by Cortina Jenelle
over the past year, millions of people have become more aware of what juneteenth is and what it represents in the collective quest for equity, justice and inclusion. following the events that led to the death of george floyd over reparations summer [a term used by those in the organizer, facilitator and activist circles to describe summer 2020], the united states of america adopted juneteenth as a federal/paid holiday. it’s new to a lot of folks and whether you benefit from the federal/paid holiday or not, it’s undeniable that this small shift has sparked thousands [maybe millions?] of conversations that we were not having before. for me, juneteenth has been consistent in my life since i was much younger and was introduced to me in middle school. at that time, i was working for my grandmother’s catering business which took us all over western north carolina and through the southeast [united states]. there were festivals, summer camps, fundraisers, galas, church events plus always at least one place to be for juneteenth each season. one of the biggest juneteenth celebrations in the southeast happened at isothermal community college in rutherford county, north carolina where my maternal side of the family had generational roots. it was something to SEE. i can remember both being in love with the day + times while also being confused and unclear about why there was a “black independence day” and why it was different than everyone else’s [in reference to the july 4th independence day celebrations]. the most i got out of the adults was that it was a celebration of our freedom, which we had not always had. as an adult, i realize now that could be the story, but that’s not all of the story. reflecting on it now, part of the reason the adults may have offered such a simple answer could be that i grew up in a era where the youths were better seen and not heard. you didn’t ask questions, you just did what you were told! but i also think the simple answer was the best they could do so that the celebration and freedom was the focus, not the pain of a very recent past. my grandmother herself had grown up picking cotton for pennies and her grandmother was enslaved. the horrors of slavery were nearly present day and not that far from the present moment. their bodies, hearts, hands and minds knew the other stories all too well. they deserved some space from it and to amplify blackness as something worth celebrating, not oppress. it liberates us all because what we allow to happen to one can and will happen to (any)one.
it makes me proud to be from the rural south, especially knowing that i [and my generation] have been tasked with taking liberation as far as we can, passing along stories, traditions and truths along the way. people from abroad only know of major cities like new york, los angeles, san francisco, atlanta, etc when they think of the united states. and people from the united states often turn their noses up at the south or anyplace rural, thinking us to be slow, ignorant, conservative or out of touch. not all true. it’s the memories and adult reflections like these that make me realize the wealth i had access to as a child because there was this commitment to stay close enough to our history to remember and show gratitude for how far we’ve come. it’s in our celebrations, our music, our lands and also, in us. even though we were below the poverty line, there had been a lot of hard work and resilience over several generations to begin to close the gap. commemorating juneteenth certainly helps to make that progress just a little bit easier, and more lasting.
over the last 10 years of adulthood, i have slowly been returning back to my celebration of juneteenth with more resonance towards this day than the july 4th independence day celebration at-large. in fact, i haven’t celebrated july 4th in many, many years. i appreciate the day “off” that comes along with it, but i do not feel compelled to force a connection with a holiday that i need alot more context on to understand. with juneteenth, for me, i have a direct line. this year over juneteenth, i found myself in residence at arcosanti, an urban laboratory built on the principle of “arcology” [the fusion of architecture and ecology] nestled on/in a mesa in mayer, arizona. as my equity immersion residence launched last month [a first for arcosanti], i spent most of my time geeking out with the archives department on the history of the place through story, images and artifacts. it became almost immediately clear that this year’s juneteenth celebration – for me, for this place and for the people – was not to be skipped. as i was doing my research, i was almost shocked to find that juneteenth had a long-standing history of being celebrated at arcosanti, making it the only community i have ever been a part of, besides my own hometown/native land, where there was remembrance and celebration. in a community where not many people look like me, it was a beacon of hope for how the culture could be shaped to be more inclusive, justice-focused and equity-minded in the future. and it was a welcome home. arcosanti’s annual “juneteenth festival + fair” [going by different names over the years] dates back to june 2000 when the founder + residents of arcosanti teamed up with milton cannon, jr. [president + program director, prescott jazz society, inc.] and went on to produce the longest running event at arcosanti to date with 18 consecutive summers. 2019 was an off year in order to do a review of sorts, as community partnerships must, and in 2020 things took a turn yet again as hard decisions had to be made about how to keep people well and minimize health risks as with most events, festivals and gatherings. juneteenth in the summer of 2020 ended up being self-organized by the residents with spacious art installations all over site as a response to the death of george floyd. this year as i was mapping out what felt right to do in honor of juneteenth, i landed on using juneteenth to celebrate the legacy of those that committed their time, talent + treasure to hosting celebrations at arcosanti, recognizing that for 20+ years, this urban laboratory has been experimenting with what juneteenth celebrations could look like and there is much we can learn from their triumphs, struggles, challenges and “failures” along the way. an artistic review of the relationship between space + design, remembering + celebrating, past + future, form + function, facilities + communities, of sorts. in this way, it was only right to celebrate “a legacy of rhythm + resilience.”
so on june 19th, 2022 nearly 50 residents of this urban laboratory gathered in the vaults to break bread, exchange stories and engage with the art installation, special collection exhibits and music from black artists whose rhythm were the foundation for movement + celebration. although the celebration was well-attended and nicely intimate, for me it was the process of organizing and weaving things together with many hands that was the true treasure of this year’s celebration. THAT is the unshakable essence of juneteenth. once the announcement was made about juneteenth 2022 and the call was out, people came with their ideas, hands or resources…from the lighting + sound, to making art, adinkra-printed fabrics, cooks willing to get in their kitchen and chef for us [menu focused on journeying around the diaspora], a café, a shed and gallery space to showcase the work, produce from the land, stories and poetry just to name a few. in order for this celebration to happen, it took a community. in order for juneteenth to become a reality and the enslaved Africans and Native Americans held against their will to become free, took a community. on june 19th, 1865 the last state got the news of the emancipation proclamation when major general gordon granger arrived in galveston, texas and read general orders number 3, declaring:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor…”
what might a juneteenth declaration from the people look like? here are a few idea seeds collected from residents about where arcosanti might take juneteenth next:
- live music + dancing
- two-day festival with reggae bands, african drumming, spoken words, poetry, art shows and vendors
- people coming together to celebrate diversity, equity + inclusion
- pay black artists and celebrate with live music + reflect with powerful speakers
- more dessert in the desert!
- social sharing, food from various places + united culture, community, remembrance, hopefulness
- create an altar for all those who fought for liberation (including those who never saw it in their lifetime)
- i would live to see these events come to life again. we hear these stories here of “we used to” quite often…what about now? why are these important gatherings in past tense? we need to revive these relationships for the now and future. our time is now.
- consistent deepening, inquiry + practice of a more just + inclusive world – not just optics/lip service – but applied
- diversity of voices, lived experiences + perspectives – not just on the day, but all year round
- space for hopeful + radical imaginations
- i personally enjoyed the smaller, more intimate juneteenth. bigger isn’t always better.
- celebrate people of color still doing labor for white bosses. when i say celebrate, i mean appreciate.
truly, our time IS now. with that, cheers to another meaningful and community-driven time of remembering + celebrating my loves! juneteenth blessings.
Explore more about Juneteenth at Arcosanti here:
art installation video – https://vimeo.com/721990303/
special collection exhibits – https://docs.google.com/
document/d/ 1dYFH10CTVZr6R8HGpjXOh6BGwBgca ie5jzvTa0Y9swQ/edit?usp= sharing
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