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D.C. advocates, criticizing commercialized Juneteenth, aim for local and free

OnRaé LaTeal, left, performs Sunday at the Chocolate City Jubilee at Freedom Plaza in Washington. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

As D.C. go-go bass slaps and drumbeats by the Ambition Band set the vibe and the smell of fried fish wafted through the air, a group of young people from the Creative School nonprofit in Southeast offered free fresh juice to passersby in exchange for a few written words about what freedom means to them.

They were among hundreds gathered Sunday for the Chocolate City Jubilee at D.C.’s Freedom Plaza to commemorate Juneteenth, the federal holiday to symbolize the end of slavery in the United States — a day that Nee Nee Taylor described as centered around Black joy, Black freedom and Black people.

“It is a day of recognition … the goal is to educate the people on what it’s going to take us to save us and to continue to work for our freedom,” said Taylor, co-conductor of Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, a mutual aid and defense organization that hosted the event.

While just a few blocks away, thousands paid hundreds of dollars per person for a three-day pass for the Something in the Water music festival organized by Pharrell Williams, Harriet’s Wildest Dreams held an event with free food and performances by local Black vendors, artists and musicians.

“Everything is free because it is freedom day,” Taylor said.

Juneteenth is a mash-up of “June 19” and marks the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Galveston, Tex., learned they were free — more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Generations of Black families have commemorated this date, but the celebration gained national visibility following the social unrest after the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

Juneteenth emancipation stories: How enslaved people gained their freedom

For some, Juneteenth was a moment to reflect on how far the conversation about racial injustice and the legacy of slavery has come.

Michael Brown, 56, a fundraising teacher at the North American division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, said he heard for the first time about Juneteenth in his 30s. Brown said in New Orleans, where he was born, his high school never taught him about the day, but he was not surprised.

“You don’t really want to deal with the history of slavery because then you have to talk about injustices. Whether or not those injustices are happening now, you have to be ready to address those,” Brown said.

He still does not see a real dialogue about the legacy of slavery, which is a very difficult conversation to have, he said, but “we are getting closer.”

The recognition of Juneteenth as a national holiday has brought mixed feelings for some Black organizers.

Juneteenth is growing. Some Texans worry it’s losing meaning.

Qiana Johnson, 41, the founder of Life After Release, an organization in Prince George’s County that supports formerly incarcerated women, feels bittersweet now that Juneteenth is a federal holiday. She worries a day meant for conversations about slavery and the commemoration of her ancestors and their struggle is being commercialized by corporations.

“They’re doing stuff like having ice cream flavors, T-shirts for sale and doing other things that are extracting from the actual liberation of Black people,” Johnson said.

Juneteenth ice cream and paper plates: Companies keep getting holiday wrong

After advocates gave speeches, which included a call to stop the displacement of Black residents in the city, performers from all corners of the D.C. area gathered around music, “an essential part of Black joy and Black love,” said singer-songwriter Liv Grace, who also performed at the event.

Grace, 20, started to write and sample her songs to spread awareness about issues affecting the Black community, including incarceration. She said her community has spent a lot of time being sad and fighting, but this day is an opportunity to bring everybody together to acknowledge their accomplishments.

“We have so much love, and there’s so much in our culture to celebrate,” Grace said.