Over 250 Malden community members packed the John and Christina Markey Senior Community Center on Wednesday, June 19, for the second annual Juneteenth celebration, The event was organized by MaldenCORE (Community Organizing for Racial Equity) in collaboration with a host of other community groups: American Association for Arab Women, Chinese Culture Connection, Friends of Oak Grove, Inc., Greater Malden Asian American Community Coalition, Malden LGBTQ+, Malden Public Library, Malden Reads, MATV (Malden’s Media Center), North Shore Hispanic Association, and YMCA Malden.
Juneteenth recognizes the significant day of June 19, 1865, when the last of group of enslaved African Americans were emancipated in Galveston, Texas, following the surrender of the Confederate Army. The day has been celebrated in Texas since that time and, for past decades, in African-American communities throughout the South. It is now a partial or full state holiday or an official observance in at least 42 U.S. states and has become a more universal celebration of freedom among all people in this country.
Juneteenth is a relative newcomer to the list of public celebrations held annually in Malden. The first one was coordinated last year by MaldenCORE, an idea that sprung up in the group less than two weeks before June 19, 2018.
“Despite the fact that we put together the first event so quickly and had such a short time for promotion, we had a great turnout and the feedback about the event was really positive,” said Susi Ecker, a member of MaldenCORE. “So this time, we really wanted to make it a special and impactful celebration.” A grant from the Malden Cultural Council allowed the organizers of this year’s event to add many quality elements, artists, and performers to the program.
At the start of the event, Bridget Mutebi, a MaldenCORE member and recent graduate of UMass Boston, handed out name tags to the many sponsors and collaborators. As the attendance swelled and the energy in the room heightened, she said, “I’m excited because we’re really getting the community together. This is an intercultural mix and celebration of life and freedom. The sounds are very encouraging because it means that there is a feeling of love and solidarity in the air. So I dig it.”
A mural started out with five undecorated panels leaning against a wall in the community room, each one boasting a letter from the word “U-N-I-T-E.” A group of Asian-American students led the way in decorating the panels with symbols, pictures and words, added to by other attendees, until the panels formed a five-piece tapestry of hope, unity, and creative expression. Shaina Lu, an artist who lives in Malden, initiated this public art project with the help of Wen-ti Tsen, and Cedric Douglas. The artists worked in partnership with the Greater Malden Asian American Community Coalition, the Asian American Resource Workshop (whose organization helped fund the project) and a new organization called API (Asian/Pacific Islanders) for Black Lives. “We are a group of Asian Americans who are alarmed by police brutality and other manifestations of racism against black people,” she said. “We wanted to express our sense of unity and solidarity through this work of public art.”
A drum circle was another part of the opening festivities of the event. Attendees were invited to drum along with Otha Day, described in the program as “an educator and musician who facilitates fun and lively drum and rhythm circles from the deep belief that rhythm has the power to build community, create joy, and promote healing and well-being.” The foyer of the Senior Center was transformed into a pulsating and rhythmic gathering, with spontaneous dancing breaking out in the center of the circle.
“I’m honored to be at tonight’s event,” said Day, who leads drum circles all over the state. “This city is so diverse and there is so much energy here in this room.”
The formal presentation began with a welcome and then an invitation to join two members of the Malden High School Choral Arts Society in singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black National Anthem. As the crowd marched through the powerful words of the song that captures the African American journey from bondage to freedom, and the ongoing struggle leading “into the light,” a familiar baritone voice drifted up from the audience. A jubilant cheer arose as Neal Anderson, Malden’s Ward 7 City Councilor, spontaneously made his way to the podium. Those of us (this reporter included) who attend the annual Martin Luther King Luncheon in Malden, know that Neal guides attendees through this song every year, so it felt right for him to help lead the community gathered for this Juneteenth celebration.
A dance performance by Cedrina Missamou and Camille Nommi provided an energetic balance of joy and rhythm to the next part of the presentation.
Powerful spoken word performances followed by three rising masters of the art form. Phree, Jha D, and D Ruff, members of the “If you can Feel it, you can Speak it” movement artfully delivered hard-hitting lyrics that speak the truth of marginalized communities of race, gender, and sexual orientation. As testament to the quality of these presentations, the three artists performed at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum the following evening to kick off the museum’s “Big Plans: Picturing Social Reform” exhibit. But that night’s performance belonged to Malden.
Otha Day, the educator/musician who led the earlier drum circle, then came to the podium to lead the audience in a Congolese song with chanting and clapping, accompanied by more drumming. Showing again that this was not a presentation for just sitting, watching, and listening, audience members got on their feet and enthusiastically joined in.
The presentation would not be complete without a somber reflection on the horrors and indignities of slavery. The uncomfortable reminder was stunningly portrayed and spoken by performer Ifé Franklin, whose interdisciplinary artwork draws inspiration from dreams, visions, slave narratives, songs, dance and history. Her performance began with a re-enactment of the auction block, as she turns on a pedestal while the slave auctioneer described her “qualities” to potential bidders. She followed with readings from her self-published book, The Slave Narrative of Willie Mae, a fictionalized account of her great-grandmother’s escape from slavery to freedom.
“I had chills watching that woman turn around on the pedestal,” said attendee Josephine Royal. “What happened in this country’s history can never be forgotten.”
The final performer for the evening was Birukti Tsige, a Class of 2019 graduate of Malden High School headed to Harvard University in the fall. She recited a poem called “Sounds Like,” reminding us that while history has moved us forward toward freedom, the struggle for true freedom and equality is far from over.
“I believe this celebration is important because it helps bring the community together to mark an important event in history that relates to freedom,” said Cecelia Núñez O’Dougherty, a MaldenCORE member. “But, although we are celebrating 156 years since the emancipation of enslaved people in this country, the question of freedom continues.”
Note: You can view full-length clips of each segment of the Juneteenth celebration by clicking here. A full-length video of the entire event will be available soon on the MATV Public Access channel and online.
Credits: Video recorded by Jenna Brown and Masio Dotson, edited by Daniel Parra. Photos by Susan Margot Ecker, Paul Hammersley, Diana Jeong, and Josephine Royal. Article written by Anne D’Urso-Rose.