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Juneteenth organizers 'carry a broken heart' planning events after mass shooting in Buffalo

People in orange shirts wearing face masks carry a banner while walking down the middle of the street in a parade.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Austin held its Juneteenth parade in person last year after festivities were virtual they year before because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Juneteenth holiday commemorates the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Texas found out they were free — 2 1/2 years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Celebrations will be mixed with sadness during this year's festivities, though. The holiday comes only about two months after the slaughter of 10 Black people in a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store. It was just about two years ago that a white Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd. And the COVID-19 pandemic persists into its third summer.

The theme for Austin's citywide Juneteenth celebration for the past few years has been "Stay Black and Live." Festival organizers are staying with the theme this year.

Regine Malibiran is a co-project manager for Stay Black and Live, a joint effort between the George Washington Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogy Center in Austin and Six Square, Austin's Black cultural district. She says the phrase is a call to action for everyone.

"Not only for Black people specifically to find joy, find things to celebrate, find things to work for," Malibiran says, "but also a call to action for people outside of the Black community to recognize what it means for Black people to assert control over their lives."

Are we really free.jpg

Malibiran says events like the mass shooting in Buffalo can make that control feel elusive, and it permeates the work of planning Juneteenth festivities and social justice work year-round.

"We recognize that in order to do this work, you have to carry a broken heart," she says. "That's kind of both the reason why you do it, but also one of the most challenging obstacles in the work itself."

Malibiran says the declaration of Juneteenth as a federal holiday last year might be seen as removing one of the obstacles to doing that work. And while she acknowledges that declaration as a "win," she says it could actually erode the importance of the holiday.

"What does it mean when holidays become so large and nationwide like this?" she says. She says she believes these holidays can "become commercialized and almost sanitized at times."

Malibiran says many Black people may not be able to enjoy the holiday because "they might be the ones who are serving you or cooking for you at brunch when you take the day off on Monday."

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to hear more about one of the central questions Malibiran wants everyone to contemplate: "What does it mean for marginalized communities to create space for themselves and carve out space to be alive?"

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

KUT: The theme for Austin’s Juneteenth commemoration for the past few years has been “Stay Black and Live.” Is that the theme for this year’s celebration? Why?

Regine Malibiran: We wanted it to be a call to action to “stay Black and live" — not only for Black people specifically to find joy, find things to celebrate, find things to work for, but also a call to action for people outside of the Black community to recognize what it means for Black people to assert control over their lives, agency over [their] lives.

It's still relevant in 2022. I think it will stay relevant for a while, especially as we reflect on what happened in Buffalo, N.Y., a very heavy thing to reflect on. What does it mean for marginalized communities to create space for themselves and carve out space to be alive?

There was a mass shooting in Buffalo. Ten Black people were killed. How has that impacted thinking about this year's gathering and impacted everybody who's involved?

I am very fortunate and lucky and honored to work with a largely Black staff in my capacity at Six Square and also at the Carver Museum. It's hard to say this, Jennifer, but it comes to a point where I feel like day to day, people have to learn to compartmentalize it. And that's sad. We as teams, we recognize that in order to do this work you have to carry a broken heart. That's kind of both the reason why you do it, but also one of the most challenging obstacles in the work itself.

And so for us as a team, what's important for us is that we use these events as motivation. We fuel this grief, this anger, this fear into action for our community.

And so with the Juneteenth festival specifically, I think because it is a celebration of freedom — that's what it's always been — it's important to create that space where Black people can be around their own community. And we are able to experience all of these feelings, whether it be celebration, because that's what the holiday is about, whether it be reflection on what has changed and what has not since 1865, and what fighting for Black lives looks like as we march forward.

Part of the monthlong commemoration of Juneteenth are videos streaming [at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport]. And you had indicated those were kind of a welcome to Black Austin. What is Black Austin these days? How do you describe Black Austin in 2022?

I really feel like it is within the connections that Black people make between themselves here and even outside of Austin. Black people in the United States have centuries-long history of displacement and disconnection. You would have enslaved people who would be separated from their children. And then if they had the opportunity with their freedom afterwards, they would go on these lifelong searches to find their family. That sort of deeply rooted interpersonal intercommunity connection is really still what ties Black people today.

It was right before Juneteenth last year that Juneteenth was declared a federal holiday. Does that matter or mean anything?

You know, it's funny because my partner is Black and he was like, "It's kind of weird that white people get Juneteenth off. It was like — why do white people get the day off from Juneteenth? That's kind of strange to me." And I think that's an important conversation, because like I said, in order to do this work, you have to carry a broken heart and you have to celebrate the wins when you can get them.

And so some people, they consider this federal recognition of Juneteenth as a holiday, as a win. And I don't want to take away from that.

But I think that we can also look at that with a critical lens because what does it mean when holidays become so large and nationwide like this? These sorts of holidays — they become commercialized and almost sanitized at times. And we've seen that in this past year with Juneteenth. People were joking about getting 19% off sales at certain companies or whatever.

And so while I do recognize that it's a step forward for us to say Juneteenth is important, is significant enough to be a holiday, that standard of importance and significance is still weighed with a white supremacist lens. Because before it was a national holiday, it was important for Black Texans, and they had a specific and very meaningful perspective on why they celebrated it.

Most of the time when you get these federal holidays, who gets those days off? It's people who work in offices. A lot of people of color, Black people, they might not be working in the office. They might be the ones who are serving you or cooking for you at brunch when you take the day off on Monday. We have to think about who benefits when nationally we have changes like this.

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