Juneteenth a chance for new customs and rituals

King Boston offers up the Embrace Ideas Festival

TWO YEARS AFTER George Floyd and just days after the final victims of last month’s racial murders in Buffalo, it’s hard not to reflect on America’s long and painful history of racism and hate. Incidents like New York City Draft Riots of 1863, the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing, the Charleston Church Massacre of 2015, and many more, are markers on a road of racial cruelty that again today finds home in parts of the American mainstream.

According to a study by the FBI, Black people in our country are disproportionately likely to be victims of hate crimes. Despite being 12 percent of the nation’s population, 35 percent of the 8,263 criminal incidents in 2020 involved anti-Black or African American bias – and those are just the reported crimes.

And while violent acts often dominate the headlines, the legacy of centuries of slavery, white supremacy and paternalism are evident across our systems, from abortion and maternal health, to homeownership and wealth, to education and opportunity. It’s no secret that wherever you can find an issue where a group of people is oppressed or ill-treated, that group is likely to be predominantly Black or brown.

Racism, defined in its ideological, structural, and historical significance, has stratified our country to promote and maintain privilege, including in our views of holidays and culture. The politics of race and slavery have shaped every aspect of the American way of life, and those same politics today are used to divide, dehumanize, and sow hatred between and among us – sowing distrust not just In each other, but in those institutions that are supposed to guarantee our liberty, equality, and equitable access to justice. Those systems, forever imperfect, are now celebrated when they divide us into winners and losers, haves and have nots.

Yet as we look ahead, there are glimmers of hope for connection that can interrupt our zero-sum-game thinking when it comes to racial justice and realize a democracy where everyone is included. This spring, the Boston While Black Summit, between BAMSFEST and the Roxbury International Film Fest, offered opportunities of gathering that support and reunite through culture and the arts.

And next week, as we ready ourselves for the new federal Juneteenth holiday, Boston has the perfect opportunity to create a bold new future. At King Boston, our offering is the Embrace Ideas Festival. We are choosing to make this a time of learning and joy, with the first edition of what we hope will be an annual tradition. The week-long celebration will bring together local and national scholars, artists, and stakeholders to shine a light on the challenges we face and the collective actions we can take.

Juneteenth holds the possibility of creating new customs and rituals of trust and empathy. In addition, it illuminates our country’s history, an important tool for reconciliation and healing; an opportunity to recognize the contributions of Black people and Black culture to this country. It is an opportunity to acknowledge America’s dark history of slavery and move forward together. The holiday can catalyze new vistas of democracy, especially at this moment when this right of citizenship is threatened. It moves us closer to realizing the promise of the Declaration of Independence for us all. And as Dr. King stated, Juneteenth can belatedly serve as that Second Emancipation Proclamation, holding within it the possibility of a new Boston free from the bonds slavery, northern Jim Crow, school segregation, urban renewal, displacement, and fear .

As Boston’s 400th anniversary approaches, we would be remiss not to note that the city is changing. And I believe that it’s changing for the better in many ways. Boston is starting a new era with fresh voices in government, public service, and business that are all committed to creating a city that has a space for us all. At a time of national division, it is the perfect time for Boston to shake one of the uglier aspects of our national reputation as we highlight and uplift arts, culture, and public scholarship while amplifying anti-racism and a vision for a transformed city.

Meet the Author

Imari Paris Jeffries

Executive director, King Boston
This cannot be about reputation cleansing. This is about doing the work necessary to become our true full selves. The work comes through having open and real dialogue and sharing with one another. Embrace Ideas is one facet of that work that is being done in various sectors around the city. Juneteenth has the power of love, the type of love that can make everyone whole. A wholeness that allows the country and our city to symbolize our continued commitment to a new American Dream of this generation.

Imari Paris Jeffries is the executive director of King Boston.