June ushers in a summer full of celebrations. Many of us here in C-U celebrate our identities during Pride, and throughout the month of June, we can hear the pops of firecrackers and see glittering hues of fireworks, all in celebration of freedom and independence that many of us associate with the Fourth of July. But one independence holiday that has been woefully under-acknowledged in mainstream society is Juneteenth. When it comes to celebrating holidays, few people do it better than our youngest community members — our kids. That’s why this month, I chatted with a few of the young women from Writers of Oya, a group of middle and high school poets under the direction of Urbana Poet Laureate, Ashanti Files. These young women shared the role of the performing arts in celebrating freedom, especially as it connects to Juneteenth and racial injustice.
I grew up in Champaign, and not once did I learn about Juneteenth in my history classes. I have clear memories of celebrating the Fourth of July with my family, and I assumed that this date was a day to celebrate freedom for everyone in the United States. Three decades later, I now understand that freedom has never been fully extended to everyone equally in this country. Since the early decades of the nineteenth century, the Fourth of July has been a day to celebrate a very narrow form of independence, one implied to be a privilege for white landowning men. Frederick Douglass remarked on this glaring hypocrisy on July 5th, 1852, when he said, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity.”
The Civil War ended with the surrender of General Lee on April 9, 1965, but some slave owners in far west Texas continued to withhold the truth from those they enslaved: they were free. On June 19, 1865 — more than two months after General Lee’s surrender — Major General Gordon Granger issued an order reaffirming the Emancipation Proclamation. Per the words of the order, “all slaves are free.” Juneteenth — an amalgamation of June Nineteenth — was celebrated for the first time.
The fight for equal freedom, equal rights, and true liberation for formerly enslaved people and their descendents continues to this day. But in the ongoing battle for racial justice, Juneteenth is a day of joy and celebration. Friends and family get together for good food and fun times. For the past 156 years, generations of revolutionaries and activists have been preserving culture, sharing traditions of storytelling, and teaching today’s rising performing artists how to resist the systems that have denied personhood and fundamental rights to millions of people based on the color of their skin.
The Writers of Oya is a project led by Urbana Poet Laureate, Ashanti Files. According to her website, the “project aims to teach middle school girls, particularly girls of color,
how to compose poetry as a skill to both express and assert themselves.” Files helps the girls develop self-confidence and slam poetry writing and performance skills, and then the budding artists perform at events throughout the community. The girls write and perform pieces that tackle difficult issues, especially around racial injustice, delivering their crowning performance at Poets in the Park. The Writers of Oya released their first book, Unmasked, in February 2021.
One of the Writers of Oya, Shakura Bramley, is an eighth grader at Urbana Middle School. This aspiring poet and future cosmetologist reflected on what Juneteenth means to her and her creative work.
“To me, Juneteenth means a lot. it’s one of the days where we can celebrate us and our freedom…well, supposedly ‘freedom.’ Over this past year, stuff got worse and worse. I really think Juneteenth is a day where we can all come together and share the truth and how we feel about everything.” Bramley plans to mark the day by going to another march because she believes these important events call attention to the fight for justice that’s intertwined with the history of Juneteenth. “[It’s] the only way people might actually notice us and our feelings. I wish people would really see how we feel and the things we go through. Most people think [Juneteenth is] just a day when we got freed, but it’s more than that. Because to me, it doesn’t seem like we have the freedom they say we have, and other people don’t seem to notice [what] I want them to understand, what it’s really about, like how important it is to us.”
Danyla Nash is another performing artist and poet with Writers of Oya. “For me, Juneteenth is a redemption. For all of my life, I’ve celebrated the day America got its independence like it was my own holiday. Got fireworks, had cookouts, all of it. But I never even knew about our actual independence day, the day my ancestors were able to call themselves free. So by celebrating now, it’s a way for me to celebrate my ancestors and redeem myself for a lack of knowledge that I should have had. I wish people understood that Juneteenth isn’t a trend or something to make people look good or even to make us look good. It’s a genuine celebration and should be treated as such.”
How do these young performing artists celebrate Juneteenth with their families and communities? Nash explains that, “for me and mine, Juneteenth is celebrated with fireworks and lots of BBQ and soul food. The family gets together and the younger kids are outside playing with sidewalk chalk, jump ropes, or games with each other…The adults are in the backyard talking…while someone, most likely my dad, is behind a grill with sweat running down his face and a beer in hand. We normally play music and really enjoy the holiday and each other. We kick back and enjoy all the things we have and personally, I like to think our ancestors are there in spirit enjoying it with us since unfortunately, they couldn’t themselves.”
Kayla Files, another Writer of Oya, describes the sights, sounds, and tastes of Juneteenth. “The sound of fireworks because my mom and my family go to protests and after we get some fireworks to light. And lots of pie, my sister bakes so she makes desserts for it.”
Juneteenth is a very important day of celebration, remembrance, and rededication to the fight for justice for so many kids and their families in our community. While we may celebrate our day of independence on the Fourth of July, or on Juneteenth, on both days, or perhaps on another day entirely, we are all connected by a very basic need to be free to pursue our lives and to trust we are safe wherever we are.
Here are the Writers of Oya, sharing their work earlier this year:
Top photo from Writers of Oya Facebook page.