My first time celebrating Juneteenth was with Mos Def
Learning about Chicago’s Inner-City Muslim Action Network
June 19, 1865 was not a day I was aware of, and I’m honestly surprised by that. I went to a predominantly African-American elementary school that made Alex Haley’s “Roots” films, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” book and a field trip to see the Denzel Washington-led film just another day in a laundry list of black lessons learned.
So how I managed to overlook Juneteenth is anybody’s guess. I didn’t know about it in high school and clearly not this college. It still puzzles me that I graduated from a historically black college & university (HBCU) and slept straight through it, too. So when people were irate about Episode 3 of “Black AF” and the quip about “no one” celebrating Juneteenth, all I could do was shrug. In Chicago, it just wasn’t widely celebrated like it apparently is in the South.
But somewhere along the line, someone told me about it. I couldn’t begin to remember who it was. I just know that — 10 years ago — I was going to spend my first Juneteenth with Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) at my first (of two) concerts seeing him live. This was also the first time I’d be introduced to the Inner-City Muslim Action Network.
I won’t even lie. I went 99.9 percent to see Yasiin Bey as the headliner and to cover the story for a beat I had as the Chicago News & Events Examiner (when Examiner.com was pretty popular). But there was such a sense of peace, unity and amazing food that made me want to be there even if my favorite male emcee canceled. (To my relief, he did not.) Even the supporting performances were as good as the main event, and I was way in the back while the Brooklyn native performed. My video footage wasn’t the greatest, but seeing him live with approximately 20K other people rapping every word of his songs was well worth it for the energy alone.
There were four stages of entertainment, 200 vendors, 100 artists, health summits, family-friendly games and rides. If somebody asked me “What are you supposed to do on Juneteenth?” before that day, I wouldn’t have known what to say. At IMAN’s “Takin It to the Streets” event that had yoga, henna tattoos, graffiti artists, children’s face paintings, prayer areas, drum workshops, family karate, Debke dancing, a merry-go-round, ferris wheel and a basketball tournament, my answer would’ve been, “Damn near everything.”
Of course it wasn’t all fun and games. There were faith-based events, environmentally friendly living and food desert discussion groups, a “Healin the Hood” speaking event on low-income housing and liquor store visibility, and 150 ambassadors from the One Nation, One Chicago initiative.
Regardless of its complicated relationship with violence and clearly segregated areas, Chicago is so dope to me. I’ve gone to so many African fests and Jackie Robinson parades and melanin-rich events all over my childhood stomping grounds on the South Side as well as the North Side, where I currently reside, and these are the events I wish I saw more coverage of. Since I didn’t, I covered it myself.
As much as Juneteenth had every right to be one unapologetically black AF event, it was a learning experience, giving me the opportunity to enjoy indie rock, Afro-Native soul, Latin folk and soul, Andalusin music from Morocco, Senegalese music, Latin Ska, reggae, Turkish Sufi Virtuoso, Qawwali Music from Pakistan, West African guitar instrumentals, Middle Eastern gypsy surf and Desert Blues from the Sahara. In other words, I went all over the world at one event.
Tomorrow I’ll be celebrating Juneteenth in social isolation, and it clearly won’t be the same. It doesn’t always have to be a big concert with live music, massive amounts of food and people touching shoulder-to-shoulder. But in a coronavirus world, it would damn sure feel nice to revisit those days. Here’s hoping 2021 is my year to do it again.
Editor’s Note: On a separate note, tomorrow will be my one-year anniversary on Medium. As of 4:49 p.m. today, I got my 1,000th follower. I joined Medium on Juneteenth 2019, and my first piece “Facial Recognition Has a Blind Spot” was published in ZORA. It’s been an honor to write here.
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