“If you do not define yourself, someone else will do it for you.”
These words came from my college art history professor. They’ve stuck with me through the years. They come to mind every year around Juneteenth, as we see attempts to water down meaning and message around this important American holiday (anyone remember the Juneteenth ice-cream debacle from last year?). For this reason, I am grateful that our annual celebration at the Mercer Museum, now in its second year, gives Bucks County’s Black residents license to define our holiday how we would like to see it defined.
It was only fitting that the day began with a revival-style service from Second Baptist Church of Doylestown. The Black church as an institution has been the cornerstone of anti-oppression organizing for over 100 years, long before Juneteenth became a holiday.
Led by Pastor Robert Hamlin, the service included Choral singing, a Sermon, and performances by the talented Praise Dancers. A reminder that, as co-organizer Adrienne King said in her opening remarks, enduring faith is what has allowed our people to persevere and even thrive through the worst that this country has handed (or failed to hand) us.
This year’s festival saw an increase in the number of Black-owned food trucks, vendors and businesses – a key part of centering our culture and path to prosperity. Increased involvement from the Sororities, Fraternities, and Black organizations meant additional opportunities to center education. This manifested as scholarship presentations from Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and The Links Inc., an informative historical discussion presented by Zeta Phi Beta Sorority on the “Grandmother of Juneteenth” Opal Lee, without whom the effort to make the day a federal holiday might not have been realized. It even saw participants from far outside the county join us here in Upper Bucks, as health and wellness volunteers from Lancaster Health contributed information about Famous Black Cardiologists and did blood pressure screenings (for those that are unaware, Black Americans are in the highest risk group for hypertension).
An informative talk given by Danny Thomas of the Peace Center challenged us to question what we know, and more importantly, what we need to know around the Juneteenth holiday, and true emancipation. I learned from this presentation timings of when enslaved Blacks were considered free people in the south AND in the north. For example, our own neighboring states were the last regionally to free enslaved people: New Jersey in 1865 and Delaware in 1901.
To be clear, there was still plenty of room for fun amidst all of this learning. An expanded set by DJ Tone Arm set the mood for dancing and celebration, and an expanded sound from Mukamuri, who performed with a full band for the first time, set a vibe that was a perfect fit for the day. And children could be seen painting on a “living canvas,” partaking in an Underground Railroad scavenger hunt, having balloon hats being made for them by Alia’s Wow Balloons, or simply enjoying the many lawn games provided by the museum.
The feeling I had coming away from the day was twofold – a particular joy and sense of gratitude at having made it to where we currently stand as a culture and an appreciation of having a day to revel in that, and also an increased recognition of the nuance and complexity around this holiday in particular and emancipation in general, such as the situations in which we find ourselves today regarding struggles for equity and equality of opportunity. This sentiment was echoed by the final speaker of the day – John Jordan from NAACP Bucks – who had a call to action for all attendees that was as simple as it was direct: “Get involved!” he repeatedly voiced. From attending school board meetings, to writing to our representatives to make our voices heard, he reminded us that the struggle continues, and we who are living history in the making would do well to define ourselves in it, lest someone else do that for us.