Juneteenth: Our Anchor For Culture in Denver

This is What Freedom Looks Like

Did you know that Juneteenth is the oldest known holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S.? Like most of Black history, this triumphant event is not taught in schools. Last year, the holiday received more recognition, with cities and states making it an official holiday. 

For a mini-history lesson:

  • Not all enslaved people were freed when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed on January 1, 1863.

  • The Civil War ended in the summer of 1865.

  • Union General Gordon Granger and his troops traveled to Galveston, Texas, to announce "all slaves are free" on June 19.

  • Dating back to 1953, Denver's Juneteenth celebration chock full of food, musical acts, local businesses, and more have taken place in the historic Five Points neighborhood. 

  • In 2004, Juneteenth was recognized as a ceremonial holiday in Colorado.

Norman Harris, a fifth-generation Denverite, is known around the city for the rejuvenation of the Juneteenth Music Festival (JMF) as the executive director. "I participated as a youth when it was at its prominence." He also experienced the celebration when it wasn't doing the best, and that's when he decided to take it on—not to mention his understanding of his legacy.

To this 44-year-old Black man, Juneteenth means freedom, and "it's about our community coming together to understand its past to establish stronger current practices to promote better future outcomes."

During this intriguing interview, Norman shared his vision for the festival and how he sees it elevating and evolving. In 2021, for example, he and his team are being more intentional about stronger current practices by having conversations around PRIDE and what that looks like at this celebration of freedom. Because freedom is so dynamic and liberating, Norman wants to be aware of his blind spots as a Black heterosexual man more than anything. He is very aware that there are systems of ignorance, and while the goal is to show up as our whole selves, that also means we show up with our implicit bias. 

"We think it's important for people to understand when they come to something like Juneteenth to leave with action items and ways that they can support our movement and other movements," Norman says.

JMF is home to more than 150 local businesses, community resources, organizations, merchants and food trucks. He goes on to say, "It encourages folks to dream big and to shoot for the stars, to try to make an impression on your community. And in fact, build a legacy." The Colorado native spoke about the festival's future and how it will soon be Colorado's South by Southwest. "It'll be a festival that provides music along with social activists and social justice. It gives people a place and space to engage not only with music but a higher aspect of our culture, which is activism." 

One way of moving in that direction is by keeping the multi-faceted Black experience at the forefront of this celebration—a priority for Norman since 2012. The city's cultural landscape has changed since 2012, thus empowering Blacks to share their stories through various media.

One prominent example is Jasmine Wiley, creator of Narkita Gold Studio's "Black in Denver" series. In essence, it is a visual ethnography "supporting and demonstrating the notion that Blackness, and identity in general, is not a monolith." In this feature, we allowed the two worlds to collide by having Jasmine ask Norman some of the soul-shaking questions from the series. 

When Jasmine asked Norman what it means to be him, he said, "I have a tremendous amount of responsibility, and sometimes I'm not even honest with myself about how much responsibility I have." Much of his story as a father and businessman is tethered to the village that nurtured him. That connection has fostered a profound understanding of community. Norman strongly believes that Denver has encouraged him, and for that reason, he has made an enormous effort to be a resource for others. 

What do Jasmine Wiley of Narkita Gold Studio and Norman Harris have in common? The power of freedom, community and Black storytelling. Norman proclaims that for Juneteenth to be successful, everyone needs to be a part of it. "It's American history, and we all need to understand that and celebrate it like we celebrate any other holiday."

This caused Jasmine to reflect on the Audre Lorde quote, "Without community, there is no liberation…But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist. Often, those of us living at intersections are asked to erase our differences for the movement."

The jubilation of community fostered at Juneteenth and in the Black in Denver series is that of education, compassion and commemoration. This energy keeps us together and serves as an anchor for culture in the Mile High City. 

Jasmine Wiley is Juneteenth. 

Norman Harris is Juneteenth. 

We are Juneteenth.

Gwen, Public Speaker and Kabbalah Student 

What does it mean to you to be Black in Denver?

It is freedom. I’ve made a choice to immerse myself in Mexican, Native American, Jewish, and gay culture. I feel like I’m a part of it all. I believe that we’re all one. Because of my experiences in Denver, I find it easy to exist in different groups. The freedom to be me and the comfort to step into fully being myself is fun and full of lessons.

Euda, Spiritual Guide, Card Reader, Yoga & Meditation Instructor, Selecta 

What does it mean to be you here?

It means freedom. Because it’s so diverse and there aren’t large groups of folks assuming one identity, again, it makes it easier to put your toe into that pool of authenticity. And when you put it in there and you look around and you see that there are no head hunters coming to get you, then you can put your leg in and you eventually jump in. And of course, we all know, the universe supports your every move when you’re being your most authentic self. So that’s the freedom. When you are your authentic self and kind of outside of the status quo, but making it, that’s freedom. Even though I really wanted at times to be in a much Blacker environment, I feel that with my tendency to try to conform, I would have been lost and swallowed up. So being here in this place that doesn’t necessarily honor who I am anyway, allowed me to just go ahead and be all of it.

Solwazi, Mindfulness Practitioner and Teacher

What is the power of being one’s self?

It is a powerful thing; it is our superpower. However, it takes a lot of effort and determination and work to get there. Particularly, growing up in a society that has pathologized every aspect of who I am, especially this Black identity. Being who you are in this society is not easy. I have internalized ways that being Black is wrong or to be the “scary big Black guy” that’s a threat to everyone, so that’s been a part of my healing journey. I’m healing all the ways I’ve internalized that it’s not okay to be me. At this tender age of 62, I am finally learning the superpower of being myself, and with that comes a sense of peace and real freedom. Not having to deal with approval-seeking behavior, all these types of things that keep one small or contracted and keep one from truly thriving. Truly being myself puts me in a position to thrive.

The Juneteenth Music Festival takes place June 18-20 in the Five Points neighborhood and is free to the public.

The Black in Denver series is showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art now through August 22 and at History Colorado through March 2022. 

Photo caption: With every step Norman took walking down Welton Street, he was greeted by business owners, community members and old friends. To say he has a key to the city is an understatement.

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