The first five notes of “Swag Surfin’” rang out in the cavernous New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center — a rallying call for a swarm of people to a makeshift dance floor. Doing what one naturally does when the F.L.Y. (Fast Life Yungstaz) 2009 hit comes on, I locked damp arms with a stranger on either side of me — and they with those beside them. Entranced, we swayed in slow, hypnotic harmony until the beat finally crashed down, our cue to rock our beautiful Black bodies back and forth and ride the booming bass as one.
I’ve “swag surfed” at graduations and birthday parties, at barbecues and wedding receptions, but this particular moment was my first time in a crowd like this since March 2020. It was also my first time at the iconic Essence Festival, the world’s largest music and culture gathering held by, and for, Black women, which typically brings more than 500,000 attendees to New Orleans every July Fourth weekend, according to organizers.
What began as a one-off 25th anniversary concert for Essence Magazine in 1995 has since exploded into an extravaganza that includes musical “superlounges,” after-hour comedy shows and breakout hubs spotlighting beauty, food and wine, technology, health, film, finance, professional education, spirituality, activism and more. It was also the setting for the 2017 breakout comedy “Girls Trip,” starring Tiffany Haddish, Regina Hall, Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith.
On the dance floor, a woman I’d just met named Zada Jones Collins, of Killeen, Texas, exclaimed, “This gives me life!” Ms. Collins, a 48-year old New Orleans native known as MiLady, has been to the festival so many times she’s lost count. “This keeps me from crying,” said Ms. Collins, who had buried her father the weekend before. But just as soon as she’d said it, she whisked me back to the crowd, saying, “I feel like we need to go over there dancing!”
After a conversation like that, the 2022 festival theme, “It’s the Black Joy for Me!” felt even more on the nose. But, like many clichés, it was true.
If anyone who wasn’t a Black woman had spent four days at Essence Festival, they’d probably figure that we were doing just fine — that we had shouldered the effects of the pandemic with the superhuman strength that’s assumed of us.
“We have to be so strong, we have no time to be weak,” Breana Jupiter, 32, said. “Everybody looks at us like we’re less than if we’re not as strong as what they perceive us to be.” An inventory specialist at a local children’s hospital, Ms. Jupiter felt she couldn’t cry or show emotion while battling Covid-19 on the front line. But at Essence Festival, she and her three young children explored spaces filled with other people who looked like them, played games at the carnival-themed beauty hub and simply enjoyed themselves.
On Saturday, I was heading out of the convention center toward the food and wine section when I heard a triumphant, “We did it!”
The declaration came from Mercedes Frierson, 35. Ms. Frierson had recently left her decade-long career as the associate director of training at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. She was striking a pose beside a branded floor decal as her best friend, Sheatarra, her mother, Holly, and family friend India cheerfully looked on. After months of tracking affordable flights from their respective West Coast and Midwest homes, they’d finally arrived.
“Working in homeless services, you experience a lot of trauma, specifically vicarious trauma,” Ms. Frierson said, recalling the overwhelming amount of illness and death she encountered among the Black unhoused community while working on Skid Row during the pandemic. “So, being here and seeing people have life and laughter, and we’re turning up to the music and all of that, that brings joy, and you just want to say, ‘Thank you, God, for life.’”
This sense of resilience was not lost on Blake Newby, Essence’s beauty and style editor, who joined the team during 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 said.
By the end of the four days, I had shared a room with Vice President Kamala Harris (who participated in a surprise talk with the actress Keke Palmer, the former star of Nickelodeon’s “True Jackson, VP”), Janet Jackson, Patti LaBelle, Nicki Minaj, Lil’ Kim and Issa Rae.
The real salve, however, came from the community of festival attendees. I broke bread with a dozen of the 300 Black women who’d ridden their motorcycles, motorbikes and even three-wheeled Slingshots across the country for the annual Black Girls Ride trek to the festival. I made new friends on crowded sidewalks while waiting out sporadic downpours and reunited with old ones I hadn’t seen in years. I added my voice to a chorus that filled an entire N.F.L. stadium with songs. I wandered aimlessly through the streets of New Orleans, eating, cheering, smiling and second-line dancing with people who looked and felt like family.
There’s something to be said about hundreds of thousands of people who’ve gone through similar experiences gathering in the same place at the same time with the intention to enjoy and empower themselves.
Lindsey Augustin, 23, works as a certified nursing assistant and emergency medical technician in Stratford, Conn. In her day job, she often senses colleagues gawking at her golden-hued locs, the hairstyle an anomaly in her predominantly white workspaces. She couldn’t help but notice the many compliments she and her fellow loc’d friend, Ryenne, received throughout their trip. But what struck her the most was the simple act of sharing a live experience with a community of other Black women.
“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 said. “Even if I don’t even know so-and-so’s name who’s standing next to me, we’re unified. We’re a people.”
As someone who never attended a historically Black college, who never joined a sorority and who comes from a fractured family void of annual cookouts and reunions, this experience was the closest I had come to the in-person communion I’d been craving.
By the last day, on Sunday afternoon, I was awkwardly lugging my suitcase into the hotel elevator, convention-center-bound for one last time. My carry-on bag toppled to the ground, the few items I’d haphazardly crammed in spilling on the floor. A pair of Black women rushed to my side and scooped up what they could. Reaching toward their outstretched hands, I replied, “Thanks, sis.”