Juneteenth* in Denver: Three Conversations

Juneteenth cliff hanger 2009I almost didn’t go to Juneteenth in Denver’s historic Five Points neighborhood, but I sure am glad I changed my mind. For example, I increased the presence of white people by 10 percent.** At one point a white man was standing next to me, and we were both photographing the dancers. Weird.

I enjoyed the feeling of being a white minority in a bunch of black people. Not an experience I often have in Colorado. In fact, I haven’t felt that way since I left DC 23 years ago.

The crowd was much less mixed than at the Five Points Jazz Festival. Why a jazz festival should attract more white people than a street festival featuring at least some hip-hop is beyond me. Is it the historic nature of the celebration? Cinco de Mayo also celebrates a slice of history from the 1860s; it also celebrates a blow for freedom that lifted spirits in the midst of a long struggle.

Maybe if Juneteenth had been held in Civic Center Park it would attract the same crowd as Cinco de Mayo…maybe if African Americans were 30 percent of Denver instead of 10 percent…

After I got off the free shuttle, I stopped to listen to two rappers and watch a group of men playing basketball with downtown Denver for a backdrop. Juneteenth Bball 2 June 2009I was photographing this wrecked car when a woman burst out that she worried that display might increase profiling.Juneteenth wreck display 2009 She told me about the day she was stopped because she had an air freshener hanging from her rearview mirror. The officer made her white passenger get out of the car while he grilled her.

I continued on to a table in front of the Denver Public Library, where I photographed slave chains and muskrat gloves.Juneteenth slave chains and muskrat gloves 2009 The man sitting there wore a jacket with all the Buffalo Soldier units’ patches; during our lengthy conversation, he said if I called him he could tell me where to get one. I think that jacket would be a conversation piece.

Most of the booths between 25th and 27th on Welton housed nonprofits; the food court was off-street in a parking lot. I wanted to get lunch from Smokey Jackson’s Boneyard, but I’d spent so much at the farmer’s market in Boulder that I had to content myself with chicken-on-a-stick.

While I was waiting in line for that charred wonder (and it was good), Juneteenth chicken on a stuck 2009the woman standing in front of me asked me if it was my first year. I said yes and then found out that she was on the organizing committee of the festival this year. She said they started planning it last September, but work really picked up in January. She said Juneteenth shouldn’t be a “black festival” any more than Cinco de Mayo should be a “Latino festival.” “It’s all part of the fabric of Colorado,” she added.

As we got closer to the front of the line, I noticed one woman whip out a $100 bill to pay for her $4 meal.

Instead of eating at the tables under the awning, I sat down on the corner where I could watch the crowd better. People flowed around me. After I finished I strolled down to the next corner, in front of Blackberries, where an older man sang soulfully while a younger man rapped.Juneteenth band 2009

There’s something really cool about walking between the light rail tracks, so when I’d had my fill of “Ghost in the Closet” and other songs, I headed for 30th and Downing to look at the apartment building there. On the way back, one block off Welton toward Whittier, I stopped to write some notes in my book. I heard the voice of a loud, angry man approaching from the back, but I didn’t turn around until he was closer than common sense should have allowed. When I did, he let loose with the “bitch” stuff on his way to the liquor store, his pronunciation of the “i” in bitch a combination of rage and drunkenness.

I was both fascinated by his anger and tempted to run across the street and kick his ass. But all I did was shrug at another man walking by. He said sweetly, “Don’t pay him no mind, baby.”

*Juneteenth commemorates the day in 1865 that Texas slaves discovered they were free, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. It has been celebrated since 1866, though I believe the celebrations died down a bit during the civil rights movement.

**That is only a slight exaggeration.