Emergence Magazine

Photo by Sheila Pree Bright

Joy Is the Justice We Give Ourselves

by J. Drew Lanham


J. Drew Lanham is a birder, naturalist, and hunter-conservationist. He is the author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, which received the Reed Award from the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Southern Book Prize, and was a finalist for the John Burroughs Medal. His essays and poetry can be found in Orion, Audubon, Flycatcher, and Wilderness, and in the anthologies The Colors of Nature, State of the Heart, Bartram’s Living Legacy, and Carolina Writers at Home. He is an Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Master Teacher at Clemson University.


Sheila Pree Bright is an acclaimed fine-art photographer known for her series Young Americans, Plastic Bodies, and Suburbia. Her documentation of responses to police shootings in cities across the US inspired her book #1960Now: Photographs of Civil Rights Activists and Black Lives Matter Protests.


Joy is the justice

we give ourselves.

It is Maya’s caged bird

sung free past the prison bars,

holding spirits bound—

without due process,

without just cause.


Joy is the steady run stream,

rights sprung up

through moss-soft ground—

water seeping sweet,

equality made clear

from sea

to shining sea,

north to south,

west to east.


Joy is the truth,

crooked lies hammered straight,

whitewashed myths

wiped away.

Stone Mountain

—just stone.


—no more.

Give the eagles

their mountains back.


Joy is the paradise

we can claim

right here,

right now.

No vengeful gods

craving prayer,

no tenth in tithes to pay,

no repenter’s cover charge—

no dying required to get in.


Joy is the sunrise

breaking through night’s remains,

bright shone new

on a shell-wracked shore;

a fresh tide-scrubbed world

redeems what was,

to is.


Joy is on whimbrel’s wings;

the wedge in fast flight,

wandering curlews,

curved-beaks’ cries

stitching top of the world

to bottom.


Joy is the soul stirred

underneath the journey,

gaze snagged on wonder,

not knowing final destination,

blessed as a witness,

moored to ground,

worshipful tears

dripped into grateful smile.


Joy is the silent spring,


Rachel’s world not come to pass.

The season

dripping ripe full

of wood thrush song.


Joy is all the Black birds,

flocked together,

too many to count,

too many to name,

every one different

from the next,

swirling in singularity

across amber-purpled sky.


Joy is being loved

up close

for who we are.


Joy is the last song,

drifting in

as dark curtains fall;

the sparrow’s vesper offering,

whistle lain down

in pine-templed woods,

requiem in me-minor—

church in a cathedral time built.

No stained glass.

No pulpit.

Altars everywhere.

Just listen.

Just look.


Joy is the return,

the wandering warbler

landed in the backyard again,

from who knows where,

to rest,

to uplift lagging spirit.


Joy is the healing,

broken dreams restored—


Langston’s words

kettling higher

on hopes,

drifting ever upwards

on ragged-mid-lined rhyme,

dancing to syncopated verse.


Joy is our lives mattering,

Blackness respected.

It is seeing my color,

hue not blinded by privilege,

the pious privilege

of claiming you don’t.


Joy is the proper name,

with no “n” in the beginning

or “i” or double “g” or “e”

in the middle,

with an “r” rolled hateful

hard at the end.


Joy is your truth

being the same behind my back

as to my face.


Joy is the sharp eye

watching little brown sparrows,

and the kind one,


on little brown children too.


Joy is the ancestors

come before,

surviving the struggle,

staying strong

in the midst of withering storm;

from shackled ancestors

through Jim Crowed back doors

to gerrymandered chokehold now.

Still here in spite of it all.


Joy is the payoff,

for those often down

but never out.


Joy is the thriving,

a people who won’t die

in the midst of all this


the breaths,

ins followed by outs,


without begging for air

or asking your Mama’s ghost

to help.


Joy is the drive

with no traffic stops,

with no taillights out,

with no tint technically too dark,

with no speed traps,

with no “yes sir, Officer sir.”

No hands at two and ten.

No wondering

where the registration is.


Joy is the flashing blue light

passing by,

not meant for me.


Joy is the good news,

without new dead names,

no chokeholds or murdering knees.

A night of sleep

in your very own bed

without shots in the dark

—no more not waking up,

full of lead.


Joy is the morning jog

without being hunted down.


Joy is the loss

we take to gain,

monuments to traitors

torn down,

lost causes finally buried,

never to be found again.


Joy is the prairie,

where billowed cloud

and wild grass meet;

where the hawks glide

from there to here—


its own choice to make,

no border crossing checks.


Joy is the surrender,

to faith of push,

to trust in lift,

giving over to Toni’s command

to ride the air.

To float above

the trouble of this world

on a wish.


Joy is my grandma’s hands,

grits through gnarled fingers tossed

on cold ground

to snowbirds she pitied—

a love for others

that became my own.


Joy is the wild not tamed,

the rarest beast

with talons sharp,

or long teeth bared,

in the faraway place.


Joy is the wayward weed

in the midtown sidewalk seam,

the one I choose to call


because it dared

to not be planted,

to not be controlled.


Joy is at the end,

a bruised purpling sky

when the night

comes again,

when luck is metered

by stars winking bright.


Joy is the frogs calling,

amplexus orgying delights.


Joy is the close call

that wasn’t close enough.

Death past by you.

Life stopping by.


Joy is a heart still beating

even though

what could have been—



Joy is the knowing

that what this world

did not give—

it cannot take away.


Joy is the moment

we grab in sweat-soaked

trembling hands,

that slides from possession,

stolen legally in bits and pieces

between yawning cracks

of despair.


Joy is tears,

drops of salt water

fallen in the creases

of an upturned smile.


Joy is the necessity

that must be lain by,

what’s kept hoarded in a sturdy cache

ever ready to apply.


Joy is the gift,

just desserts,

what we deserve

without asking

or constant demands—

the comfort that comes

when no one else

really cares.


Joy is the reward,

the salary already earned—

back pay

with four centuries’ interest

compounded daily.

At least eighty acres—

and two mules.


Joy is the day off,

just because.


Joy is the kiss of that one,

or the just verdict

delivered by twelve.


Joy is the everything,

the nothing.

The simple,

the complex.

Joy is the silly,

the serious,

the trivial.

The whale enormous,

the shrew’s small.


Joy is the murmuration,

then the stillness.


Joy is the inexplicable coincidence.

Joy is what was meant to be.

The mystery of impossibility happening.

The assurance of uncertainty.


Joy is my seeking.

Your being.

It is mine for the taking.

Ours to share.

More than enough to go around,

when it seems nowhere to be found.


Have yourself a heapin’ serving.

Have seconds. Or thirds.


joy is the justice

we must give ourselves.

My Wild-Like Refuge
Related Essay

My Wild-Like Refuge

by J. Drew Lanham Open story

During the pandemic lockdown, J. Drew Lanham’s backyard, a newly sanctioned “wild-like refuge,” comes to life as he notices the wildlife that inhabits the nearby faraway.

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