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Juneteenth, Then and Now: A Conversation on Being the Change Through Arts and Activism

  • The Colleges of the Fenway hosted a virtual event with three keynote panelists to talk about arts and activism in light of Juneteenth.

    In the week leading up to June 19, the Colleges of the Fenway (COF) presented a virtual event titled, “Juneteenth, Then and Now: A Conversation on Being the Change Through Arts and Activism.” The virtual event, which was open to all in the COF community, took place on the same day that the House of Representatives passed legislation and the day after the Senate unanimously signed a bill to establish Juneteenth National Independence Day as a federal holiday. The panel was moderated by Assistant Dean for Community Engagement and Social Justice Professor of Practice at Simmons University School of Social Work, College of Social Science, Policy and Practice (CSSPP) Gary Bailey, DHL, MSW, ACSW.

    On point with the theme of arts and activism, rap music greeted guests before Professor Bailey introduced the three panelists. The first panelist introduced was Byron Rushing, former member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, which he served from 1983 to 2019. In addition to dedicating his efforts to many civil rights issues, Rushing served as President of the Museum of Afro-American History from 1972 to 1985. Another advocate for artists of color is panelist Makeeba McCreary, who has both a doctorate and master’s degree in education and is the first Patti and Jonathan Kraft Chief of Learning and Community Engagement at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). She has helped the MFA to curate inclusive exhibitions and expand programs to engage diverse community voices and young students. The third panelist was Associate Professor of Education and Social Work at Simmons University and Adjunct Lecturer of Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education Daren Graves, who also has a doctorate and master’s degree in education. He is heavily involved in research on critical race theory, racial identity development, and teacher education, in addition to duties as co-Chair of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Hip Hop Theories, Praxis & Pedagogies Special Interest Group.

    Professor Bailey started off the discussion with the question of what Juneteenth means in our current times. The history of Juneteenth has recently become well-known, since many states came to recognize it as an official state holiday following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the subsequent surge of Black Lives Matter protests across the nation. The origin story of Juneteenth involves Major General Gordon Granger ordering his soldiers in Galveston, Texas to make known the Emancipation Proclamation, which was signed more than two years before, in 1863. This order on June 19, 1865, became known as the end of slavery because over 200,000 enslaved people had not learned of their freedom until then. Although Juneteenth is considered “Freedom Day,” Rushing pointed out that its history is problematic in that it tells the story of a white man advising black people on what to do with their freedom. He read Major General Gordon Granger’s official order aloud, which was full of suggestions on where to go and what to do next. Dr. Graves added to Rushing’s point, noting that there were many black soldiers in the Civil War: “Black folks freed themselves. . . and we’re still doing it.” In terms of present-day Juneteenth, Dr. Graves believes the conflict around whether it should be a celebration or a commemoration stems from the tension around how much work is left to be done. He said there is so much energy spent on tearing down systemic racism yet not enough focus on what kind of future we are trying to build.

    Supporting Dr. Graves’s notion, Professor Bailey added that futurism is important, because those ancestors who celebrated the first Juneteenth were able to do so by daring to dream and act for the future they wanted. He challenged the panelists with the question: how do we act for our future? Dr. Graves says, “We should celebrate and elevate the black people here and now.” Dr. McCreary answered with cautious optimism about the future, reflecting on the courage and ownership displayed by the young artists and students she works with as well as her own son. She says she used to be concerned about her son’s understanding of racism and its prevalence in modern society, but she realized over time that he in turn was teaching her how to adopt a truth he wants. The panelists discussed how the arts can help people visualize and seize the world in which they want to live. For example, Dr. Graves mentioned the influence of graffiti artists like Basquiat (whose MFA exhibit, Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation Dr. McCreary helped to curate) and how they give presence to their name in places they “shouldn’t be.” In addition to giving voice to black artists, Dr. McCreary says we should focus on finding ways to support black people on the financial and commercial side of art too. Professor Bailey agreed that this is an important consideration because sometimes the talent has different ideals than the talent’s agent. He used the example of Colin Kaepernick, the former professional football player who was never signed again after kneeling in protest against racism and police brutality during the national anthem.

    In thinking about present and future Juneteenth, Rushing says that black people need to gain control of it before it becomes lost to them like Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He says that the federal holiday should come with white people’s support for major structural changes, such as equal wages and reparations. On a similar rallying note, Dr. McCreary says, “There’s too much that young people need; we can’t afford the privilege of being patient. We have to do a heavier lift. We’ve let white people off the hook, but we’ve let ourselves be off the hook too.”