‘Black joy is a form of resistance.’ L.A.’s Juneteenth is partying with purpose
A small group converged Tuesday evening on the wide alleyway in downtown Los Angeles’ warehouse district. The young Black men and women filed out of cars and dapped and hugged the way you would any other day before the great pandemic.
Then they got down to business.
The meeting was a walkthrough for a block party they were planning to celebrate Juneteenth. It was dark out, but the unconventional venue was illuminated by street lamps and the bright security lights on nearby loading docks. So was the colorful graffiti on nearly every inch of the surrounding buildings.
“I️’ve literally driven down almost every dark corner in this city, at 2 and 3 a.m., looking for a space where we can bring some light and joy via our block party,” said Brian Henry, the party’s creator and lead organizer. “I happened across this space in 2019 and said, ‘Wow! This would be incredible.’”
In the past, the group had hosted the block party in parking lots. “This is the first time we’re hosting in what feels like a city block,” Henry said triumphantly.
Juneteenth will be the first major opportunity to party in public after the city opened back up Tuesday with the rest of California. There are celebrations underway all over the L.A. area, including a parade in Inglewood and a block party in Leimert Park on Saturday.
For younger Black Angelenos, the celebrations are a much needed cleanser after a devastating year. COVID-19 struck the Black community across the U.S. harder than most other groups. Many lost businesses and jobs; others lost their health — or their lives. There was the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the protests that swept across the country.
After so much sadness, something else was needed.
“Black joy,” Henry declared, “is a form of resistance.”
The prominent L.A. deejay started the annual block party in 2014 to celebrate something simpler: his birthday. Davon Johnson, a production designer and architect, joined him in 2016. They were on track to grow the “B-Hen Block Party” last year until COVID-19 hit.
They took a moment to regroup and decided that they wanted to have an even bigger celebration when the world opened back up.
“We wanted to do this on Juneteenth,” Johnson said. “This is a moment where we can showcase that Black people are doing amazing, beautiful, positive things.”
Juneteenth traces itself to the day in 1865 — more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation — that brought news of freedom to enslaved people in Galveston, Texas. Now a federal holiday, it’s become more popular than ever.
On Tuesday night, the group of friends and collaborators walked the length of the alleyway together, each team member sharing new ideas and noting concerns aloud. Johnson had security on his mind. Naydea Davis, the event’s logistics manager, was trying to imagine the flow of traffic and how to control it.
“We can use this to our advantage,” she said about a chain-link fence before moving on to how many bike racks they might need to block entrances. Lulit Solomon, Henry’s manager and the director of operations for the event, kept a running tally of how much every idea and concern would cost.
Henry showed off the space to Nico Craig, another deejay he’d invited to spin alongside him, motioning with his hands where Craig would stand. Henry planned an eclectic set that’ll keep everybody moving, “not your typical Top 40, or your trap set.”
“I’m gonna play music from across the diaspora to ensure that everyone feels welcome — New Orleans bounce, Afrobeats, Baltimore club, Bay Area hyphy,” he said. “It all lends to a sense of community.”
Johnson said the party was also an opportunity for younger organizers and event planners to share new ideas on how to celebrate the holiday. The result this year? A Saturday night dance party with LED screens, livestreaming and projection mapping.
The team is expecting 800 to 1,000 people, at a cost of $40 per ticket, to show up and party.
Celebrate Juneteenth 2021: Car parade through Black L.A.
Tylynn Burns, Ashlee Cartznes, Kayla Valentine, Rebecca Magett, Tai Spears and Amanda Scott — the women of House Party Creative — were all exhausted by Friday afternoon. They spent the week organizing a slate of Juneteenth events. One, a yoga session and sound bath to promote wellness and healthful Black fatherhood, went off without a hitch Wednesday.
A few days later, the ladies were shuffling around hurriedly to set up a fundraiser at the California African American Museum.
It was Burns, the founder and chief executive of the group, who first brought the women together as friends. They didn’t plan to work together at first. But then the spring of 2020 happened.
The COVID-19 pandemic was starting to ramp up and the protests over Floyd’s killing by Officer Derek Chauvin — who was convicted of murder in April — were sprouting across the country. L.A. was under a shutdown aimed to prevent the spread of the virus. But Burns didn’t want to let the Juneteenth holiday pass unnoticed.
She organized a car parade through Inglewood. There were no major preparations or permits secured. In a way, it was a protest as much as it was a celebration. They sent out invitations via text and people came out in droves.
“We learned a lot about what we can create and accomplish as a unit under pressure,” Burns said. “This year, we are coming back greater and Blacker than ever.”
Juneteenth became a federal holiday this week, but as Vice President Kamala Harris noted at the bill signing, there’s a lot Americans don’t know about its history.
The women, most of whom have day jobs in marketing and public relations, organized officially as House Party Creative soon after. This year, the group’s Juneteenth celebrations include a return of the Inglewood car parade Saturday and a yacht party Sunday in Marina del Rey.
“This is a team of all girls, all twenty-somethings really doing things for their community, for no real financial gain or clout,” Scott said.
Of all of the events planned for Juneteenth, the celebration in Leimert Park Village is perhaps the most anticipated. Not only is the neighborhood one of the city’s hubs for Black culture, but it’s also been the epicenter of its Juneteenth festivities since 1949 when businessman Jonathan Leonard began hosting traditional barbecues in his backyard.
Starting in 2011, a group called Black Arts Los Angeles began staging the Juneteenth Heritage Festival, a two-day celebration that fanned out through the village from Leimert Park Plaza. The plaza was fenced off in March 2018 for renovations, placing a strain on the festival, and it was canceled last year because of COVID-19.
Still, neither the lack of a plaza nor the threat of the virus was able to shut down Juneteenth in Leimert Park.
Two entrepreneurs, Tony Jolly and Elijah Simmons, organized their own event called Leimert Park Rising x Pray for the Hood, and plenty of people came out, albeit in masks. Last year’s success marked a passing of the torch, with Black Arts Los Angeles stepping aside and a new generation of organizers coming together under the name Leimert Park Rising, led by a coalition of local groups and initiatives.
Juneteenth 2021: Movies, books, events, and podcasts to try
Friday afternoon, Camille Davis, director of Leimert Park Rising, was putting out administrative fires. The vendors her group invited to sell their wares during the neighborhood’s Juneteenth festivities needed safety permits in a matter of hours.
They were also behind schedule setting up their booths because drivers had removed signs that held their spots and parked their cars along Degnan Boulevard, Leimert Park’s main drag. Davis could have them towed, but she wouldn’t dare.
That’s not “the village way,” she said. The village way, it turned out, was less forceful but perhaps just as effective. “You see Dorothy,” Davis said, pointing to collaborator Dorothy Pirtle on the sidewalk. “She has a bullhorn.”
Despite having equipment donated by actress, writer and producer Issa Rae, the group felt it had to receive the blessing and cooperation of community members and merchants.
For weeks, Davis and others drove early in the morning to the village before the first shops opened. They walked up and down Degnan Boulevard, door to door, speaking to people about what they were planning.
It felt like the right thing to do after the roller coaster of the pandemic.
“We had to confer with each and every merchant, every staple in the village, just to get their blessing to move forward with plans,” Davis said. “It’s really an honor that our elders and even other young people in the village trust us to do something that’s going to be mutually beneficial for everybody…. We really couldn’t have done it without the community. There’s no working around them or without them.”
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