USC celebrates Juneteenth with poetry, dance and reflection

“A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke accompanied by a slideshow of Black activists marked the beginning of USC’s first intercampus Juneteenth celebration via Zoom and Instagram Live. Friday’s event brought together Black USC community members and allies to share the historical significance of the holiday. 

The event marked the 155th anniversary of the day enslaved people in Texas were told they had been free for two and a half years following then-President Abraham Lincoln’s deliverance of the Emancipation Proclamation. 

Assistant professor of journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism Allissa Richardson started the day’s event with an Instagram Live takeover of USC’s account.

“I think that Juneteenth this year hits differently for me, because it is still about a delayed message,” Richardson said. “I think America had a very delayed message about what police brutality really looked like in this country.”

Richardson, who studies how Black people communicate through social media and journalism during crisis, said she believes it’s important to not only be aware of racial injustice but also to celebrate Black joy, calling Juneteenth a “jubilee.”

“I think that the willingness now to at least know what is going on and to recognize that Black history is American history — it’s all of our history — makes me very hopeful,” Richardson said.

Joyce Richey, Keck School of Medicine associate dean for diversity and inclusion, commenced the Zoom event with retellings from her great grandmother, who was enslaved. Richey also called for a virtual potluck, encouraging attendees to celebrate with strawberry soda, barbecue and salad with red, green and black beans.

“With any celebration in our culture, you must have food, so we’re going to have a virtual potluck,” Richey said.

Richey introduced President Carol Folt, who called for attendees “to bring about real change,” referencing the Black Lives Matter movement and its recent resurgence due to the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and countless others.

“We have to confront and eliminate systemic and structural racism,” Folt said. “It’s a moment for us right here at USC to end a collective silence about anti-Black racism.”

Folt said she would like to use Juneteenth to celebrate and mark the University’s progress toward its commitments to eliminating anti-Black racism at USC.

Last week, Folt announced the removal of the name of former USC President Rufus von KleinSmid, a known eugenicist, from The Center for International and Public Affairs, as well as five other actions the University plans on implementing to end anti-Blackness at USC.

“I plan to bring us together with all of you and use it as a moment to take stock, to look back at how far we’ve progressed just this year and hold ourselves accountable for what still needs to be done,” Folt said. “And it’s not just going to be actions like forming a task force or using data to gauge our progress, but asking ourselves, ‘Are we really achieving the change [for equality]?’”

For professor Jody David Armour from the Gould School of Law, Juneteenth and the celebration of the end of slavery serve as reminders of his father and his profound patriotism, which he said he couldn’t understand despite his wrongful incarceration for alleged cannabis possession and sale. 

“How I used to wonder, ‘Could he and other Black victims of injustice perjure ourselves again and again with the fiction of nationhood?’” Armour said. 

Armour then explained how his father taught himself law while incarcerated and how he was able to vindicate himself in a court case Armour now teaches in his criminal law class.

Armour also spoke about allyship in the context of current nationwide protests against police brutality and in support of Black lives. 

“‘Now, we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceding and so dedicated can long endure,’” Armour said, quoting President Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address. “This is what allyship looks like, right? White brothers and sisters getting out on the battlefield and dying for equality and freedom for their Black brethernothers and sisters.” 

Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Sol Price School of Public Policy LaVonna Lewis also divulged personal anecdotes of racist hate crimes against her family by citizens and the police for the first time.

“I’ve never shared these facts publicly before today, so why is today different?” Lewis said. “I share these facts today because almost 100 years later, anti-Black racism still exists. And Black bodies still aren’t being protected.”

Lewis spoke about cell phone videos and bodycam footage that document the ongoing violence against Black people, the same violence that Laura Mosqueda, Keck School of Medicine dean, acknowledged as the cause of the protests for institutional change nationwide, including at Keck.    

Mosqueda said the school is dismantling anti-Black racism through implicit bias training, the development of anti-racism and inclusion, diversity, equity and access task forces as well as exploring bystander intervention training and symposia for cultural humility and trauma-informed care.

“Institutional change can be difficult,” Mosqueda said. “With the resilience, beauty and accomplishments of Black Americans that we celebrate on this day, demand we devote our efforts to this task.”

Also in attendance to share pieces of art and writing was Senior Vice President for Human Resources Felicia Washington, who read the poem “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou; associate professor d. Sabela grimes from the Kaufman School of Dance, who performed a movement meditation to “Breathe” by The Matthew Herbert Big Band; Dean of the School of Social Work Sarah Gehlert, who read a quote from James Baldwin’s essay “The White Man’s Guilt” and associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion at the School of Dramatic Arts Anita Dashiell-Sparks, who read from Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved.”

Students and graduates also spoke about the significance of Juneteenth to them and their education. 

Morgan Sumner, a 2018 graduate from the School of Architecture master’s program, said that it’s important to acknowledge Juneteenth as a part of American history. 

“I think it’s critical to our history as the United States and as Americans that we acknowledge this day and we acknowledge what it is,” Sumner said. “It’s not just Black history, it’s American history. And so personally for me, I’m very proud to be descendents of slaves, and Juneteenth is a reminder of the strength and fortitude that my ancestors had every single day.”  

For Tyler Scott, a law student at Gould, Juneteenth is meant to educate, celebrate and agitate, all of which, she says, have been happening since Floyd’s killing.

“People are taking it upon themselves not just to just to educate themselves but to also educate others,” Scott said. “Celebrate: Right now people are finally appreciating how African American culture has influenced so many aspects of their lives … And lastly, agitate. … These protests have been insanely impactful.”

Janice Boafo, a 2017 graduate from the School of Social Work, said Juneteenth isn’t about performative activism, but instead celebrating, connecting, taking action and reflecting. 

“It’s a time for us to reflect on who we want to be and who will be there with us,” Boafo said. “Some of you are still reeling from being thrust into a new reality. For those of you having this experience, Juneteenth is a time for self-reflection.”

Jeremy Dow, a graduate student studying pharmacy, said he wants to celebrate the many dualities of Juneteenth, such as the pain from the experiences and consequences of slavery and the resilience of Black people.

“I encourage everyone to celebrate Juneteenth by rejecting the omissive lies our society has told us, and embrace the duality of this day by mourning the evils of this nation while highlighting the resilience of Black people in order to set our personal commitment for the collective journey toward a more equitable and truly free society,” Dow said.

Associate Provost for Faculty and Student Initiatives in the Social Sciences Camille Rich closed the Zoom celebration and challenged attendees to decide what Juneteenth means to them. 

“Juneteenth is your chance to answer that challenge, to really understand the history and the political context, the pain that has birthed some of the most impressive cultural accomplishments that the African American community shares with the United States,” Rich said. “Juneteenth is that chance to recognize that the history of slavery in this country, the history of emancipation is American history, and something that should be understood by all of us, if we want to truly, truly form bonds of community.”

After the Zoom event concluded, Richardson went live on Instagram with Heran Mamo, a 2019 graduate to discuss Black culture and pride expressed through music. 

“Sometimes .. as Black artists your existence and your excellence is the resistance,” Mamo said. “Literally, you being who you are and speaking your truth is part of the resistance, and I think that’s a beautiful thing with a lot of Black musicians, but then they’re also taking that step forward and speaking out.”

Mamo, who completed her Annenberg Capstone project on hip-hop, also spoke on the significance of Black music and how it has influenced mainstream culture, explaining that many popular genres stem from Black artists. 

“It’s just super important to understand the origin stories of your favorite artists, your favorite genres,” Mamo said. “There’s so much nuance, there’s so much dark history and the topics that are being touched on … there’s a depth to this genre specifically.” 

Working on the crossover between the fields of prison abolition and bioethics, Cristina Visperas, assistant professor of communication at Annenberg, referenced the historical mistreatment of Black people by the medical field and how prisons have allowed medical clinical trials to be conducted on those who are incarcerated. 

“Our understanding of modern medicine, our understanding of ecology came from the insight of captivity,” Visperas said. “And I think it’s very, very important for medical students, anyone in the sciences to learn this history that a lot of what we know about the body, a lot of what we know about diseases, a lot of what we know about treatment, a lot of our treatments  were discovered through the uses of Black bodies from slavery to mass incarceration.”

Visperas elucidated how the impact of the coronavirus is distinctly damaging in incarcerated populations not only because of prison conditions but also their susceptibility to diseases, the higher instance of pre-existing conditions and an older group of incarcerated people.

She also referenced the disproportionate effect of the coronavirus pandemic on people of color as a worrying attributor to the likelihood of the state increasing surveillance on these communities with disease-tracking technologies. 

Richardson later spoke with alumna Channing Godfrey Peoples, who, on Friday, debuted her film “Miss Juneteenth” about a mother and daughter navigating the Miss Juneteenth pageant to secure a scholarship to a historically Black college or university. Peoples credits her time at the School of Cinematic Arts for leading her to a career in directing and screenwriting. 

“I really had a lovely experience at USC,” Peoples said. “It was tough. The film school’s tough … It was confidence building in a way, especially as a Black woman director.”

After their discussion on allyship, Richardson and rising seniors Marissa Chisolm and Juliette Cacciatore majoring in acting, ended the night by reading out the names of victims of police brutality.

“If you see something, if you see injustice — no matter how uncomfortable you think it makes you feel, no matter how tired you are of it, of hearing about it — you’re not more tired than the person who is living it,” Richardson said to end the night.