The first 5 notes of “Swag Surfin’” rang out within the cavernous New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center — a rallying name for a swarm of individuals to a makeshift dance flooring. Doing what one naturally does when the F.L.Y. (Fast Life Yungstaz) 2009 hit comes on, I locked arms with a stranger on both facet of me — they usually with these beside them. Entranced, we swayed in sluggish, hypnotic concord till the beat lastly crashed down, our cue to rock our lovely black our bodies forwards and backwards and trip the booming bass as one.Essence Festival
I’ve “swag surfed” at graduations and birthday events, at barbecues and wedding ceremony receptions, however this specific second was my first time in a crowd like this since March 2020. It was additionally my first time at the enduring Essence Festival, the world’s largest music and tradition gathering held by, and for, black ladies, which usually brings greater than 500,000 attendees to New Orleans each July Fourth weekend, in line with organizers.
What started as a one-off twenty fifth anniversary live performance for Essence Magazine in 1995 has since exploded into an extravaganza that features musical “superlounges,” after-hour comedy reveals and breakout hubs spotlighting magnificence, meals and wine, know-how, well being, movie, finance, skilled schooling, spirituality, activism and extra. It was additionally the setting for the 2017 breakout comedy “Girls Trip,” starring Tiffany Haddish, Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, and Jada Pinkett Smith.
On the dance flooring, a lady I’d simply met named Zada Jones Collins, of Killeen, Texas, exclaimed, “This gives me life!” Ms. Collins, a 48-year outdated New Orleans native referred to as MiLady, has been to the pageant so many occasions she’s misplaced depend. “This keeps me from crying,” mentioned Ms. Collins, who had buried her father the weekend earlier than. But simply as quickly as she’d mentioned it, she whisked me again to the group, saying, “I feel like we need to go over there dancing!”
After a dialog like that, the 2022 pageant theme, “It’s the Black Joy for Me!” felt much more on the nostril. But, like many clichés, it was true.
If anybody who wasn’t a black lady had spent 4 days at Essence Festival, they’d in all probability have figured that we have been doing simply superb — that we had shouldered the consequences of the pandemic with the superhuman energy that’s assumed of us.
“We have to be so strong, we have no time to be weak,” Breana Jupiter, 32, mentioned. “Everybody looks at us like we’re less than if we’re not as strong as what they perceive us to be.” An stock specialist at a neighborhood youngsters’s hospital, Ms. Jupiter felt she couldn’t cry or present emotion whereas battling COVID-19 on the entrance line. But at Essence Festival, she and her three younger youngsters explored areas full of different individuals who seemed like them, performed video games at the carnival-themed magnificence hub, and easily loved themselves.
On Saturday, I used to be heading out of the conference heart towards the meals and wine part once I heard a triumphant, “We did it!”
The declaration got here from Mercedes Frierson, 35. Ms. Frierson had lately left her decade-long profession because the affiliate director of coaching at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. She was putting a pose beside a branded flooring decal as her greatest pal, Sheatarra, her mom, Holly, and household pal India cheerfully seemed on. After months of monitoring inexpensive flights from their respective West Coast and Midwest properties, they’d lastly arrived.
“Working in homeless services, you experience a lot of trauma, specifically vicarious trauma,” Ms. Frierson mentioned, recalling the overwhelming quantity of sickness and dying she encountered among the many black unhoused neighborhood whereas engaged on Skid Row in the course of the pandemic. “So, being here and seeing people have life and laughter, and we’re turning up the music and all of that, brings joy, and you just want to say, ‘Thank you, God, for life.’”
This sense of resilience was not misplaced on Blake Newby, Essence’s magnificence and magnificence editor, who joined the workforce in the course of the pandemic. “As black people, fellowship and laughter, and coming together and celebrating and laughing, especially in times like these, is really an act of resistance,” she mentioned.
By the tip of the 4 days, I had shared a room with Vice President Kamala Harris (who participated in a shock discuss with the actress Keke Palmer, the previous star of Nickelodeon’s “True Jackson, VP”), Janet Jackson, Patti LaBelle, Nicki Minaj, Lil’ Kim, and Issa Rae.
The actual salve, nevertheless, got here from the neighborhood of pageant attendees. I broke bread with a dozen of the 300 black ladies who’d ridden their bikes, motorbikes, and even three-wheeled Slingshots throughout the nation for the annual Black Girls Ride trek to the pageant. I made new mates on crowded sidewalks whereas ready out sporadic downpours and reunited with outdated ones I hadn’t seen in years. I added my voice to a refrain that crammed a complete N.F.L. stadium with songs. I wandered aimlessly by the streets of New Orleans, consuming, cheering, smiling, and second-line dancing with individuals who seemed and felt like household.
There’s one thing to be mentioned about tons of of 1000’s of people that’ve gone by comparable experiences gathering in the identical place at the identical time with the intention of having fun with and empowering themselves.
Lindsey Augustin, 23, works as an authorized nursing assistant and emergency medical technician in Stratford, Conn. In her day job, she usually senses colleagues gawking at her golden-hued locs, the coiffure an anomaly in her predominantly white workspaces. She couldn’t assist however discover the numerous compliments she and her fellow loc’d pal, Ryenne, obtained all through their journey. But what struck her essentially the most was the straightforward act of sharing a dwell expertise with a neighborhood of different black ladies.
“Virtual events have been helpful, but there’s nothing like everyone singing the same lyrics live together again, knowing the same dance or learning it right there on the spot,” she mentioned. Even if I don’t even know so-and-so’s identify who’s standing subsequent to me, we’re unified. We’re folks. ”
As somebody who by no means attended a traditionally black faculty, who by no means joined a sorority, and who comes from a fractured household void of annual cookouts and reunions, this expertise was the closest I had come to the in-person communion I’d been craving.
By the final day, on Sunday afternoon, I used to be awkwardly lugging my suitcase into the resort elevator, convention-center-bound for one final time. My carry-on bag toppled to the bottom, the few objects I’d haphazardly crammed in spilling on the ground. A pair of black ladies rushed to my facet and scooped up what they may. Reaching towards their outstretched arms, I replied, “Thanks, sis.”