Positioned between two worlds of Harrisonburg, VA, and Lititz, PA, right now, I am sitting in Lititz, listening and watching virtual performances of the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival broadcast from Harrisonburg. Under the direction of Amanda Gookin, the festival is both in-person and virtual as the nation emerges from the isolation of a pandemic.

 

This year the festival dates fall on Juneteenth, which gave the planners a marvelous opportunity to include a beautiful arrangement of the “Black National Anthem” — “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” I invite you to listen with me and to feel the “shared jubilation and hope for the future” described by violist Diane Phoenix-Neal at the beginning of this video.

 

Both director Amanda Gookin and violist Diane Phoenix-Neal are members of a book club in Harrisonburg that Dr. Joanne Gabbin and I co-founded in 2019.

Members of the Wicked Grace Book Club L-R: Diane Phoenix-Neal, Lisa Alleyne, Louise Hostetter, Jennifer Davis Sensenig, Linda Thomas-Mobley, Sofia Samatar, Joanne Gabbin, Casonya Johnson, Shirley Showalter, Bethany Nowviskie. Amanda Gookin was unable to join us for the photo. Co-founder Joanne Gabbin and her husband Alexander were honored in 2021 with the naming of this hall on the JMU campus for them. The club celebrated the naming with this photo.

Today, in honor of the first Juneteenth after the establishment of a federal holiday on June 19th by the congress and the president of the United States, I offer two ways to celebrate.

  1. Respectfully, especially if you are a white person. Remembering that Juneteenth has long been celebrated in the Black community.

  2. Actively, an invitation for all. You can buy and read books (I recommend the one below). You can start your own book club. You can make a new friend.

The “shared jubilation” that Diane Phoenix-Neal described in her introduction to the music above, can best come from relationships across the color line. The good news is that such relationships do exist, and they can be deeply gratifying and enlightening. Last Wednesday our club met online with two authors, Betty Kilby Baldwin and Phoebe Kilby. Betty and Phoebe are members of the group Coming to the Table, which connects Black and White family members who want to “come to the table” and help build Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “beloved community.”

These two authors responded to our questions during a Zoom Meeting of the club.

These two authors responded to our questions during a Zoom Meeting of the club. You can buy the book here.

During our conversation Wednesday night, my friend and book club co-founder Joanne was so moved by the stories Betty and Phoebe told that tears began to flow. She made no attempt to hide them or brush them away, and I said to myself silently, “This woman has blessed my life in more ways than I can fathom.”

Of course, I am not alone. Joanne started an amazing poetry center called Furious Flower on the campus of James Madison University more than 25 years ago. Joanne selected the name from a Gwendolyn Brooks poem-sermon. This fragment is the source of both the poetry center and the book club names.

“The time cracks into furious flower

Lifts its face all unashamed

And sways in wicked grace.”

–Gwendolyn Brooks

Below, Joanne is interviewed and tells the story of how her attempt to honor her friend Gwendolyn Brooks evolved into a center that has hosted most of the published African-American poets (including all the Black poet-laureates) and many aspiring young poets. Thousands of students past and present rise up and call her blessed also.

I leave you with an astonishing statistic:

“75 percent of Whites have “entirely white social networks without any minority presence.” The same holds true for slightly less than two-thirds of Black Americans.”

This statistic was gathered from Public Religion Research Institute and was reported in the Washington Post in 2014 here.

Possibly the situation has changed in the last seven years. But we have a long, way to go.

Think of the shared jubilation our nation could celebrate on June 19 in the future. Then take a risk. Ask one of your acquaintances of another race to coffee. Feel free to share this blog post if it helps you start a conversation. Oh yes, and come back here to report what has happened as a result.

What other ideas do you have for how to celebrate June 19th? How did you celebrate this year?

Shirley Showalter

10 Comments

  1. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on June 19, 2021 at 6:13 pm

    We need to have a holiday like Juneteenth in Canada! We are struggling with the discovery of mass graves of Indigenous children who were never returned home to their families. There are people still trying to justify what happened. We need to work harder at overcoming cross cultural barriers. Bravo for doing that Shirley!

    • Shirley Showalter on June 19, 2021 at 9:04 pm

      Thank you, Elfrieda. We here in the U. S. often look to Canada as a place where racism has been confronted longer and more effectively in the U.S. Yet you too have terrible stories of oppression. I am sure you look for ways to be a healer. Maybe looking for your own version of Juneteenth would be an exciting thing for you and your grandchildren to work at together?

  2. Barbara Whitt on June 19, 2021 at 6:52 pm

    Shirley Hershey Showalter, thank you for this. For Juneteenth I posted a link on my Facebook page at Barbara McDowell Whitt.

    • Shirley Showalter on June 19, 2021 at 9:10 pm

      Thank you, Barbara. I went to your page and found this excellent way to celebrate. “On this Juneteenth, June 19, 2021, now a Federal Holiday, thanks to Democrats and Republicans in Congress and President Biden, #WhenWeAllVote is organizing voter registration drives across the nation to fight back against state legislatures that are making it harder to vote in 48 of the 50 US states.”

  3. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on June 19, 2021 at 9:17 pm

    Shirley, here’s what I found about Juneteenth in Canada when I googled it:

    “While Canada’s version of Juneteenth is technically celebrated on Aug. 1, when emancipation came to the British Empire in 1834, both days have found their way into Canadian conversations.”

    • Shirley Showalter on June 19, 2021 at 9:41 pm

      Interesting. I wish we could have had emancipation without Civil War in this country. I think our history and our current politics would be much better for it.

  4. Marian Beaman on June 20, 2021 at 8:16 am

    Well done, Shirley.

    I appreciated the book title and videos, which reminded me of the times Dr. Henry Louis Gates uncovered racial intermingling in his popular “Finding Your Roots,” to the surprise of his guests.

    And, yes indeed, women of color are among my most treasured friendships.

    • Shirley Showalter on June 20, 2021 at 9:23 am

      Glad you liked the book suggestion, Marian. I think you would enjoy reading about the role that our alma mater played in seeding the idea of a just reconciliation. I am so glad for your gift of friendship, which knows no color boundary.

  5. Melodie M Davis on June 20, 2021 at 3:04 pm

    Guessing you will no longer be able to gather with this book club, or perhaps you will continue somewhat on Zoom or other technology? What a wonderful idea. We could all use more connections. Thanks for enlightening and encouraging. My freshman roommate at EMC was African American from New Jersey. She had never even visited campus when she came down for her Freshman year, and completed her degree in education. She still lives up there. I have as a bucket list goal of visiting her someday soon–she isn’t on EMU’s usual reunion or alumni lists but I think I have a way to contact her. I long for Paula’s warm embrace again and her lovely singing with piano in the lounge downstairs at North Lawn–belting out songs from Roberta Flack like “The first time, ever I saw your face…” Oh my the soul that belted our from her alto voice was moving indeed!

    • Shirley Showalter on June 20, 2021 at 4:05 pm

      You’re right, Melodie, I can’t stay in this group indefinitely. I have encouraged them to gather again in person. I will try to find a new group eventually. You have mentioned your roommate before, and I can tell she is still on your mind. Her singing, especially, reached you.. I hope you find her and can connect more frequently. That happens when you get to be our age. I just reconnected with a high school classmate who lives straight down the street from me. And in a few weeks my college roommates and closest friends will come to visit. I was not blessed by diversity in high school. It takes effort to reach out from our White enclaves.

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