Northeastern commemorates Juneteenth with reflection and festivities

audience members sit in front of projector screen
Northeastern’s Juneteenth celebration began on Friday with a panel discussion on America’s Racial Climate and Media Coverage in 2022 in the Cabral Center of the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

To commemorate Juneteenth, Northeastern prepared a series of events on its campuses that explore and celebrate the history and contemporary significance of the holiday.

“Juneteenth reminds us of the vestiges of our country’s original sin of enslaving and dehumanizing and oppressing African people that were brought to the shores of the Americas whose blood still runs warm in my veins,” said Rev. Willie Bodrick II, senior pastor of the historic Twelfth Baptist Church in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, who graduated from Northeastern University School of Law 2020 with a Juris Doctor degree. 

With a powerful speech about the history of the African American struggle in the U.S. and racial issues plaguing American society in the modern day, Bodrick opened a panel discussion at John D. O’Bryant African American Institute on Friday that was a part of Northeastern’s celebration of Juneteenth and its installment for the first time as a federal holiday.

Deborah Jackson, managing director of the Center for Law, Equity and Race at Northeastern School of Law, and Ted Landsmark, distinguished professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and director of Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy also took part in the discussion. Karl Reid, chief inclusion officer, welcomed the guests, and Richard O’Bryant, director of ​​the African American Institute, moderated the conversation. The topic of the panel discussion was “America’s Racial Climate and Media Coverage in 2022.”

Bodrick framed his speech around the idea of “still holding on.” He talked about enslaved Black people holding on to their inner freedom; about those in the U.S. who still hold on to their racist beliefs “that should be no more”; and how he has personally held on to hope, truth, peace, justice, and equity.

Juneteenth reminds African Americans of both their pain and progress, Bodrick said. 

“Juneteenth reminds us that justice, even in this delay, is still necessary and it’s a mandate to actively disrupt systems of oppression,” he said.

The American nation is still holding on to anti-Blackness and biases that exist in all aspects of society: education, healthcare, housing, transportation, environment, employment, public safety, and media. Extremism has once again become the answer to progress, Bodrick said. 

Using examples of mass shootings, bomb scares at Black churches and schools and white supremacist events both in the South and in Massachusetts, Bodrick illustrated how these issues are of national importance. However, he called on Black Americans to hold on to hope for continuous and inclusive progress and to continue to push toward progress.

“Juneteenth reminds us that we must make a concerted effort to hold on to the ideals that will bring forth equity for all of us,” Bodrick said.

The panelists agreed that hateful, racist rhetoric and acts have accelerated in recent years. 

Jackson suggested that the environment has become more hostile not only towards the Black community but also towards other communities of color, partially because of the 24-hour news cycle and social media. 

“We have come to see that there are very few filters or restrictions in terms of what can actually be posted,” Jackson said. 

Alternative facts have become problematic, Jackson said, as it is harder now to get a clearer understanding of a situation. Jackson also questioned whether the media should assume a responsibility to not only report observed information but also provide analysis.

Landsmark brought attention to the fact that Juneteenth became a celebration because enslaved people didn’t know they were granted freedom for a couple of years due to misinformation and the lack of communication between them and the rest of the nation.

“I relate that absence of communication then to where we are now,” he said. “At this moment, we live in a time where as some of the people of color and other people care about racial justice, there is very often a lack of awareness of what may be going on in a variety of places throughout the country.”

Even though there is much more media available nowadays, there are not enough centralized outlets that would report on  events in Black communities, Landsmark said. He recollected the Amsterdam News that he used to read in New York growing up, the Bay State Banner, and WYLD radio that he used to keep up with in Boston.  

“Where do you go today to get your information on what is going on within our communities of color?” Landsmark said.

When asked about solutions, Landsmark said that members of  academia and the Northeastern community, as well as researchers, should start proactively talking to each other, organize a communications network and coordinate the positive acts and activities that they do with the needs of the surrounding communities. He called for pilots and initiatives that help build capital or help provide education.

There is still much left to be done, said O’Bryant, but the alumni who started the African American Institute in 1968 would have not believed back then that Northeastern, or federal government, would make Juneteenth an official holiday in 2021.

“What we can say is that we are trying and we are continuing to progress,” he said.

Sounds of African drums filled the campus as the Juneteenth celebrations continued in the afternoon with an outdoor festival at Centennial Common. The event featured dance, music and poetry performances, yard games and a food truck with African food. 

IntaAfrika African drummers and dancers invited the audience to learn some dance moves while students, faculty and campus visitors shopped for art, apparel, home goods and cosmetics from multiple Black vendors present at the event.