West Hartford celebrates and honors Juneteenth with performances, guest speakers, vendors, and more.
By Bridget Bronsdon
The West Hartford community gathered in Blue Back Square on Sunday in honor of Juneteenth: a holiday celebrating June 19, 1865, a day when the last of the enslaved people in the U.S. were informed of their freedom following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.
Lively and high-spirited energy rippled throughout the square as the town honored the holiday not just on a national scale, but from a more local perspective.
Town Councilor Carol Anderson-Blanks commenced the ceremony by offering an official proclamation that read in part: “Whereas the town of West Hartford remains committed to taking steps to acknowledge and reconcile the history of slavery in this town by recognizing that the foundations that built this town included enslaved individuals, many of whom died without the title of a free person they so richly deserve, and by continuing to strive for equity and justice through education, policy, and community engagement.”
Although it’s now a federal as well as a state holiday, the Town Councilor emphasized West Hartford’s personal role in the horrifying institution of slavery and the steps the town is taking to honor the enslaved individuals who so courageously came before us.
The crowd then stood for a touching performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black National Anthem, by West Hartford Public Schools student Emma Billings. The moving words of the anthem echoed throughout the square as Billings stood tall on the stage and sang with unwavering confidence.
“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us; facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on ’til victory is won,” the lyrics read. “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered, we have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered, out from the gloomy past, ’til now we stand at last where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.”
Billings then performed a powerful rendition of “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera. “’Cause we are beautiful no matter what they say yes, words won’t bring us down, no, no. We are beautiful in every single way yes, words can’t bring us down, oh, no so don’t you bring me down today,” Billings sang.
Following the moving performance, the Friendz World Music Group turned the enthusiasm of onlookers up several notches. The high-energy group of local artists danced, drummed, clapped, and even brought audience members into the dynamic performance.
Halfway through their performance, the animated group took a moment to speak with the audience. Asé, the group explained to the audience, is a word of agreement that means “so be it” and “Amen.”
The group then poured water from one vessel to another. “With the water, the pouring of one into another is a symbol,” member Mellissa Craig said. As the water was poured, Craig asked the audience to say Asé and to call on ancestors in prayer.
“Everything you’ve ever wanted to pray for, do it today because we’re together in all of this and maybe someone up there is listening,” Craig said. “Say their names, remember the ones that came before us, and let us honor them with our feet, with our hands, with our voices, Asé.”
The group, full of vim and vigor, then called onlookers to join them in dance and celebration.
Following the effervescent performance from Friendz World Music Group, student speaker and recent Hall High School graduate Derek Williams took the stage. Williams spoke of the bias in today’s culture. He mentioned that skin-care and hygiene products for Black individuals are locked up while products for white people do not receive the same treatment. He also made note that young children of color “can’t find a character that looks like them or shares the same racial or cultural identity backgrounds” as themselves on television.
Williams finished by calling the audience to action.
“Today, I stand in front of you, and yes we are celebrating our heritage and our freedom in today’s society, but yet we still have work to do. We might be comfortable where we are right now, but we have work to do.”
The final speaker was Lakisha Hyatt, CEO of CT Valley Hospital. Hyatt is the first Black person to hold this position. “We are on a joy journey,” Hyatt told the audience.
Hyatt went on to recount how General Gordon Granger, alongside 2,000 troops, ordered a proclamation to free those still enslaved in Galveston, Texas, in 1885 – two years after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1883. Hyatt asked the audience to imagine the celebration that would erupt as the proclamation of freedom was issued.
While Hyatt continued to repeat to the audience that they are on a “joy journey,” she then told them the reason for this journey. “I come to remind you that there is a level of enslavement, a level of bondage that we need your help with. I need you to no longer make judgments about people when you see them. I need you to carry a message of joy when you enter a space, give someone the benefit of the doubt because they don’t look like you. I need you when you enter a space to decide that somebody is worthy to be at the table, be a joy carrier even though they don’t talk like you. So you see, the work is not done.”
“Whether it’s mental illness, whether it’s somebody who needs an extra hand, whether it’s somebody who needs a word of encouragement, I’m asking you, my joy partners. Will you join me in being a joy carrier?” Hyatt asked the crowd. “What’s my part in 2023? To be a joy carrier,” she told the audience.
As powerful messages were exchanged, and words of wisdom and celebration were offered, onlookers were also entertained by performances of all types. Studio 860 provided a high-energy dance performance, Latoya Fernandez sang words of female empowerment, Lil Skitx performed a lively rap set, Lisa Clayton Choir and singers sang prayerful words, and Nekita Waller sang enthusiastically for joyful onlookers.
Locals were also entertained with a community dance party, a Hula Hoop contest, vendors, and various arts, crafts, and games for younger attendees.
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