ESSEX JUNCTION — The Vermont sun beat down on Essex as people flipped through books sprinkled with Black joy. Children braided bracelets with the pan-African colors of yellow, green, black and red, and BBQ pork courtesy of MARK BBQ was shoveled into hungry mouths. Poems and quotes from famous Black authors and icons were read aloud by community members.
This was the scene of Essex’s first-annual Juneteenth celebration, held June 19 in the parking lot of Brownell Library.
Rajnii Eddins, poet, author and facilitator, who is of African descent, has always celebrated Juneteenth at home. This year, he said it’s been lovely to celebrate with community members.
“The celebration of Juneteenth is an important part of recognizing our history in a way that honors the struggles and the sacrifices and experiences and stories of black people,” Eddins said.
Juneteenth is now recognized as a federal holiday after President Joe Biden signed legislation on Thursday. Eddins shared his thoughts on the new legislation.
“It seems like a double-edged sword there. It’s like we can celebrate the holiday and the experiences that we went through, but you don’t want to teach the truth about them in school. There’s some hypocrisy there,” he said.
Recently, a lot of focus surrounding race and racism in America has been centered on educating young people. Phoenix Books set up a tent that housed an abundance of books to encourage people to read and keep learning about Black experiences. All books were by Black authors, ranging from children’s books to memoirs to novels from all throughout history.
Special sales associate of Phoenix Books, Kristin Richland, greeted people and talked books while collecting donations for Black Lives Matter Greater Burlington (BLMGB).
“10% of the proceeds from the sale today at the event will go to Black Lives Matter Greater Burlington,” Richland said.
Phoenix Books is working with BLMGB to help build a lending library. BLMGB wants people in the community to invest in educating themselves through literature, Richland said. The organization has a list of about 15 to 20 books that are at the core of its mission, and Phoenix Books is trying to help make those books accessible and available.
“We are always looking to uplift voices of color,” Richland said.
The woman behind the first annual Juneteenth event, Owiso Makuku, the interim community development director for the town of Essex said “it really was just such a group effort.”
Meanwhile, almost every person at the event was praising her for making it all happen.
Makuku along with several community volunteers started organizing about three weeks ago with no budget and a whole lot of gusto.
“When I thought of it, I thought of a really inclusive community event and the actual execution almost brought tears to my eyes to actually see people participating,” Makuku said.
A clothesline was set up holding index cards with stories and quotes from Black icons. People at the event were encouraged to participate by going up to the microphone and reading one.
By the end of the event, there was a line to the microphone.
Brave children stepped up to the mic as people watched and listened intently. A young boy with a stunning voice performed the song “Colors” by Black Pumas.
The programmed events closed out with a young man singing his original song, “Colorblind.” Afterwards, the whole community of people started cleaning up together.
Makuku and others could physically feel the strength this community has been building. Each person seemed genuinely happy to be there celebrating.
“I feel as though my goal wasn't to make some radical statement or anything,” Makuku said. “It was to celebrate, to have something to celebrate, to not be holding another vigil for a Black person… like literally just a day, a beautiful day, we got a beautiful day to just appreciate people, you know, a slice of Americans that doesn't usually get celebrated.”
Makuku hopes this event kicks off future cultural events to continue celebrating all community members of all different identities.