A tribute to Black women in rock ‘n’ roll. An interactive African dance event. A panel discussion with Smithsonian scholars. Despite its virtual constraints, this year, The City’s Museum of the African Diaspora is celebrating Juneteenth in style.
“Up until last year, Juneteenth was a day of celebration for Black people,” says Elizabeth Gessel, director of public programs at MoAD. “Now there is this larger acknowledgement that the fate of Black people and of white people is inextricably tied in this country, and more white people see it as an important day to celebrate.”
While MoAD and The City have held Juneteenth celebrations for years, Gessel, who has been on the museum’s staff since 2010, adds, “It became a national focal point last year in a way I hadn’t seen it before.”
For MoAD, the holiday marks an occasion to celebrate freedom of expression. And this year’s event delivers on that promise.
The online, inter-generational program Saturday begins at 11 a.m. with “Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretics: Shredding While Black and Female.” The presentation features Sikivu Hutchinson, whose feminist road novel “Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe” is modeled on Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a pioneering guitarist and songwriter in the 1930s-40s. Other panelists include Samantha “GhettoSongBird” Hollins, a rock singer-songwriter-guitarist from North Philadelphia; Atlanta native Gabriella “Guitar Gabby” Logan, and 19-year-old musician Zorrie Petrus.
At 2 p.m., Oakland dance instructor Traci Bartlow hosts a presentation described as “part lecture, part dance party” and “moving through different eras of the Black experience to honor the aesthetic, culture and liberation felt in African American social dances.”
The program closes at 4 p.m. with a discussion “Juneteenth: Connecting the Historic to the Now” that explores the origins of the holiday and its current political significance. The talk is presented in partnership with the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution.
MoAD also is among the sponsors of “Monumental Reckoning,” an installation by Oakland artist Dana King in Golden Gate Park on the site of the toppled statue of slaveholder Francis Scott Key. King’s piece, unveiled on the Music Concourse on June 18, features 350 statues representing the African ancestors who became the country’s first enslaved people.
Juneteenth recognizes the moment on June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers entered Galveston, Texas, and declared ensalved people there to be free. Though Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation more than two years earlier, as Gessel explains, “it didn’t really have teeth.”
June 19 became known as the annual day of freedom for the Black community, initially celebrated mostly in Texas and Louisiana. It later gained importance on the West Coast because of the Great Migration: People from the region brought the holiday with them when they came to California around World War II and beyond, Gessel says.
More contemporarily, the date marks a rallying point to acknowledge devastating effects of white supremacy and racial oppression, with increased attention following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. Gessel says she noticed a shift of sentiment last year.
“People were looking for a way to connect with Black people and Black culture,” she says. “And it’s continued.”
The day marked a high point for MoAD last year as well, with significant donations and tripled website views.
While many Americans celebrate Independence Day on July 4, Gessel notes that date doesn’t, in fact, recognize the independence of enslaved people. “There is a movement to make Juneteenth a national holiday,” she says. “And that would be all-encompassing.”