What is joy? Merriam-Webster defines it as “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires.” The dictionary goes on to provide two more examples, one stating that joy is “a state of happiness or felicity”, and the third calling it “a source or cause of delight.”

Joy is something we’re born with, but as we begin to experience this crazy thing we call life, it tends to take the backseat to other emotions such as anger, stress, worry, etc. For black and brown people, that happens a lot sooner than it should. Statistic proves that black and brown boys, specifically, receive harsher punishment than any other demographic. Every single time a new name follows behind a hashtag, chances are, it belongs to a black male. How do we protect our boys (and girls) in order for them to live a long, positive life?

According to Harlem native, mixed media artist Ronald Draper, he knew exactly what to do as he experienced the plight young black boys face every single day. Thus, #BrownBoyJoy was born. 

On what inspired the #BrownBoyJoy exhibit:

“It was just an idea of knowing certain things that I know and working in the school system and seeing how my boys reacted to certain things and being very cognizant that joy is very much alive. People think, “how can you be happy at a time like this? You’re not down for the cause!” You’re missing the point if that’s what you think. You’re missing the fact that joy is the biggest act of resistance you can give. Someone is telling you to give the opposite and you stand there and refuse to let them take your spirit. People needed that reminder.” 

In an era where we’re taught to be constantly aware and fight back if necessary from an early age, often times we forget about the healing process. Do we stay mad forever or suppress our anger the best way we know how? It’s all about survival mode growing up black, but that doesn’t mean we’ve been handling it the best way possible. “To say be happy and ignore everything that’s going on, but be very cognizant of what’s going on and very cognizant of self-awareness and self-help, self-indulgence,” Ronald shared. “People get caught up in anger. Resistance is always the act of building and stopping at the same time. It’s like getting a deep cut and slapping a band-aid on it. Stopping the bleeding doesn’t mean you’ve healed it. It has to be a conscious effort and a continuous effort of stopping the hurting and healing it. You can only resist as much as you need to if you’re at full strength. Can’t be all anger. Can’t be dark all the time because these dark spaces will consume you. There also has to be healing and a collective understanding of what’s going on and some positive presence. You can’t give when you don’t have enough for yourself. You have to be filled and that’s what healing is, that’s what joy is.”

Photo: Kolin Mendez

On why #BrownBoyJoy is needed now more than ever:

It was hard to see former rap star Ja Rule arguing with the cast of BET’s New Edition Story over the use of their hashtag #BlackBoyJoy, which played a part in Ronald’s #BrownBoyJoy exhibit. The world already has a hard time seeing our boys as such due to physical stature, athletic ability or plain ignorance, why should we also snatch it away. “It’s not about trying to son a man. We all had a point where joyfulness was at the forefront,” Ronald explained. “You have to appeal to that inner child, not in the sense of immaturity, but that spirit of just youthful energy and a jovial spirit.” Frederick Douglass said it best, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Photo: "Never Let Go" by Ronald Draper

On combining art and activism to lead the next generation:

Besides inspiring the public through his personal work, Ronald Draper is an arts educator and the head of the art department for the Eagle Academy School for Young Men. He is also the co-founder of #TakeCareofHarlem, the nonprofit organization that builds community prosperity with the use of art, entrepreneurship and culture. He witnesses daily how the lack of solid art programs in schools has a huge impact on the growth of these students. Whether you choose to focus on Math, Science, English or History, art intersects within all subjects. “To create is to bring into existence where there is none. So just having the free enough spirit to create something that people might not believe in at first, creating that safe space where kids feel safe to create is my mission.” 

Thus, the old age question came up: is creativity something we’re all born with or can it be taught? According to Ronald, “Creativity can’t be taught, creativity is unlocked. Everybody is creative. Some people are just so afraid to put it out there because they don’t want to be vulnerable. So creativity and art are all about teaching vulnerability and being secure in your vulnerability.” Ronald went on to explain that he teaches a course call "Arts and Activism" where kids are looking to express themselves in a multitude of ways. The best way he can get them to see it on their level is the usage of emoji. “The art is to language as the emoji is to text message,” Ronald chuckled. “If you want to know how someone felt during a time period, look at the art around that time. My art represents my truth, what’s going on in 2017. So I’m also teaching them how responsible they have to be with creating artwork. That’s your story. Don’t take it lightly. You have to be able to create in a sense of being a great concept, who is going to be acknowledging and reading this work. You have a responsibility to everyone coming after you to make sure they understand the truth of what came before them.” 

Photo: "Believe" By Ronald Draper

On what lessons he hopes to instill in the youth through his art:

Overall, as an educator and art activist, Ronald Draper wants his students to never be afraid to dream because “whatever you think you want, you can have.” He knows for sure they all won’t grow up to be artists, but the idea of dreaming and being vulnerable in your thoughts while understanding that everyone won’t be accepting is the key. “Some people may not agree with what you’re dreaming about now, but keep on dreaming because they’ll appreciate it sooner or later. You may not be here to witness it, but what you have in your mind [is] one thing that only you can contribute to the world. Nobody can give it to us but you. Creating that environment that is safe enough to express that and continue to grow that, you never know what can come from anybody. I don’t want to stifle anyone’s creativity.”

Photo: Jarrett Baxter

The #BrownBoyJoy exhibit can be viewed at La Maison d’Art until March 23rd. If you don’t get a chance to see it, on April 29th Draper will be celebrating his 2 year anniversary of his studio that will showcase all the exhibits that he’s had within the past four years. He also plans to bring back art workshops throughout New York City for all ages.

“I just want to revolutionize the art education game. I want to bring back the emotion, the relevance and uniqueness of art,” Ronald shared as his students poured into his classroom, eager for the day's lesson. He was off to live his truth and mold the minds of the future — Draper style, of course.