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Washington State University Graduate School

Amir Gilmore

#BlackBoyJoy and the Power of Hope

By Cheryl Reed

Who: Dr. Amir Gilmore

Degree: Ph.D. in Cultural Studies and Social Thought in Education

Graduation date: May, 2019

Years to degree: 4

Dissertation title: “The joyful sounds of being your own black self”


What makes black children joyful?

“That’s not something we ask,” says Amir Gilmore, a spring 2019 doctoral graduate in Cultural Studies and Social Thought in Education. His faculty advisor, Dr. Pam Bettis, had posed the question in a discussion about his dissertation, providing him a new lens for his research on school curriculum and black oppression.

Through the lens of poetry and music, Amir’s research focused on the sounds of “Black Boy Joy” to heighten the awareness of joy and hope through listening. You can Google BlackBoyJoy to read more ideas of what the movement means.

In 2018 Amir presented his thesis concept at the WSU Three Minute Thesis competition. “Black Boy Joy refuses to passively wait for a future that envisions Black humanity, and instead creates spaces of affirmation where black males are felt, heard, seen, and matter,” he says. The bottom line is that Black Boy Joy is helping create a new narrative about black masculinity based on positivity, celebration, and joyful childhood memories.  

Amir asks scholars and educators to rethink how they view black children and to believe in and understand black oppression.

“You have to rectify these things in yourself before you can go out and teach,” he says. “You have to continue to learn and challenge yourself in relation to others.”

Reflection fueled Amir’s research, and one of the unexpected outcomes of this was a reconnection with his father, who has passed away, and a segue into all the complexities of black fatherhood—also a concept of the Black Boy Joy movement.

Amir’s dissertation defense included a full-length play about his future self. One act of the play about black mothers and sons included a real conversation between himself and his mother that took place years ago. Amir’s mother attended the defense and acted out the play with him.

 “The play was about a black child being political in an era when black children aren’t supposed to be,” he says.

Amir completed his Ph.D. in just four years, which, he says, “was a real pressure cooker.” His advisor, Dr. Pam Bettis, enjoyed working with him on his research project. “The word ‘joy’ comes to mind, again, when thinking about my relationship with Amir,” she says. “He challenged my white academic and personal (mis) understandings. This is one gift he gave me. I think I gave him a firm belief in his stellar intellectual and creative abilities and my willingness to get out of his way at times.”

The two met regularly to entertain ideas and inevitably disagree. “I believe that deep learning, which is joy, can take place when an advisor and advisee are in relation and can disagree strongly and laugh loudly together,” says Bettis.

While a graduate student at WSU, Amir also stepped into a number of leadership positions. He was Vice President and President of the Graduate and Professional Student Association and served on a number of presidential committees. As a GPSA leader, he was able to advocate for graduate students on a number of different levels and make critical contributions to student rights.

Amir is currently a visiting assistant professor in the Cultural Studies and Social Thought in Education program in the College of Education at WSU.