“The State We’re In”: Juneteenth

  • A member of the Akwaaba Ensemble sends some love to the crowd at the Portsmouth African Burying Ground during a Juneteenth ceremony on June 19, 2021. —COURTESY PHOTO

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    An exchange between performers at "Dance of the Ancestors: Ritual, Chants, Drumming and Movement" held last year at the African Burying Ground Memorial Park in Portsmouth in celebration of Juneteenth. —COURTESY PHOTO

Published: 6/17/2022 7:08:52 PM
Modified: 6/17/2022 7:08:42 PM

“The State We’re In” host Melanie Plenda is joined by Gina Bowker, program coordinator at the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire; Najee Brown, a producer, director and playwright, as well as founder and artistic director of Theater for the People; and artist, storyteller and culture keeper Richard Haynes, to discuss Juneteenth and celebrations across the state.

This content has been edited for length and clarity. Watch the full interview on NH PBS's “The State We’re In.”

Melanie Plenda: What does Juneteenth mean to you? What does it represent? 

Richard Haynes: For me, it represents freedom. It's a reminder of where my forefathers were and where we are today, almost free mentally, spiritually, physically, morally in this society, with still more to come. This freedom would represent freedom for all of us when we are all liberated, so there's still hope for all of us.

Najee Brown: When I think of Juneteenth, I think that it's America's true Independence Day. We can't celebrate an Independence Day when we had people on our soil that were enslaved. Now, if we want to live up to our true name and our true mission statement, which is being a country that represents freedom, then we have to recognize that a day like Juneteenth means that America was truly free at that point for all of its citizens. Black Americans in this country contribute honestly, 90% of America's culture. Our contributions, even though they're not recognized, are great and they're powerful. Our nobility means the nobility of everyone. Our freedom means the freedom of everyone. Our beauty means the beauty of every individual. 

Gina Bowker: For me, Juneteenth represents a more-accurate history. Growing up, I always learned that the Emancipation Proclamation was the end of slavery and with that proclamation, all the enslaved people went free, and that wasn't necessarily the case. Juneteenth is the history that I didn't learn growing up and it is an example of all the other history that gets hidden and gets erased; from Black history and history of Indigenous people that we don't learn. We only learn white history.

Melanie Plenda: Gina, the celebration has already started. How are things going so far and what has participation been like?

Gina Bowker: So far things have been great. We have had two events already this past Friday. We partnered with the Prescott Park Arts Festival here in Portsmouth to show the Disney Pixar movie “Soul” and attendance was good. It was a beautiful night for a movie outside in the park. On Saturday, we had a bus trip up to Saint-Gaudens National Park in Cornish and we had speakers and walked around the grounds and took a look at the memorial up there for the 54th Regiment. Our bus was full and everyone enjoyed it and learned a lot.

Melanie Plenda: Can you just give us a brief overview of what's happening this weekend?

Gina Bowker: On Friday evening, we have a panel discussion up at the Art Institute at New England College. The participants are going to be exploring and discussing Black Art in Public Spaces. We have five panelists; Richard Hays is one of them and a moderator. It begins at 6:30. On Saturday, we're partnering with the music hall here in Portsmouth to bring up the Howard University Gospel Choir. That concert is at 4 o'clock at the music hall. On Sunday the 19th at 2 o'clock, we have Najee’s presentation “Uproar” at the African Burial Ground. On Monday at the parking lot of People's Bank here on State Street in Portsmouth, it's the installation of a public art mural. We have workshops on Thursday and Friday where participants will be helping to design the mural and then artist Napoleon Jones Henderson will be putting all of those ideas together and making one big mural. The public is welcome to join us on Monday to paint the mural in the parking lot. That starts at 8 a.m. and goes until we're finished.

Melanie Plenda: Richard, give us more detail about your panel discussion, which as Gina said, is titled “Bearing Witness: Black Art in Public Spaces.” What are some of the topics you plan to cover on Friday?

Richard Haynes: We're going to talk about public art, public art as murals, art on streets, on walls, in cities. Then we'll talk a little bit about art in museums and galleries, these cultural establishments, and why it is so important to put this work out there that's been neglected for so long. We'll have another group out of Nashville talking about public art on walls, how important it is, how important it is for us to literally show the public our culture. We're being cultural keepers and hopefully cultural makers so when people get the opportunity to see this work, their thoughts and understanding of the people of color community could possibly change.

Melanie Plenda: Najee, can you tell us more about the performance that you have coming up?

Najee Brown: “Uproar” is a celebration of black creativity. We have step, we have contemporary dance, we have modern dance, we have hip hop, we have lyrical, we have tap and we also have popping. We're bringing all these art forms together and we're putting it on display at the African Burial ground at 2 p.m. thanks to the Black Heritage Trail. I mentioned step first because stepping has saved my life as a black boy growing up in Brooklyn.

It kept me off the streets. It kept me out of trouble. I was put on a step team when I was 11 or 12, and I stayed until my 20s. I got to travel the world and dance on stages that I never thought I would ever get to see. It's just a blessing and a gift to give this gift right back to the community that I live in now. We have a father and a daughter dancing together, and Juneteenth is not just Juneteenth, but it's Father's Day. How beautiful is that? We have white people, Asian people, Black people coming together and learning this art form that was created by an enslaved people. How beautiful is that? We're using it to not only bring the art forms for it, but to share a message of nobility, happiness, joy and creativity. I think anyone that comes on Saturday will leave feeling uplifted.

Melanie Plenda: What do you hope people will learn or take away from this performance?

Najee Brown: Sometimes when we think of Juneteenth, because it's attached to slavery we think of sorrow and pain, but we're rejoicing about freedom. I know this country is nowhere near where it needs to be, but we are in a better place than we were before. The fact that I can put together a diverse multi-generational step team in the State of New Hampshire and bring them together, that is enough to celebrate right there.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information visit collaborativenh.org

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