On Saturday, June 18, the NAACP Corvallis branch will be hosting their second annual Juneteenth Celebration at the Thompson Shelter in Avery Park. The Juneteenth Celebration in Corvallis is a community event featuring food, music, games, and overall coming together to have a good time. In addition to fun and entertainment, the event includes poetry, Juneteenth history, and an opportunity to discuss serious issues within a fun and friendly environment.
Beyond this, Juneteenth is the longest standing celebration of the abolishment of slavery in the United States. While Juneteenth celebrations vary in nature from place to place, one thing they have in common is a focus on education, self-improvement, and history. This year’s celebration in Corvallis will follow suit. In the spirit of self-improvement and education, organizers have dubbed the event a community celebration of freedom.
Running from 1 to 4 p.m., this event looks to be a fun, inviting way to mingle and engage ideas. That said, not all the invitations to engage in matters of race in our fair little burg are the same. The Corvallis SURJ chapter has a very different way of messaging, but more on that momentarily.
Juneteenth Origins, Intents
Let’s first look at the origin of Juneteenth celebrations as they date back to Texas, June 19, 1865. For those non-history buffs out there, it is worth pointing out that Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863—a full two-and-a-half years before the message reached the black men and women kept as slaves within the borders of Texas. Reasons for this delay have been debated since that time, but at this point we will probably never know.
“The first celebration was more about sharing stories and where they come from and things of this nature—hearing the elders speak and celebrating,” said Angel Harris, Corvallis branch NAACP member and Chair of the Community Coordination Committee. Harris has found an outlet for her love of bringing people together while organizing this year’s celebration, and the process has rekindled a deep interest in history for her. She explained, “I hadn’t heard of it until a couple years ago, so for most people it’s kind of new.”
How can the longest standing commemoration of the abolition of slavery be new to people over 150 years later, you may wonder? Although by 1980 Juneteenth had become a fully recognized state holiday in Texas, the observance of the celebration declined from around the turn of the century up through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. “It was a really hard time, right, you’re trying to celebrate freedom but you really don’t have freedom, which is why you have the Civil Rights Movement,” explained Harris.
However, the result of tireless dedication and the persistent demand for recognition has been an opening of hearts and minds across the nation. “Now it is gaining more popularity again, people are celebrating more, and they are realizing the significance of it,” said Harris. “We hold to that day as our Independence Day.” In fact, as of May this year only Hawaii, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and South Dakota do not recognize Juneteenth as either a state or ceremonial holiday.
Juneteenth in Oregon
“Portland has been celebrating it for a while, but I don’t think a lot of people in this area know much about it, and it would be really cool if that could change,” said Harris. “As far as we can tell, last year’s was the first [Corvallis] city celebration.” However when you consider the success of last year’s celebration, it becomes clear that change is already underway.
Harris explained that although they did not count, there was a turnout of around 80 people from all walks of life—“a diverse group of people, a cross-section of the city.” Among those in attendance were representatives from the mayor’s office and even District 8 Oregon State Senator Sara Gelser. Last year the celebration featured potluck-style food and a program of speakers, poetry, and music.
This year, thanks to sponsors like City of Corvallis King Legacy Advisory Board and Collaborative Employment Innovations, food will be provided in the form of BBQ pulled pork, drinks, and other picnic-style eats. Other sponsors such as Corvallis Martial Art’s Dan Lowery and the Kidsthletics Club will be providing free martial arts, ZUMBA, and yoga demos for kids as well as face painting and crafts. Adults can expect derby Frisbee, “hangout games,” cards, plenty of conversation and getting to know one another, and good music for the duration.
Before the festivities truly begin, the celebration will open with a 20-minute program. During this time attendees will experience the Black National Anthem followed by a short welcoming. Next will be a Juneteenth history lesson before poetry reading and dancing.
“The program kind of centers us and brings us to the purpose of the event. Outside of that it’s just having a great time and coming together which, you know, we always need to do more of,” said Harris.
Corvallis has an estimated population for 2015-‘16 of 54,462 individuals. Of those, 45,613, or 83% of the city, are identified as white. Nationally, the average white person lives in a census tract that is 79% white, the average black person lives in a tract that is 46% black, and the average Latino resident lives in a tract that is 45% Latino.
So, beyond entertainment, the Juneteenth Celebration is a time for coming together in a deeper way. “We hope to create not only awareness and celebration, but some positive connections across the community,” said Harris. Harris explained that while everyone is having fun together, they also want to encourage dialogue and understanding. “Sometimes you can get isolated, and you don’t get to see the overview or the general view of what’s going on in the city,” said Harris.
And, that brings us back to the Corvallis Chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, or SURJ. For some, their viewpoint may at first glance seem confrontational.
SURJ has a branch here in Corvallis whose Facebook banner reads: “White People: What will we do to change our legacy of violence.”
For some in our community, this dialogue is too inflammatory. The incendiary language, the accusative tone, and the singling out present in the banner turns them off. Unfortunately if they wrote these guys off that quickly, they may have missed links to the Juneteenth Celebration, among other thought-provoking and socially inclusive community events.
Questions do come to mind, like is this banner appropriate for the community? Is this effective communication? Is the banner inviting, or is it offensive? Finding people to answer these questions is more challenging than one would anticipate. Notable facilitators of communication like OSU’s own Winston Cornwall and SURJ event speakers like Ken “Running Crane” Reel “respectfully encouraged” me to seek other speakers. As it turns out, this is a bit of a touchy subject.
SURJ Corvallis chapter secretary Faith Reidenbach also failed to respond to queries about the banner.
Moving forward, Harris, who had previously not seen the banner, offered her take. “I think for me, when I see that, it just reminds me of the things I’ve been studying—the history I felt like I didn’t know much about,” she said, referring to the American Civil War in which 750,000 US soldiers died, ultimately in the defense of and opposition to slavery in the United States.
“I mean that’s pretty crazy to me, that we are willing to die to keep people as slaves,” reflected Harris.
According to Harris, the Corvallis NAACP and SURJ have a dynamic relationship and their collaboration has been fruitful. This relationship also adds an interesting perspective for Harris. “This is the first group I have ever seen do this, as far as literally white people reaching out to white people in regards to race. For me it’s pretty bold because usually that doesn’t happen, that I have seen here in Oregon.”
But does this make for effective communication? Is the message inviting, does it inspire an open dialogue? “It’s a pretty bold statement. It’s a bold statement because we could be all nice about it, but it’s not a nice subject. It’s pretty intense if you are the one being violated at least,” said Harris, herself more intrigued than turned off when seeing the banner initially, wanting to know why the SURJ banner was written as such.
As for those turned off, does that reaction make their message somewhat offensive? Perhaps it’s a matter of personal interpretation. Harris is of the mindset that if someone is truly upset, “They need to take time to maybe go to a meeting and see what this is all about. Go check these things out and see because, like I said, I thought I knew about history, but apparently there is so much more to know.”
However, this is the perspective of someone close to the subject, an active advocate of change. While Harris’ perspective is important to note, what might others in the community think?
Tina Taylor is a counseling, mediation, and training specialist in Corvallis. One could say Taylor is literally in the business of compassion. Through her business she offers individual and couple counseling classes, facilitates training in communication and empathy strategies, and teaches Nonviolent Communication at the maximum security prison in Salem as a volunteer to the Oregon Prison Project.
Taylor, who hadn’t previously seen the banner, had an initial observation: “In my work, in compassionate communication, I teach that any label of a group is likely to be heard as criticism and therefore very likely to lead to conflict.” In her 30-plus years of experience, Taylor has found that when people feel labeled or isolated, it becomes more difficult to come from a place of compassion and that people are often less understanding.
Does signaling out a race then seem counter-productive, or overly critical? Taylor had this advice to give regarding issues where people intrinsically feel grouped: “The strategy is to offer empathy, and understanding that when people are upset about something, they are coming from a place of pain. The first step to healing that is to find out from them, what are they feeling and what are the needs that are not being met?” By offering empathy and discovering the real issues, we can begin to develop strategies to address all parties equally.
But if the banner labels people, is it even appropriate in the first place? “The word appropriate is a general word, you know, who’s in charge of deciding what is appropriate and what is not,” said Taylor. “What I hear is that everybody is hurting. Everybody is hurting. The people who wrote that are hurting and they’re in touch with their feelings on behalf of other people who they see are hurting.”
So it’s OK because everyone hurts? “We [often] don’t know what way to think and how to address conflict. We don’t have tools with that generally, that we are comfortable with,” explained Taylor. “That’s not what we are trained to do.” Understanding can be generated, however painful the process may be. Some people are naturally more empathic than others, but by keeping an eye on our emotions and reactions, we can change the patterns by which we deal with uncomfortable situations and how we receive painful messages.
Attending an SURJ Meeting
When I first came across the SURJ banner, it struck me as overly provocative. I thought to myself, that’s so intense, how do you expect anyone to want to listen? However, I thought about that banner for almost a month until I finally made it to one of the SURJ meetings at the First Alternative Coop. I didn’t find a bunch of anarchists or overly dramatic hipsters, just some totally normal Corvallis folks, some white, some not. We sat in a circle with name tags on our shirts and talked about what was going on around town.
There was discussion about different insensitivities people had seen around town and how they were addressed or how they could be addressed in the future. They talked about what plans moving forward might look like—what kind of funding would be needed to offer events, campaigning for policy changes and what policies might need changing, even the possibility of obtaining a Diversity Officer for the city. Ultimately, I think the vibe of the meeting and my overall experience there was summed up by a question posed to the group by Reidenbach: “How can we meet each other, really meet each other?”
Banner aside, I believe the Juneteenth Celebration is a good answer to that question. As Harris put it, “I feel like Juneteenth helps us come together and build relationships while having to work together for a better future across racial lines.”
So, is the banner appropriate or effective or good or what? It’s not what I would have chosen, but then again it’s not really for me to say. If you have an emotional reaction to it, take some time and reflect. Ask yourself what it is about that message that is so jarring. If you have trouble wrapping your head around it, read about the Reconstruction Era or watch Ken Burns: Civil War on Netflix. Discharge those emotions beforehand, then go to a meeting and tell them, “I don’t get it; I am offended.” Ultimately, whether that message is the right one for Corvallis depends on how well we understand the issues it aims to address and how we express our needs as we move forward.
By Anthony Vitale
Counterpoint: Banner Words and Dreams
With one side of my Euro ancestry barely escaping the Russian pogroms and the other side fleeing before the offer of an Auschwitz shower, my lily-white arse owns no part of the violence being called out in the SURJ banner posted on Facebook. And given plenty of folks with similar histories to my own and a humanity replete with non-white genocides, it’s tempting to dismiss this banner as sophomoric, except that its perpetuation of half-truth, divisiveness, and stagnation foment continued destruction.
Yes, there is an American history of whites enslaving and perpetrating manifold horrors on black people, along with other white Americans being killed to stop that. But then, that history misses the more essential point, that humanity of all races have done unto other groups of people as they ought not for time in memoriam. The issue at hand is not of blacks and whites, but of twists in the human genome as expressed at this point in our biologic and social evolution.
In other words, saying this banner is granular in the selection of its history would be charitable, but then that’s its point, an evocativeness born of oversimplification. The downside being the revulsion of those attracted more by honey than vinegar—which fuels the questions, are the repelled somehow less then, and can progress be made without them? And of the attracted, will an invitation to stew in past horror move the ball?
One could argue that this isn’t the point SURJ is trying to make, but the logical corollary would have to be that the words or tactics or both don’t actually matter. But then, calls to fear and polarization are the same stock and trade that has a critical mass of our enormously powerful country possibly foisting a xenophobe on the world, who in a darkly ironic twist, would then administer over decades of individual citizens race and ethnicity data originally collected with all the best of intents.
In short, words matter and human history for all its foibles has moments of transcendence. These are more often spurred by a dream and words faithfully aimed to compel the dwelling manifold of human conscience. A clanging invective only allures with an inflammatory power. It persuades a transient reactivity that at best repels the individual into escapism from a perceived toxic sea of noise pollution, or worse, leaves one tone deaf and unable to suss bullchips from sweetness.
By Joel Hutton