliament Funkadelic featuring George Clinton as the headliner.

You’ll also find plenty of shopping opportunities and activities for kids and families. One of them is “Lil Joy,” a space where Black children can meet, play, and make friends. It’s also designed to give parents of Black children an opportunity to meet other parents who they might not encounter otherwise in their neighborhoods or school communities. The activity space is being hosted by Black Infant Health, an Oakland-based organization that’s also presenting this year’s Black Joy Parade.

Other “activations” at this year’s Black Joy Parade include a Black Healing Village with Black massage therapists, yoga instructors, and a tea-making session; an outdoor rollerskating area hosted by Black Cultural Zone; Black Vines, a wine area featuring over a dozen Black winemakers (you can purchase bottles or a single glass); Games and Grooves, an area featuring card games, domino tournaments, and chess; and a Hennessy Hoops Lounge that’s all about custom cocktails and basketball.

Many Black Joy vendors have East Bay ties

The festival’s marketplace will feature about 200 Black vendors and artisans, selling and sharing everything from shea butter and earrings to financial wellness classes and mental health services. Many of these Black entrepreneurs have close ties to Oakland and the Bay Area. We spoke to a handful of them about their businesses and why they’re excited to participate in this year’s festival.

Jasmine Curtis, AVOCURL

Jasmine Curtis, founder of AVOCURL. Photo courtesy of Jasmine Curtis

Picture this: It’s your first year of undergrad. You just moved across the country to go to school at Cornell. You’re prepped, you’re excited, and bam—your hair starts to fall out in clumps. That’s what happened to Jasmine Curtis. After some time, she realized this was happening because of the cold and dry climate in upstate New York, the hard water (water with high mineral content), and a lack of good hair products. Since she couldn’t find the products she needed to keep her hair healthy, she decided to make them herself. The result was AVOCURL, a cruelty-free, non-toxic, and 100% plant-based (and made in Oakland!) avocado hair product. 

“My rule is that if we cannot put it inside of our bodies then we shouldn’t be putting it on our bodies,” said Curtis, who will be attending the Black Joy Parade as a vendor for the third time. “Our skin is our largest organ and anything we put on it has the potential to get inside of us.” 

Claudia Walker, HBCU Prep School

HBCU Prep School co-founder Claudia Walker. Credit: Bryan Walker

Claudia Walker is an Oakland native, a Spelman grad, and an educator who built a business after recognizing a need in the Black community for greater exposure to Historically Black Colleges and Universities and education around financial literacy. After graduating from college, she worked for an investment bank on Wall Street where she handled multi-million dollar accounts. But her heart wasn’t in the work, and she eventually moved back to California to teach. In the classroom, she saw that most of her students didn’t have the means or access to learn about HBCUs. So she took it upon herself to launch HBCU Prep School in 2020. 

This family-owned, multimedia education brand publishes children’s books (The ABCs of HBCUs and The ABCs of Black Wall Street) and offers classes, clothing and apparel, puzzles, and more, to raise awareness in Black kids about their options for higher education, and how to build, spend, and save money.

As for the Black Joy Parade, Walker has been going since the beginning. “I have literally attended since the first Black Joy Parade,” she smiled. “When we were just lined up on the street and there were just a handful of people. The parade was obviously not what it has grown into today, but it was really exciting. Year two was completely different from year one. Year one I went by myself, but I’ve been bringing my family since year two. Last year was the first year that we participated as a vendor.”

Imani M Glover, The Lemonade Bar

Since she was a kid, Imani always knew that she had an entrepreneurial spirit. Starting with braiding hair around the age of 8, to selling popcorn balls in high school (and selling out by second period), all the way through adulthood and turning her hotdog cart into a lemonade bar with the help of her husband, Imani has always wanted to be her own boss. Lemonade just happened to be her road to success. 

Glover’s lemonade flavors have been growing in popularity all over Oakland, and her ingredients are locally sourced in California, with a large portion of the fruits sourced right here in the East Bay—such as her strawberries and peaches that come from the Hayward Farmers Market. Glover considers herself a “lemonade mixologist”—from her OG flavors (strawberry, mango, and lavender) to her Black Joy Parade specialties like Black Gurl Rock (a specialty, with organic frozen lemonade) and Goodness Lemonade (with organic mint and watermelon).

Glover first got involved with the Black Joy Parade as a vendor in 2022 but attended its launch in 2018. “It was really nice to see all the Black folks getting together, just having a good, joyous time, without any drama and seeing the parade,” she said. “I loved seeing the performances with the singing and dancing. We had gone for a few years as a family, just to enjoy it, and then last year was when we took the leap and said, ‘Let’s be a part of this!’”

Myesha and Mohammed Shuaibe, Melanin Gang

Melanin Gang founders Myesha and Mohammed Shuaibe. Photo courtesy of Myesha and Mohammed Shuaibe

Myesha and Mohammed Shuaibe created Melanin Gang in 2017 as a source of representation and inspiration for their young children, Soraiya, Salahuddin, and Nuri. Both parents were working corporate jobs at the time but came to realize that corporate life was not what they wanted. They knew they had the drive and potential to start a business but didn’t know what that business would be until they had their son. The business started off as a clothing brand and then grew to include children’s books, stickers, and more, all centered on a mission to inspire, celebrate, and empower Black people. 

The couple’s core values are reflected in their ABC Affirmation Book, which was published in 2020. At that time, Soraiya, their oldest daughter, was navigating identity issues around her hair, and other challenges from being a Black girl in a mostly non-Black school system. Sharing positive affirmations about their personhood, their looks, and their limitless potential was a practice that they wanted to instill in their children, which in turn inspired the book. 

This will be the third year the family business is participating in the Black Joy Parade. “The first year gave us the confidence to know that we’re really sitting on something big [regarding our business],” said Mohammad. “The love that we got that day, everybody from the vendors to the community, everything was letting us know that we did the right thing by quitting our jobs [and committing to our business full time].”

Jasmine McGee, Coco Coalition 

From left: Coco Coalition co-founders Jasmine McGee, Mimo Haile Smith, Tiffany Wright. Credit: Lance Carr

The Coco Coalition started as a passion project called the “Black and Beautiful Women’s Brunch” in Oakland in 2015. The gathering was created by three friends in response to the murder of Sandra Bland in Waller County, Texas, in 2015. Jasmine McGee and the two other co-founders (or Coco-founders, as I now like to call them), Tiffany Wright and Mimo Haile-Smith, saw that Black women needed their own space to mourn and gather, and the Black and Beautiful brunch was born. The event received an international response from Black women elsewhere seeing the need for similar spaces, and soon the trio was traveling to Los Angeles, Washington DC, Chicago, Atlanta, Accra (Ghana), and Johannesburg (South Africa). The conversations that were spurred from those brunches proved to the founders that they needed to do more, leading to the formation of their nonprofit, the Coco Coalition. 

Greenwell, the founder of the Black Joy Parade, reached out to McGee and the other co-founders to get them involved once she heard about their desire to expand. 

“Since the Black and Beautiful Women’s brunch was a bustling thing in Oakland, she asked if we could come and do a brunch,” recalled McGee. “We did a collaboration brunch [with the Black Joy Parade] in the Oakland Tavern in 2018 and it was wonderful. Then we made a pivot to do less ‘brunchy’ things and more service things, and this is the first year that we’re coming back, having a booth, and will be available to the community.”

Be sure to stop by the Coco Coalition booth on Sunday to learn more about the group’s activities and offerings, which include academic scholarships for students interested in the arts, civic engagement, and mental health studies. You can also learn more about the scholarships and upcoming events and conferences on their website.

Shayna Conde is a food, beverage, travel, and wellness writer with a passion for POC-owned businesses. She also runs a weekly substack, Heart to Arts*, that highlights Black woman-owned businesses around the USA, and removes the veil behind what life is like as a travel writer. Her work can be seen in Allure, Well+Good, Departures, FOOD52, USA Today, and more.
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