In Commemoration and Celebration of Juneteenth

I attended my first Juneteenth celebration at ten years old.  I remember the spot being called “Little Africa.” My younger self didn’t understand that wasn’t the official name, and that moniker confused me until we arrived.

“Little Africa” occupied a little space.  What others called a park, I would have called a field. My family had moved from northern California nine months prior. I associated the word “park” with volumes of space, trees that provided shade, green grass, swing sets, and climbing apparatuses that burnt my skin in the summer.

To be fair, maybe some of that existed at this park, but I have no memories of such.  We kids had to cautiously entertain ourselves so as not to bump into a hot grill, interfere in a game of cards, or disturb a domino tournament.  Until dusk, music played from boom boxes or parked cars with opened doors and downed windows. We were warned not to fall asleep on the car ride home lest we thought that nap meant we could stay up all night once we got there.

Picture this Juneteenth celebration.  Who do you see there?

My younger self did not appreciate this gathering as a celebration of freedom.  My younger self had no true understanding of how varied and disputed the concept of freedom is.  My ancestors were once enslaved, but now we weren’t.   We didn’t have a master or a missus. We had material possessions; we went places and did things.  We were free, right?

Circulating on the internet is a quote attributed to the astute, yet often aggrieved, writer James Baldwin, “To be African American is to be African without any memory and American without any privilege.” This statement resonates, yet not as a debate about what privilege is and how much more my skin folk have or don’t have since 1865.  What resonates is the reality that Blacks/African Americans continue to experience freedom as theory rather than praxis.

My/Our ancestors experienced freedom as liberation from enslavement, but I/we still pursue freedom as unrestricted usage.  If you need examples, see Colin Kaepernick or Patrisse Cullors.  If you need more examples, search any social media outlet for “Black while”: driving, jogging, knocking on a neighbor’s door, calling 911 for help, shopping for high-value retail, shoveling snow, sitting in a hotel lobby/coffee shop, or collecting lantern flies…

About five years ago, I had a physically benign, yet emotionally harmful “Black while” attending a church book club gathering.  The novel was Mudbound by Hillary Jordan. There were small groups sharing their thoughts before the larger group convened.  From another group, I heard an older white citizen ask another, “What do they still want?”  In that moment, I was paralyzed, angered, and saddened.  I didn’t know what to do, and so I did nothing.

For a long time, I wanted that moment back.  I thought of numerous ways to educate (and for real) embarrass the question asker. But God is good, and I relinquished my desire to answer for they because we are not a monolith.  I turned that question into “What do I want?”

This question is life-giving because I can seek and create infinite answers.  One thing I want is to be of service in my community.  One way I serve is as an advisory board member for the African American Legacy Fund at the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona.  This vital fund was established in 2013 by the estimable Dr. Anna Jolivet.  Our work is to address the educational and economic disparities faced by African Americans in Southern Arizona.

Another thing I want is to honor the ways in which freedom is lived and displayed in the lives of Black/African American people today.  I invite my community to do the same by gathering to celebrate Juneteenth with a week-long calendar of events hosted by the Tucson Juneteenth Festival.

This year’s celebration will be held at the Kino Sports Complex.  In terms of size, numerous “Little Africas” could fit into this space. There will be a designated Kid’s Zone full of safe and fun activities that won’t require dodging hot grills and staying out of grown folks’ way.  Music will be one of many forms of artistic expression, along with poetry readings, dancing, and singing.  Some vendors will sell their wares, and others will provide educational materials.

I am inspired by the expansion and prosperity of today’s Juneteenth celebration.  The last thing I want, for now, is the Juneteenth picture in your mind to be of a multi-racial/ethnic gathering.  The praxis of freedom cannot be the work nor burden of one particular identity.  It takes a village to affect change, and we all deserve to be free.

-Contributed by Cydne Bolton, Advisory Board Member, African American Legacy Fund