As a kid, when the Juneteenth, I had no idea what Juneteenth was. I just knew it was one of many summer festivals in Milwaukee. This one started with a parade that traveled the length of Martin Luther King, Dr. Luckily for my best friend TW and me, we lived only two blocks away from the parade.
TW and I would go and, like other kids watching the parade, try to catch promo records and candy from the two black AM radio stations and the one black/mixed FM station. Later, my family and I, and my neighbors would walk the mile to the Juneteenth festival.
Milwaukee has, in the past and maybe today (I haven’t lived there for years), billed itself as The City of Festivals. The bulk of these festivals are held at a giant lakefront part and many of these festivals are ethnic celebrations, like Irish Fest or Festa Italiana, or Mexican Fiesta. Some of the city’s festivals were in neighborhood parks or extravagant block parties, like Bastille Days in downtown Milwaukee, replete with a mini Eiffel Tower, French vendors, Cajun food, and Zydeco. In this aspect, Juneteenth was no different: it was in the center of Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood, towards the end of Martin Luther King, Dr. and it extended for blocks.
Each year at the festival, there were vendors, food, performances by local groups like the Ko-thi Dance Company. Black politicians and radio stations were there. Miss Juneteenth would be crowned. Sometimes, my parents had a booth for their antique business and once, my sister were in the parade).
But I didn’t know what the celebration was for when I was a kid. I just thought it was a festival in the hood that marked the beginning of summer. I did kind of wonder why there were no or very few white people in attendance. And I don’t remember learning what Juneteenth was about, but at some point, I became fascinated by it. I was obsessed for a while. Why didn’t all Americans celebrate? I had and have my ideas why: a celebration of a particular date that ended chattel slavery for all black Americans–two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, is a celebration that chattel slavery was defeated. If those in power were to celebrate, they’d have to, in effect, apologize. They would have to admit that the end of slavery is worthy of celebration. They’d have to admit that slavery was horribly wrong and that what is existed was truly terrible. The country would have to take responsibility for what it did to Africans and black folks born in the US for years.
Maybe it’s time to do this. In my email box, companies and organizations are mentioning Juneteenth, forcing it into marketing strategies or calls to action. The New York Times has a big spread today and the other day, offered recipes (many of which friends growing up would have called bougie, but I’m going to try some of these) for the holiday. I, in my smugness, wonder how they pronounce it. I wonder if they were as ignorant of the holiday as I was as a kid. But I, in the spirit of my ancestors, appreciate this recognition. Last I heard, both Virginia and New York are celebrating this day as a state holiday. Officially. I appreciate these states’ first steps. Most states do! Wisconsin’s recognition of Juneteenth happened under Senator Spencer Coggs, who belongs to a prominent black political family in my hometown. (I grew up with some of the Coggs and was happy to learn that my neighbor and friend, Milele Coggs is now a city alderwoman and a lawyer (as a kid, she was a great break dancer.))
I think the time is ripe for a national day. I want to ask everyone to celebrate Juneteenth with me.
Lastly, a couple of years ago, I wrote a poem called June 19, 1865. You can find it on Versewrights, or on the Tweet below:
June 19, 1865
emancipation has too many syllables and I don’t have the words for syllables yet / I haven’t the experience to understand what it could possibly mean and would be for me / major general has too many titles and none of them are master / he says free and some of us laugh / I step gingerly forward and nothing / for two years, major general granger says, we been free / and I take another step forward and I hear / nothing / I walk on and I don’t even hear / a dog / I’m still walking.