This week, the graduate students enrolled in my “Gender, Race and Urban Space” course tackle Sara Ahmed’s study on “the promise of happiness.” I wasn’t always sure it was the best book for this course. But as I picked it up again in preparation for Thursday’s conversation, I continue to look forward to the topic.
Last week, we read historian Gilbert Osofsky’s 1968 article on the “tragic sameness” of black urban life. The picture he paints of such life is as bleak as some would paint it today, nearly 50 years later.
Ahmed gives us some thoughts on how to pull apart the quest to be happy amid such tragedies. I am wondering how the students will address this issue especially while pondering how oppressed populations can look happy. Take the ones in the video above (I love this song. I love the stories offered here about family, community and womanhood. But there are other things here that do make me sad).
Is dancing to the drummer’s beat a way to cope with the unstated and tragic backstories behind all of that dancing? Is Pharrell’s injunction that folk be happy a worthwhile one? Does singing “can’t nobody bring me down,” or other variations on it (Kendrick’s “we gon’ be alright,” among them) actually feeding into other problems Ahmed introduces?
If happiness is a duty, who benefits, why and if it’s a bad duty, what’s the alternative? And what do we make of some folks in developing countries appearing to be happier than ones in wealthy, so-called developed countries? Is exploring the ironies embedded in happiness a worthwhile pursuit? Things I’ll be thinking about it as we proceed with much before us this semester and this year. I’ll especially be thinking about them as I turn 50 next week. Being a half century makes you go to these difficult places. I mostly want to celebrate. And now I am being asked via Ahmed to think about why or why not.