“It’s not a moment, it’s a movement.” – Quimaya Sewell
On June 19th, African American communities around the country celebrate a holiday known as ‘Juneteenth’. This day commemorates the freeing of the last known enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas in 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Juneteenth was typically only celebrated in Texas, but after Black Americans continued to be legally enslaved through the sharecropping system and mass incarceration, celebrating the holiday became a staple of Black communities nationwide. In Chicago, the Juneteenth festivities were wide and varied. Set against the backdrop of the current Black Lives Matter movement, understanding the history behind the holiday and the struggle Black American communities still face, it has become more relevant than ever before.
On June 19th, I asked my father to drive me around the city so I could document and partake in the demonstrations and community events occurring in Black neighborhoods. From the Northside to the Southside, our communities were showing out for Juneteenth, a holiday that has only recently become relevant to mainstream White America. By collecting information on the Juneteenth celebrations in Chicago, I was able to ascertain when and how different Black Americans learned about Juneteenth and if the event they were currently at represented this meaning in any way.
First Stop: The One Million Man March
Created by Louis Farrakhan, The One Million Man March originally occurred in Washington, DC in 1995. This event was hosted by political leaders to place Black American issues on the forefront of the nation’s political agenda. Although it was restructured for Juneteenth 2020, the primary motivations remained one and the same. The event began at 11am in a neighborhood known as South Loop and protestors marched for half a mile to City Hall. The event included a raising of the Afro-American flag and rendition of the Negro National Anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” led by a Black heterosexual couple that represented Black love and resilience in an active and spiritual manner. During the march, which included a unifying and color-blind ‘Swag Surf’, I interviewed a few participants to get their opinion on Juneteenth. Pictured below are Ebony and Bridget, two femmes who showed up to the protest with the intention of learning and educating those around them on what it meant to celebrate the holiday.
Bridget said that, while the holiday has always been
important, “there haven’t been many attempts on the
part of White Americans to learn our history.” Ebony
shared with me that this was the first time she was actually commemorating the holiday but also said that Black people should not be shamed for their lack of knowledge. “Yes, it is important to know your history and it’s unfortunate that we didn’t have that opportunity in the past. But now we know.” At the same rally, I interviewed three other Black folks who were also students in the Chicagoland area. While they chose to remain anonymous, they did not hold back from sharing their own opinions on Juneteenth. The man standing on the right said that, as a public relations intern, he has been in meetings where white-led companies are now determining how they should market Juneteenth in order to increase the number of Black consumers and/or investors. I asked the gentleman if it was typical of companies, to respond to social movements or Black history in a shallow attempt to capitalize off of it and he said, “Yes, especially when corporate giants like Nike are participating in showy campaigns as well”.
Second Stop, Black Unity March
Led by a Black cisgender man, this march began at the Chicago Police Department station on 35th and Michigan at 1 pm. Before the event had even begun, there were scores of police officers waiting in front of their station with riot gear and shields “hidden” in the grass. After identifying a few of the police officers as members of the Black community, I proceeded to approach them and asked them their own views of Juneteenth. Before I could even get my questions out, they immediately pointed to their white supervisor and said that I needed to get his permission before continuing. Instead of submitting my questions to a white man, I continued to walk across the street to the corner where the protest was beginning.
I interviewed a triad of Black femmes who had returned to the city after living in Washington, DC. I asked them of their opinion of Juneteenth and if they believed that the Black police officers stationed across the street should be allowed to celebrate Juneteenth.
The person to the right stated that they, of course, should be allowed to celebrate. “The fact that they are working right now and preparing to meet us with violence just shows that their supervisors do not care about their wellbeing. Not only is the protest about to be peaceful, there are children here and they should not have to witness brutality by someone who looks like them.” I wholeheartedly agreed with their statement and I wish that the Chicago Police Department was at least willing to acknowledge Juneteenth as a holiday and give their Black employees paid time-off. Alas, this is only another reason (of which there are many) to abolish the police as they only celebrate their own once black and brown police officers shift their priorities and values to white communities.
Next Stop, Juneteenth: The Celebration
This event in particular held a special place in my heart as it was coordinated and funded by friends of mine from the city, Karizma Blackburn and Iris Haastrup. Both Black femmes, they created the celebration as a continuation of previous initiatives for the community, including their donation based Southside Grocery Pick-Up held on Breonna Taylor’s birthday, may she Rest in Power.
Iris and Karizma both said that this event is just a representation of what can happen once Black folks come together as a community. Unfortunately, there is not much unity in our communities on how to advocate for marginalized identities. Even when there are leftist, pro-Black organizations and activists, many times they focus on a patriarchal, anti-LGBTQ, and ableist rhetoric. Karizma states that “the exclusion of Black queer, trans, and disabled folks from activist spaces has continued for too long. By using this space, the past, present and future can converge into this moment of generational unity.” Juneteenth: The Celebration was also created as another representation of Black America’s frustration. “While anger shows itself in many ways”, she says, “the least known one is creativity and joy as a form of reclamation.”
The event was created in conjunction with a variety of Chicago based non-profits and organizations, including Youth for Black Lives, a non-binary and femme-led group that uses art, film viewings, teach-ins, and collaborations to liberate Black people in every way imaginable. They were represented at a booth by members Yahaira Tarr and
Kay Mabwa (pictured below). The event also included
musical performances and pop-ups by local Chicago artists.
I interviewed a few folks who were there about Juneteenth and
what it meant to them, especially as young people in an
extremely segregated city. Yahaira first spoke about the
importance of commemoration but emphasized that “We already
know the history. Our ancestors were enslaved in every single
way imaginable, spiritually, physically, and mentally but
Juneteenth only represents freedom in a physical sense.” Kay
continued along with that by highlighting that Juneteenth is not a
federal holiday and said that “the only people who have shown
they cared about us has been us.” Kay also touched on the events
and protests that have been going on in the city and the fact that
the popularized ones are either led by cishet Black men and/or
exclude any mention of the work done by LBGTQ+ members of the Black community. “What frustrates me,” they say, “is that Black men won’t acknowledge they benefit from the patriarchy. And in order for us, all of us, to truly be free, we must dismantle that system of oppression too. That’s what Youth for Black Lives is all about.”
(If you would like to donate $$ to their efforts, venmo is @ihaastrup and Y4BL is paypal @ email@example.com)
Last but not least: the Juneteenth Block Party ft. a wild white man in a dashiki Taking place on 79th and Woodlawn.
This event was marked by a viewing of a well-known Spike Lee joint, ‘Do the Right Thing’. Attended by Black people of all ages, there were musical performances by Afro-Latinx and Black non-Hispanic artists in an effort to showcase the rich beauty and diversity in the African diaspora. The first people I interviewed were Kenny and Mike, a son and father who were wearing matching shirts.
After asking the young man what Juneteenth was, Kenny told me he didn’t know! Fortunately, his father was standing right there and was able to educate him on the history of the holiday. “It’s like kicking out a dog who has only been abused and only knows abuse,” Mike said. “Our ancestors did not even know what to do with freedom because they had never had it before. That’s why it’s important that we use our ‘freedom’ (quotes because we’re only free-ish) to do better and become better so we don’t need to rely on any white man ever again.”
Unfortunately, once you speak of the Devil, he eventually comes out to greet you. Cue white man in a dashiki. The man’s name is Brad and he was actually there with his Black girlfriend, Kay. I asked Brad what Juneteenth meant to him and if he felt like he, as a white man, had a place in the celebrations. Fortunately, the Dusse he was drinking made him more amiable to my forthright questioning and he spoke with me honestly.
“I grew up as a small-town country boy in Southern Illinois so Juneteenth wasn’t spoken about too much. However, I recognize the holiday as something that can be celebrated by us all. The people in my life that I love and care about are mixed-up and diverse so how can I not care about something that they care about too?” Well said, Brad, and nice dashiki by the way. As I am quite sure his girlfriend picked it out for him, I let him off without questioning anything about cultural appropriation and only asked if I could take a picture of his blended family.
I am glad that I was able to drive around the city and document
that beauty and diversity of my city. Unfortunately, the only news
presented about Chicago and the Southside neighborhoods are negative and do not convey the love and care (and wealth!) that many community members have. Although Black Americans have had nothing but violence and hardship thrown at them, it gives me hope to see the progress that has been made by us for us.