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Austin's Juneteenth Events Center On Theme 'Stay Black And Live' Amid 'Dual Pandemics' Of COVID-19 And Racism

This image is from the 2019 parade through East Austin.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
The Juneteenth parade winds through East Austin in 2019. Last year's celebrations were held virtually because of the pandemic.

In 2020, organizers in Austin were planning Juneteenth events when two separate and intense tragedies impacted their plans: the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced a pivot to virtual events, and the murder of George Floyd, which spurred protests around the country for racial justice.

All of that has given added meaning to Juneteenth this year. The holiday commemorates the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Texas found out they were free — two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Regine Malibiran works with Six Square, an organization that preserves and celebrates the cultural legacy of the African-American community in Central East Austin, and the George Washington Carver Museum. Those are two of the organizations putting together this year's Juneteenth events in Austin. Others involved in the effort include the Greater East Austin Youth Association, the Austin Area Urban League, the Black Austin Coalition, Jump On It and the Austin Justice Coalition.

Malibiran said the events of 2020 influenced the groups to carry forward the theme from last year's virtual Juneteenth event — "stay Black and live" — to this year's commemoration.

"It's a call to action. It's a rallying cry. It's a celebration," she said.

She said the groups have worked hard to create a day in which Black people can "take a step back and just be in a space where they're with people that understand them, that have the same motivations, world views, backgrounds as them."

Malibiran said the Juneteenth holiday itself actually has a very complex and nuanced meaning.

"Is it a holiday celebrating when Black people were freed by others? Is it a holiday celebrating becoming American?" she said. "And also, too, the argument could be made that Black people freed themselves."

Malibiran hopes that, this year especially, people who are not Black contemplate moving beyond "performative" shows of support to more substantive action toward racial justice.

"I would challenge other people to explore what that might look like when we're not just performing," she said. "But instead, we're digging deeper. We're creating space for Black people. We're uplifting their voices. We're passing the [microphones] to them."

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to hear more from Malibiran about what's informing Juneteenth events in Austin this year.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

KUT: To start, please remind us what happened when you all were planning Juneteenth events in 2020?

Regine Malibiran: When the George Floyd murder happened last year, that was in the midst of us planning Juneteenth. And so it was a challenge, and in a lot of different ways because we had to redirect our plans and then also, too, hold space for the grief that a lot of my Black colleagues and myself went through, of course.

The CEO at Six Square says this a lot, that Black people actually faced or are facing two dual pandemics: that of COVID-19 and of racism. And so having to hold space for that while we're still trying to give the community something to celebrate, that was a challenge, but it really informed the theme that we had last year that we're continuing this year, which is “stay Black and live.” You know, it's a call to action. It's a rallying cry. It's a celebration.

What has it been like to plan this year’s in-person Juneteenth, with everything that has happened in the past 15 months? The pandemic. George Floyd. What has that experience been like planning for this year?

2021 is definitely different than last year. So, the Carver [Museum] and Six Square, we had actually originally planned to keep the celebration virtual, but then in the midst of that planning, the restrictions started lifting. And so then it was an opportunity for us to collaborate with a handful of other Black organizations here in Austin.

Planning something like Juneteenth, there's a lot of expectations around it, and also, too, you want to be able to provide in the midst of everything that's going on, a reason for people to kind of take a step back and just be in a space where they're with people that understand them, that have the same motivations, worldviews, backgrounds as them, and just being very thoughtful about cultivating that space.

It seems like Juneteenth, perhaps especially this year, is about history but also very much about present times.

Absolutely, absolutely. And holidays that are based on a historical moment need to have that reflection of looking into the past, celebrating the now and then fighting for a better future.

Part of the Carver Museum and Six Square’s livestream on Saturday is actually going to be a panel discussion between some local Black scholars as well as the lead curator at the Carver Museum about the complexities of celebrating Juneteenth because there is a very valid and relevant discussion about Juneteenth. Is it a holiday celebrating when Black people were freed by others? Is it a holiday celebrating becoming American? And what does that mean in the context of being Black in 1865 and in 2021? And also, too, the argument could be made that Black people freed themselves. It wasn't like they were passive in this progress towards abolishing slavery. And so it is very nuanced.

In a state like Texas, a holiday like Juneteenth — schools don't spend a lot of time on it. And if they do, it's usually very diluted or blatantly incorrect. And so this is an opportunity for us on the local level to make sure that this information is there and accessible.

Are Saturday's Juneteenth festivities primarily intended as an opportunity for Black people in Austin and Central Texas to congregate together? Is it meant to educate people who aren't in the Black community about Juneteenth, the history of the day and the current racial landscape in the U.S.? Or, does it hold all of that together in these festivities?

First and foremost, our organizations and our teams serve Black people. That's always going to be the top priority, making sure that our programs, our events, are created for Black people and by Black people. So primarily, it is an opportunity to bring the community together again and celebrate.

But at the same time, if we have kind of like these secondary consequences of people being more interested in Juneteenth, being more interested in these organizations that are doing amazing anti-racism work in town, that's not something that we're going to turn our nose up at either. But first and foremost, it is definitely always going to be for Black people for sure.

What I'm reflecting on personally during this Juneteenth is how can people who are not Black but have seen everything that's going on and want to do something about it, how can we make sure that we are not, what it boils down to, is a performative action, a performative victory. And so for me, I would challenge other people to explore what that might look like when we're not just performing because that's what the climate of our national conversation looks like now. But instead, we're digging deeper. We're creating space for Black people. We're uplifting their voices. We're passing the [microphones] to them. We're helping create material change. That's something that I think I would like for people to walk away with during this Juneteenth weekend.

Got a tip? Email Jennifer Stayton at jstayton@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.

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