Creative expression is vital to celebrating and honoring the joys and sorrows of the past. One part of our country’s history that is remembered this month is Juneteenth. If you are not familiar with it, Juneteenth is
the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation – which had become official January 1, 1863. (Source)
Juneteenth is such an important part of history and culture and this year the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire coordinated a vast array of events which folks could watch virtually to celebrate and learn from. As I watched online, I was moved and humbled by the craft and artistry used to express emotions surrounding this holiday.
The Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire
The Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire is an organization that promotes awareness and appreciation of African American history and life in order to build more inclusive communities today. They produce a variety of programs, resources, and offer guided tours, honoring the history of African American people in New Hampshire.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire’s Juneteenth events were presented virtually. This included three days of:
- Live Streamed Cooking Demonstration with Selina Choate, who presented her own twist on an authentic Soul Food meal;
- African Drumming Live Streamed from the Portsmouth African Burying Ground with Akwaaba Ensemble;
- Rev. Robert Thompson honored the ancestors who survived the Middle Passage with traditional songs;
- A virtual concert, which featured performances from members of the Negro Ensemble Company New York including Burgundy Williams, Joy Brown, Michael Andreaus, Sean Mason, & special guest N’Kenge, performing songs that defined certain eras in African American history; and
- A panel of scholars discussing “The Diet of Our Ancestors: What History & Science Reveals,” which explored how history, science, and food connect major events in African American history and define Black culinary traditions. Presenters: Adrian Miller, Amy Michael, Kendra Smith, and Moderator: Shari Robinson.
Full biographies of listed participants can be found here on the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire’s website.
Creating This Experience
To learn more about how the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire planned for this year’s Juneteenth celebration, I chatted with Terry Robinson, the Creative Projects Collaborator of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire.
Q: Juneteenth is such an important part of history and culture, and you have coordinated a vast array of events folks can watch virtually to celebrate and learn from over a few days. What was it like this year putting this together compared to past years?
Terry: Well, this year was definitely a learning experience for us. Usually the format is a very engaging panel followed by a soul food dinner and then a march to the African Burial Ground with drumming all in the same day. But with COVID-19, we obviously couldn’t do that, so we had to make a pivot to virtual events, and we saw a unique opportunity to turn this into a multiple day event and keep people engaged day by day. And it worked. With this we were able to give people something that would last for a long time afterwards. Like the cooking show, if you watched and followed along, you now know how to cook a delicious soul food meal. To us that’s very important, giving the gift of knowledge and seeing how they put it to use. This year, in my opinion, it was the best yet and now we have a new format to go by.
Q: Would you like to share any thoughts on what it personally meant to you?
Terry: Juneteenth has always been an important moment in American history to celebrate. It represents true freedom, not a symbolic kind. And it’s something that I had to learn myself. I definitely didn’t learn about in American history in high school. But that’s true for a lot of points of black history. But right now, for me, it’s more important to celebrate Juneteenth. With everything going on surrounding race in our country, I needed a moment to feel good about my culture and heritage. Especially when I was in a state of hopelessness, I was able to remember why I am proud to be a black man. By honoring our ancestors, we honor a spirit of resilience that is unmatched by anyone else.
Q: Could you discuss how creative expression is important in celebrating Juneteenth?
Terry: At the end of the day creative expression was all that we have. Like slaves would sing negro spirituals to communicate with each other. Drums and dancing are very important in African culture even to this day. So, you can’t celebrate Juneteenth, a day where the very last slaves were told they were free, without some sort of creative expression. Like it’s great to know the history behind it but if you can’t feel it then you’ll never understand it. So that’s why we focused heavily on the creative expression this time around because we wanted people to be able to feel what we love about our culture. We taught you how to cook soul food which for me growing up was comfort food. We gave you traditions from Africa. We put on a concert full of black artists whose music touches your soul. After all that, we gave you the history and ideas behind all of that in our panel.
Q: Other thoughts on Juneteenth you’d like to share?
Terry: Right now, there’s been an exceptional focus on Juneteenth and the history behind it, which is very good. But I also don’t want this to become some kind of trend that will die out in a matter of months. It’s very important to keep learning about black history and educating yourselves on the importance of race and culture in our country. But not only that, it’s time to get involved and volunteer for organizations doing the work of combating racial injustice in every shape, way, or form.
Q: Any other future events the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire is producing that you’d like to share?
Terry: We have our Fredrick Douglass readings coming up in July, which more details will be coming out about that soon. Also our annual Black New England Conference will be happening on September 25th and 26th in collaboration with Southern New Hampshire University. And this year’s theme is Black Women Rock: Leading the Charge for Social and Political Change.
Spotlight: The Movement of Akwaaba Ensemble
As someone who loves music, to dance, and to observe dancing, I was particularly moved by Akwaaba Ensemble’s performance. Even though I was only watching through a virtual video feed, I felt like I was there as the vibrations came through my headphones. The drumming and dancing of Akwaaba Ensemble expressed the strong tradition and culture of Africa, with buoyancy and vibrant grace.
Theo Martey, Director of Akwaaba Ensemble, explains it perfectly, utilizing a quote by Babatunde Olatunji, who was a Nigerian drummer, educator, social activist, and recording artist:
‘Whenever people gather to play the drum, the world is a better place and in peace,’ by Babatunde Olatunji. I believe that the world can use music to develop a deeper understanding and respect of each other and hope it can be an avenue for important and necessary change in our systems, which have not supported the needs and fostered the talents of black and brown people. When all of our needs are met and talents are realized, our world will be a better place.”
The COVID-19 crisis has caused Akwaaba Ensemble to cancel some performances, but Theo does have a few solo interactive performances coming up, for Girls Inc. of New Hampshire on July 17th, and a live performance which will be streamed live in August in Claremont. Check out Akwaaba Ensemble on their website and social media to learn more.
The More We Connect
The talented creatives involved in all these events are so inspiring. Connecting to their history in such a way, and sharing that connection through their various forms of art, is what creativity is all about. The more we connect, the more we understand of each other. It’s a wonderful way to celebrate and honor such an important history.
I personally feel the desire to continue to learn more about other cultures, especially their histories and how they use creativity to express them.