“We can never celebrate without remembering the story of the struggle.”
Last year on Pentecost, the Christian holy day marking the descent of the Holy Spirit into Jesus’ Apostles, clergy members marched, prayed, sang, and spoke for an end to police violence against Black Americans. This year, Rev. Mariama White-Hammond and the New Roots AME Church channeled the spirit of Pentecost into celebrating and remembering the struggles commemorated by Juneteenth with Jubilee on Juneteenth: Liberating the Practice of Pentecost, an interactive ritual presented in conjunction with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
In the short time since Juneteenth was made a federal holiday, many activists have pointed out the hypocrisy of declaring a day celebrating the liberation of enslaved people while passing legislation that undercuts the rights of their descendents. In the midst of the celebratory events that were planned around Boston this Juneteenth, Rev. White-Hammond’s intersectional program forced participants to pause and think about the struggles for liberation, both past and future, while also making room for plenty of joy.
Tucked in the far north-west corner of the MFA grounds, just outside the Japanese garden, Rev. White-Hammond and New Roots AME Church Artist in Resident Dzidzor Azaglo welcomed us with a reflection on the meaning of not only Juneteenth, but also Pride month, their common birth in struggle.
“Even as Juneteenth is becoming more nationally known, and is becoming a holiday, we can never celebrate without remembering the story of the struggle,” Rev. White-Hammond said.
Rev. White-Hammond then tied in the ongoing season of Pentecost, “The story of Pentecost is a reminder of when the Holy Spirit comes she is a liberator, she is a uniter, and she disrupts things to move us in the direction of justice… There are so many things in this world that need to be disrupted, that need to be changed. We follow in the footsteps of the ancestors, to lean in to the spirit of justice, and of liberation, of freedom that all come together on this day.
Disruption in the service of progress was an ongoing theme of the ritual to come. After we gathered in a circle and physically and mentally grounded ourselves, we were invited to disrupt our bodies by moving to the steady rhythm of the group of accompanying drummers. Almost on cue, a warm breeze swept over us.
Once the music and movement had mellowed the group, the Holy Spirit was symbolically brought into the space with five elements: fire, water, oil, doves, and wind. Each piqued our senses. The heat of the fire (which, ironically, due to the wind, had to be substituted with the heat of the sun), the cooling of the water, the smooth and spicy oil, the softness of a feather, and the full body stimulation of deep breathing.
Movement was then reintroduced through a dance sequence where each piece represented one of the five elements. Though the whole ritual lasted less than 40 minutes, the increasing afternoon heat and humidity joined forces to wear us all down. Tired but feeling a sense of physical and emotional release, we were then invited to close by leaving a black rock in a basket with something we need to release, and then planting a seed to help us nurture something we want to cultivate.
The ritual was consciously an intersection of art, ceremony, and embodied prayer. “In the African tradition, artists are part of the spiritual group… there are less rigid lines between things,” Rev. White-Hammond told the Dig.
This ritual not only had multiple influences, but multiple purposes. As funk music poured out from the stage in the nearby parking lot, Rev. White-Hammond told the Dig that she hoped that a participatory ritual would help people better connect to, and reflect on, the history behind Juneteenth.
“Our ancestors knew what it was to need not symbolic, but real liberation. For us it feels like Juneteenth is, and always has been a time of celebration, but this mixing of the joy and the pain and the struggle and the celebration, that is what Juneteenth is, and if you only do one, you miss the other,” Rev. White-Hammond told the Dig.
“That balance is for me what Juneteenth is, so we hope that people felt that people felt those dual, different energies, together at the same time, relevant to their own lives, relevant to our city, and what needs to shift relevant to the world.”