Black voices reflect on joy and the future

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BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — Juneteenth is Sunday. The day celebrates the emancipation of people who were enslaved in the United States, specifically commemorating the day the Emancipation Proclamation was enforced in Texas two years after it was enacted. On June 19, 1865, people still enslaved in Texas were freed.

People participate in Juneteenth celebration in Los Angeles. Friday, June 19, 2020. Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take control of the state and ensure all enslaved people be freed, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Events are planned throughout the Southern Tier, including the 3rd annual celebration in Oneonta and the 21st in Elmira. The Southside Community Center in Ithaca plans to host four days of events, including a festival on Saturday and a health clinic on Sunday from 2 p.m-4 p.m. on the Commons. People can get the first or second Moderna booster, walk ins welcome.

On its website, the center wrote that by celebrating Juneteenth, they “seek to remember and honor the sacrifices and struggles of our ancestors who were determined to create a better future for Black people throughout the United States and the broader African Diaspora.

“Thus, Juneteenth is a public affirmation of our determination to stay woke, fully exercise our human rights, and create a better future for our youth in Ithaca and throughout America.”

In celebration of Juneteenth, WSKG is sharing the stories of Black people in our region.

Amber Johnson (provided)

Amber Johnson, Bainbridge

“Because I live in a rural area, there’s not many Black people. I love when I go to a store and I see another Black person and they are excited to see me. Because it’s like “Wow, another Black person lives here?” said Johnson. She said there is no verbal communication, but a recognition, “it’s just physical. It’s like ‘Oh, oh oh!’ — that makes me excited.”

Johnson is an activist and organizer with the New York Energy Democracy Alliance. While she didn’t grow up with Juneteenth, Johnson looks forward to celebrating it each year with the community in Binghamton.

Adrina Graham, Ithaca
The lingerie shop, Adrina Dietra, reopened earlier this month right next to the State Theatre.

“We’re going back to the roots of the brand and bringing back the timeless shapes that I used to love to create,” said brand founder, Adrina Graham.

Graham always wanted to be a designer and really embraced fashion during a time of personal depression and anxiety. She has backed away from the business when things felt overwhelming, but then a supportive friend reminds her “you got this” and she keeps pushing.

Adrina Graham in front of her luxury lingerie shop, Adrina Dietra, in Ithaca. The shop reopened in the new location next to the State Theater earlier this month. (Sarah Gager, WSKG)

Graham started a philanthropic initiative when COVID hit called the IFE Project. She distributes free sanitary kits with menstruation products. Graham had been through her own hardships and saw so many people in need.

“Everyone’s asking for relief,” said Graham, “Food, basic clothing and such like that. It’s very rare that you see relief when it comes to toiletries, or underwear, and those are some of the most basic, everyday needs. And I think the fact that it’s so taboo is still mind blowing to me. Because these, like, everything doesn’t have to be sexual.”

The term lingerie is often reserved for something risqué, but Graham maintains it is just underwear. Graham also offers to help clients find the appropriate undergarment for a specific outfit. She said the right undergarments can make clothes look better and make people feel more confident.

Ernestine Kyles, Horseheads
“I can be very tough sometimes or I can be very sentimental.”

Ernestine Kyles at her home in Horseheads. (Sarah Gager/WSKG)

Ernestine Kyles was 7 years old when her mother died and she moved in with her grandparents. They had a farm in a small town in Louisiana.

The people of her church collected money to send Kyles to summer camp.

“It’s the giving that people gave to me, that today I feel that I have an obligation to give back,” said Kyles.

Now, Kyles and her husband live in Horseheads. She’s the oldest member of a civic engagement group that awards scholarships for Black students seeking higher education. The Kyles contribute money toward it. Applications for the Ernestine Kyles scholarship are available on the website for the Cosmopolitan Women’s Club.

“It gives me so much joy and pleasure. When I see the kids when they write their essays, and they talk about what they want to do in life, and they’re ‘not going to let barriers of color, or whatever, hold me back, because I know I can do it.'”

Kyles wants parents to stay engaged with their kids, and for young, Black people to take advantage of all educational opportunities, including trade schools like BOCES. She encourages everyone to “do our homework” to make informed decisions.

Passionn, Binghamton
Passionn moved to the west coast for about a decade and came back to Binghamton in 2019.

Passionn is a multimedia artist in Binghamton. (photo provided)

“Coming back and looking at it from a different perspective, like, a more open mind is, to me,” Passionn said, “I see a lot of beauty.”

The multimedia artist makes music, videos, and fashion. Passionn finds inspiration everywhere in life, from math to community organizing, but said our egos keep us from connecting.

“Ego is like the only thing that’s keeping us separated,” Passionn said. “What I really believe at the end of the day is that we’re really just—we’re all really like one mind.”

According to Passionn, people spend too much time sweating small stuff but what matters is how we make people feel.

Jabari Randolph, Binghamton
Known on SoundCloud and social media as Blackismygender, Jabari Randolph called their music both personal and political.

Jabari Randolph is an “artivist”, their music is both personal and political. (provided)

“I make a lot of music when I’m depressed or sad,” Randolph added their mental health issues do not mean there is anything wrong with them. “I think it means there’s something wrong with society, you know, society that could be working a lot harder to meet my basic needs and to make me feel wanted and loved.”

Randolph is queer, neuroexpansive, disabled, and trans. They urge equity must be intersectional, and people should have autonomy over their lives and access to safe housing, food, and health care.

Years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law, enslavers in Texas were illegally forcing labor of African Americans. Juneteenth celebrates the day the enslaved people learned they were free.

For Randolph, a self described abolitionist, it is a reminder that laws, even when they move in favor of the oppressed, are sometimes still not enough for people who are suffering. They hope people would move to action if a plantation was discovered today, not wait for an election or for authorities to enforce laws.

Lyrics from Randolph’s latest song, Hurricane:

“It’s nothin to be ashamed of cause you got wayyy too much pride
To not admit when you hurtin
What, you too ashamed to cry?

In this racial capitalist system
We won’t make it out alive
If we keep pushing past our feelings
The damned will work us til we die
And not a cent will go to your burial
Not a cent will go to your family
Not a cent will go your fuckin reason to even be in therapy

Cause the feelings you feel
Yo they’re real
That’s your body telling you and me that something’s gotta give
You not cr*zy, born to a system that don’t want you to live

And I’m tired of acting like the ones not feelin it the ones mentally ill”

Akilah Briggs-Melvin, Binghamton
“It became like a part of me,” Akilah Briggs-Melvin said about stepping. She would feel a change in her body and in her mind, “relieving all of whatever it was that I was relieving when I was on that floor.”

She joined a step team when she was 9 to have a safe space, and her first Juneteenth celebration was with the group. Briggs-Melvin said she did not really understand the significance of the holiday then, but has since educated herself and started her own step team, Diverse Destiny.

Diverse Destiny step team in Binghamton. (provided)

“Diverse Destiny got to perform at Juneteenth here in August of 2020,” said Briggs-Melvin. “It was kind of like a full circle for me being a child performing there the first time to now, you know, the team that I put together being able to perform.”

The team will perform at the Binghamton celebration again this year.

Briggs-Melvin named the team Diverse Destiny because the children on the team are diverse, but stepping has roots in Africa and with the Stono Rebellion in 1739. After that march, the Negro Act was passed in South Carolina, making it illegal for people who were enslaved to do things like raise food, earn money and learn to write in English. It also banned drums.

Instead, enslaved people beat their chests and stomped their feet, and made noise however they could with their bodies. That history is part of what Briggs-Melvin teaches her team. She wants them to feel a sense of community.

“I mostly want them to experience what it feels like to be included,” said Briggs-Melvin, “What it feels like to be connected, what it feels like to be a part of something bigger than us as individuals.”