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Black Oakland Creatives Talk Its Importance


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June 19, known to many as June 16, marks the day Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1865 to inform enslaved African Americans that they were free citizens (or at least freer than before) and that the Civil War was over. completed. The announcement came nearly two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, freeing enslaved peoples in parts of the Southern states that were in rebellion. And that followed years of conflict, including black resistance and rebellions that played a role in the overthrow of the Confederacy.

President Joe Biden signed legislation in 2021 that designated June 19 a federal holiday. The official recognition of Juneteenth was in response to nationwide protests that resulted from the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other black people.

Black Americans, however, celebrated this momentous occasion long before it was officially recognized. June 16 celebrations started in Texas in 1866 and spread across the United States as black people moved to areas like the Bay Area of ​​California. Annual festivals and gatherings have been held for decades in San Francisco Fillmore District, Berkeleyand Richmond.

Oakland is currently experiencing a revival of June 19 celebrations, with many festivals and events planned throughout the city.

The Black Cultural Zone, a community development corporation working with a coalition of residents, local nonprofits, organizers, churches and city agencies, hosts Liberation Weekend: A Celebration of June 19 at Liberation Park in East Oakland. It’s one of the biggest June 19th celebrations in the Bay Area this holiday weekend.

The event includes a wide variety of programs that feature works by artists such as Ashara Ekundayo of Artist as First ResponderMizan Alkebulan-Abakah of Spearitwurxand Nichole Talbott of Ase Arts. The three artists have been an integral part of the Black Cultural Zone’s programming in the past. Their work aims to uplift Black communities in East Oakland economically and emotionally through arts-based initiatives.

“The whole process that is the black cultural zone is the embodiment of freedom and liberation at the center of cultural practice and creativity,” Ashara Ekundayo said. “The fact that Carolyn Johnson, Director of Black Cultural Zone, said, ‘We’re going to have an annual event on June 19 in East Oakland,’ speaks to her commitment to making beauty and joy a part of the legacy that is East Oakland.

Ekundayo’s artist as a first responder is involved in a number of art activations over Liberation Weekend, including a live interactive mural by artist Christopher Burch at Liberation Park, which will be completed June 16. The group also hosts a Plant-Based Beat workshop with Letef “DJ Cavem” Vita, a massage and reiki session with Rosesharon Oates, and much more.

For Ekundayo, how she celebrated June 19 depended on where she lived.

“I grew up in Detroit, lived there until I was a teenager, and then my family moved to Denver. I had never heard of Juneteenth until I moved to Denver because it didn’t. wasn’t a holiday we celebrated in Detroit — not my family, at least,” Ekundayo said. “I wasn’t always in a state to celebrate it, but during the years I was in Denver, I ‘have done.”

Juneteenth became a federally recognized holiday in 2021. Credit: Amir Aziz

Nichole Talbott, founder of Ase arts, also grew up in Denver and remembers Juneteenth being around as a child. “Growing up, it was the thing to do. Denver doesn’t have a very large black population, so it was wonderful to see people celebrating black joy, and it’s always beautiful to see that,” Talbott said.

Talbott’s business, Ase Arts, has been around for a year and offers art classes and workshops for children and adults. During Liberation Weekend, Ase Arts will be at Akoma Market to promote workshops and sell artwork.

“We are a corporate partner of Black Cultural Zone and their vision really spoke to me about how they want to uplift the black community and black culture here,” Talbott said.

Ndidi Love, head of economic development for the Black Cultural Zone, is one of the main organizers of the liberation weekend. Love grew up in Long Beach and remembers attending the June 19 political actions and celebrations in South Los Angeles. She said it was important that large-scale celebrations like Liberation Weekend were available in Oakland.

“We were celebrating Juneteenth before it was a federal holiday, so becoming a federal holiday allows us to celebrate more comfortably,” Love said. “Members of the African American Diaspora don’t necessarily have to choose whether to celebrate June 19 or go to work.”

For some, preserving and bringing to light the complexities of Juneteenth is important

Randolph and Erica Belle of RBA Creative, a fine art gallery, coworking space and photography studio. Credit: Amir Aziz

As artists and organizers involved in the black cultural area work to create an uplifting Juneteenth experience for Oaklanders, other business owners who have celebrated in the past are taking this time to reflect on how the spirit of Juneteenth plays out in their daily lives.

Laurel resident Randolph Belle grew up in San Francisco and enjoyed regularly attending the city’s Juneteenth festival in Fillmore as a child. But as an adult, Randolph, who co-owns fine art and photography studio RBA Creative on MacArthur Boulevard with partner Erica Wright Belle, thinks celebrating Juneteenth goes beyond festivities.

“Every day is Juneteenth for me because I have to wake up every morning with an attitude that allows me to take care of my family,” he said. “Some people don’t have to because there aren’t those countervailing forces in their path.”

Erica Wright Belle, who grew up in Oakland, doesn’t remember any big celebrations here like the festival held in nearby Berkeley. “We didn’t grow up celebrating June 19. We kind of knew what Juneteenth was, but we didn’t venture to San Francisco for their celebration.

According to Erica, there’s also a sense of unease that comes from seeing the marketing of holidays with deeper weight. “You see a lot of Juneteenth sales and non-black businesses taking advantage,” she said. “I’m not necessarily jumping for joy that it’s a national holiday.”

Still, Erica and Randolph believe it’s important for everyone to recognize the holiday because it can serve as a gateway to supporting black entrepreneurship long-term.

“If you can get people to think, ‘Let me support a black-owned business that day,’ then the goal is to start a relationship with that small business owner and get repeat customers” , said Erica. “You then start to realize that black businesses aren’t just for black people. They belong to black people, but they are for everyone.

The Belles said they have strived to make the Juneteenth ethos pervasive in their business, a space where other artists can produce work that is true to them.

“Juneteenth is about acknowledging being free, and this revelation of being free opens up the realm of possibility,” Randolph said. “That’s kind of how I got into the business because I realized I didn’t need to get a job working for someone else, I could do it.”

Les Belles want the artists who use their coworking space to have concrete access to this concept of freedom.

“It’s their conservation space; our business is about creatives and entrepreneurs stepping into a space to collaborate,” Erica said. “The artists in our space now happen to be six black women and their art, I think, represents something liberating and positive about the black community.”