It was directly under the summer’s sun that I found myself submerged within a euphoric ripple of elation. Standing at the base of the Temple to Music’s steps, a gathering of beautifully blissful faces were smiling and singing in unison as we paid homage to what has been and what is to come. The sweet aroma of countless cookouts and family dinners danced in the summer breeze and tempted my taste buds. Hips swayed, kids played, and laughter was on parade as Bad Lad’s voice echoed over our heads. And all at once, on cue, we sang, “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud.”
The surrealness of that moment at Juneteenth RI 2022 will forever be etched in my memories of my Divine Providence. Juneteenth RI has evolved into a vast celebration that brings together an amazing array of people. One of the brilliant minds that has poured a lot of energy and love into this particular inception is Providence native Helen Baskerville-Dukes. With over 20 years of community experience as an advocate for education, equality, and equity, this experienced playwright not only serves as the executive director of the Mount Hope Community Center but she is also the lead organizer of the Juneteenth Rhode Island Festival located here in Providence.
The festival collectively celebrates African American liberation, accomplishments and contributions through education, effective communication, inner strength, and endurance. The Juneteenth RI Committee is comprised of eight dedicated members that work hard to create a sense of belonging and empowerment – I had the opportunity to ask Helen Baskerville-Dukes for a few insights on her journey as well as Juneteenth, and it went a little something like this:
Reuben Tillman III (Motif): What initially prompted you to be moved to engage in the work that you do?
Helen Baskerville-Dukes: I was initially prompted to serve in my community once I became aware of the unjust systems that were put in place during slavery, that still affected and disenfranchised low income minorities; Black people particularly today. From poor education, mass incarceration, police brutality, to red-lining, all should have been things of the past, unfortunately, I found myself and other leaders in my community still speaking out against them.
RTIII: Can you briefly explain the historical context of Juneteenth and why it’s necessary that we recognize it on a national level?
HBD: Freedom finally came on June 19, 1865, nearly two years after President Abraham Lincoln emancipated enslaved Africans in America. Some 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas and announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in the state were free by executive decree. This day came to be known as “Juneteenth,” by the newly freed people in Texas.
Juneteenth should be, and is, recognized on a national level, which is a day to remember “the moral stain” of slavery. It was significant to establish Juneteenth as a national holiday as a way to remember and recognize the atrocities committed against Black people and the resilience of battered, enslaved Black people to endure and, in some cases, thrive under brutally harsh conditions. We must learn from our history so that we don’t repeat the wrongs again.
RTIII: In your view, what can the community do to help? Not only to raise awareness about Juneteenth, but also make it a staple in our culture?
HBD: The community could continue to raise awareness by educating their family, friends, and coworkers of its significance, and actively work to dismantle systems of oppression no matter how difficult it can be. Slavery was wrong.
We can make Juneteenth a staple in our community by attending Juneteenth events, celebrating our progress toward equality and celebrating Blackness on June 19. This will protect, give hope, and enrich the lives of our community.
RTIII: In honor of Juneteenth, can you let us know what you and your organization have in store for the local area.
HBD: The Juneteenth RI Committee is excited about our upcoming 5th Annual Juneteenth Festival.
Friday, June 16, we will open our festival weekend with a comedy show. “Laughter Is Like Medicine”. Slaves used comedy as a coping mechanism.
Saturday, June 17 – Providence Black History Walking Tour will explore the ways in which institutionalized legal, economic, and social power sought to circumscribe the lives of Black Rhode Islanders.
Saturday, June 17 – YOUth Day: It’s very important that children see themselves, their ethnicity, and culture reflected in the books they read. Reading books with accurate representation helps children to understand how we see the world, and why we see the world the way we do.
Sunday, June 18 – Annual Festival filled with music, dancing, food, and family. A day of pride, culture, commemoration, and empowerment.
For more information about the dates, times, locations or how to get involved in this year’s celebration visit juneteenthri.com.