Donn K. Harris: Juneteenth — An opportunity for a unified celebration
The first Nevada County Juneteenth celebration will always be aligned with its first day as a national holiday.
When Color Me Human, the nonprofit born in February 2020 to assert the presence of a BIPOC community in Nevada County following some tense local exchanges over national issues, put out the word that a Juneteenth celebration would take place in Pioneer Park on June 19, much of its membership did not yet know that President Biden was about to declare it a national holiday.
It was almost summer, and a good time for a picnic, but lately it seems even the simplest gesture has us running smack into history. And why not us? Nevada County is big enough for the big moments.
About 100 were in attendance, a diverse group of residents and visitors, in a picturesque, pastoral grove at the north end of the park. A creek danced along the edge of the space, shaded enough to keep drinks and watermelons cool.
Looking at the gathering from the outside, except for the diversity of the crowd, there was little to distinguish it from a large birthday party or a summer work gathering.
Perhaps that’s as it should be: Juneteenth is about celebrating a freedom that never should have been taken away, and has never been fully restored. Its celebration is somber, thoughtful, with an eye toward future advancement of the cause of freedom.
The speakers touched on that in different ways. Local man of wisdom and perspective, Daryl Grigsby, led us through a short history of the holiday, which is not celebrated on the date of the Emancipation Proclamation but from a time two and a half years later, when the word finally reached slavery’s last outpost in Galveston, Texas.
The second speaker, calling himself simply Chef Chew —whose Vallejo-based vegan food-production company, Something Better Foods, manufactures plant-based substitutes for American favorites like ribs, steaks and chicken — gave us an inspiring tale of vision, entrepreneurship and cross-country moxie as he described his work’s evolution from his childhood in rural Maryland, to a stint in Arkansas and his family’s eventual migration to Oakland, followed by Vallejo. The East Bay is where he saw his first sustainable success. Something Better Foods is now on the shelves of Whole Food Markets.
“A black entrepreneur producing vegan choices that are carried by Whole Foods,” Chef Chew mused. “I wish my father was around to see it.”
The families with young children in attendance gathered to trade stories of their paths to adulthood and ideas about the future, the unspoken hope for that future right in front of us, laughing holiday-happy children enjoying Sno-Cones and vegan ribs who can say they were there for the first Nevada County and national Juneteenth Day. Perhaps they’ll be there for the 10th and 25th celebrations, as well, able to reflect on a world that had made even greater strides toward its ideals of equity and inclusion.
Color Me Human Executive Director Tracy Pepper and Program Director Daniela Fernandez kept the day moving and offered thanks to their board of directors, donors and sponsors.
It was not lost on anyone in attendance that, as Daryl Grigsby reminded us, of the 14 members of Congress who voted against the national holiday, two of them represented Nevada County.
We understand that political differences exist, and that we have a ways to go to find common ground on many issues. Following a presidential election and a viral pandemic that highlighted differences in ways that were as alarming as they were unprecedented, honoring Juneteenth was an opportunity to build bridges, to finally come together to acknowledge our turbulent past and reflect on what we’ve achieved and how much more work needs to be done.
The haggling over the full name of the holiday – Juneteenth National Independence Day – and concern about having two “Independence Days” seems a bit disingenuous. In any event the opportunity for a collective celebration should have overshadowed minor semantic concerns, if building bridges was part of our representatives’ vision for their districts. Sometimes people are defined by the divisions that they helped to create, and it’s hard to give up that combative and oppositional identity.
This should have been one of those times. It’s an opportunity lost, but there’s hope in that the opportunity existed at all. There will be others, and we should have those olive branches ready so that we can begin the trek back to some semblance of a new unity, whatever shape it may ultimately take.
Donn K. Harris is a resident of Nevada City. He is a past chair (2015-18) and current member of the California Arts Council, serving under Governors Brown and Newsom. He led the Ruth Asawa and Oakland Schools for the Arts from 2001 to 2016. Locally he serves on the boards of the Nevada County Arts Council and Color Me Human.
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