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On Juneteenth We Must Celebrate Radical and Revolutionary Joy

“You dance love, and you dance joy and you dance dreams.” – Gene Kelly;  featuring Eric Grigley – Principle Dancer, Atlanta Dance Connection. Photo Credit: LaNese Harris, LansLensPhotography

By Nicole Y. “Nikki” Williams

Following the tragic events of last year, including the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others, we saw an uprising both in the United States and abroad calling for an end to the violence and terror that has plagued Black communities since forever. They gathered in every city and town, borough and neighborhood with a simple message – Black Lives Matter. These protests sent shockwaves around the country rippling across the world, inviting all to take account of the many struggles Black people continue to face. The protests also showed the determination, resilience, hope, and unbreakable joy that Black people continue to embrace even as we fight racist systems that attempt to hold us down. 

What often gets lost in the commemoration of Juneteenth is that it is a celebration. Also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day or Liberation Day, communities across this country have embraced this day through dance, song, art, and festivals. These celebrations remind us of what those last enslaved Blacks in Galveston, Texas must have felt when they received the news of their emancipation on June 19, 1865: Joy.

Joy is radical. Joy is revolutionary. Despite the tumultuous experiences of Black people in this country, our journey is imbued with Joy. That’s because we know from whence we came. We draw a clear line, a connection, to those Black people who arrived in Port Comfort, Virginia in 1619, to those in Galveston, Tulsa, Selma, Ferguson, Minneapolis and across this country. We share each other’s pain and mourn our losses, but also collectively embrace the hope and strength that allow us to continue on.

While fighting for Civil Rights, Martin Luther King Jr. found time to spend with family and occasionally shoot a game of pool. One of the greatest thinkers of our time James Baldwin and renowned playwright Lorraine Hansberry were known to cut a rug. Even Brooklyn’s own Rev. Al Sharpton knows what to do when a Soul Train line is formed – let loose and get down

These actions may seem frivolous to some, but they are acts of rebellion, of revolutionary joy – they are part of our ancestors’ wildest dreams. 

These simple acts scare those that seek to oppress Black people. They try to make us less than, engaging in every manner of banditry of Black culture and reaping the benefits of what we built in this country for free. They attempt to replace great historical works like The 1619 Project with false narratives like the 1776 project. They attempt to steal our votes through modern day poll taxes and then try to convince the masses that we are the fraudulent ones. They even devalue and take the capital we have earned.

Despite this we persevere. We build business, create art, educate and empower our communities. We are rethinking capital and philanthropy. We march and demand the justice that has long been denied us. While the oppressor ponders “What manner of people are these?

A year removed from the Black Lives Matter uprising some folks have gotten the message and are working to educate and bring greater diversity and cultural competency to schools, workplaces and systems. Others hung up their “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts and banners and fell back into the comforts of their privilege – the same privilege that continues to prop up systemic racism in this country. 

Initiatives like SPARCC have chosen to center Black liberation in the fight for fair housing and transportation, arts, and climate justice in our communities. SPARCC’s policy platform and recent community ownership work came largely from our focus on Black liberation. 

While we still have a long way to go toward equity in this country, we would be remiss to not celebrate just as the formerly enslaved Blacks in Galveston did 156 years ago. This Juneteenth, we cannot let the enemies of justice kill our joy. Let’s celebrate the dreams of the ancestors and find joy in the journey.