Inequity is an ongoing fact of life for Black people, but the cries for social justice and the newly focused attention of white people to the matter tend to center on moments of violence against Black people. The most recent uprisings and demands for change followed the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers, and of Ahmaud Arbery by fellow citizens when he was out for a jog. In many cases, police have responded to the unrest with violence, heightening tensions to a fever pitch.
In the midst of all of this and in a cluster of incidents nationwide, several Black people have been found hanged from trees. The fact that they were all ruled suicides sparked suspicion in some people and filled some of my Black friends with enough dread that they took to social media to let everyone know: “If I’m found hanging from a tree, I did not take my own life.”
Current events have snared our attention, but arts activist Rachel DeGuzman says that overt violence against Black people isn’t the only weapon of white supremacy. If we’re going to make serious moves toward achieving equity, we need to hold our focus, even after the protests quiet down, on enduring systemic problems.
DeGuzman’s ongoing community conversation series, “At the Crossroads: Activating the Intersections of Art and Justice,” continues this summer with a trilogy of events she’s calling “BlackOut Summer Series.”
The trilogy kicks off tonight, commemorating the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth with “The Fragility of Freedom: A Virtual Long Table.” The streamed conversation takes place from 7 to 9 p.m., and will focus on the ongoing struggle for freedom and full citizenship rights and protections for the descendants of enslaved people, DeGuzman says. Current events will be put in the historic contexts of Juneteenth, the right to vote during Reconstruction and the subsequent revocation of the franchise for Black men, and voting during the Jim Crow era, post-Voting Rights Act, and today.
The conversation, which features several community members working in social justice, will be set off by the screening of the music video for Nina Simon’s 1964 Civil Rights song, “Mississippi Goddam;” a reading of James Weldon Johnson’s poem, “50 Years,” and the presentation “Reconstruction to 2020,” a photomontage with narration.
The montage includes historic text and photography that spotlights post-emancipation South Carolina, where, DeGuzman says, Black Americans have experienced dramatic shifts ranging from relative freedom to pervasive denial of their rights as citizens.
“South Carolina,” DeGuzman says, “is where one of the most significant Senate races in the 21st century is being fought against Lindsay Graham and all he represents as a chief conspirator in the current rollback on civil and human rights.”
The event is free to attend, with the option for viewers to make donations in support of the series.
The BlackOut Summer Series will continue with events on Saturday, July 4, and Saturday, July 18. The Independence Day event, “Black Lives Still Matter: An Outdoor Long Table Installation,” anticipates a careful return to live events, and features an in-person gathering of conversation participants at a mural installation on historic Clarissa Street — Rochester’s first Black neighborhood — in the Corn Hill neighborhood. Viewers will watch the event streamed live.
The mural, depicting youths of color, was painted in collaboration between Wall/Therapy organizers and the teen-mentoring ROC Paint Division and installed in 2017 on an exterior wall of The Flying Squirrel Community Space, amid a different wave of BLM marches.
“The slaying of Black people by authorities is certainly top of mind right now, but I want to know: what's different in 2020?” DeGuzman asks. “I think that's one of the critical questions that we'll be asking. But I also want this to be a hyper-local conversation. So while everything that's happening in the country is important, I want this to be a conversation about Black people in Rochester, in the national historical context, and the contemporary context.”
The conversation will also feature a live-painting session by Narionna Nuñez.
The July 18 event, titled “Anti-Blackness in America: Pogroms, Lynchings, and Other Aggressions,” commemorates the 100th anniversary of the 1917 East St. Louis Riots, which were marked by white-led violence that left hundreds of Black Americans dead and thousands homeless. White rioters burned entire sections of the city, cut fire hoses, and shot Black residents as they tried to escape.
“I think that it's important for us to interrogate what's happening now in the context of a whole legacy of programs in anti-Black violence in this country,” DeGuzman says.
Additional details of the live-streamed event will follow.
More information about the BlackOut Summer Series and other upcoming At The Crossroads programs can be found at facebook.com/artandjusticeROC/events.
Rebecca Rafferty is CITY’s arts & entertainment editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.