Celebrating Black Life and Liberation on Juneteenth: Black-Asian Solidarity through Storytelling and History

Juneteenth drummers
Drummers at San Francisco Juneteenth, Image Credit: Vhines200 via Flickr
Juneteenth centers Black liberation through joy, care, and gathering. This year, celebrate Freedom Day alongside your Black neighbors by learning more about the history of the holiday, engaging in community storytelling and history-making, and by participating in local public and virtual events.

In the Bay Area, the best place to celebrate Juneteenth is Oakland. From First Fridays on Telegraph to the annual festival held at Lake Merritt, Juneteenth is a day to behold Black radical joy, laughter, and love. Neighborhoods vibrate with excitement as families, friends, and community members come together to eat, play, and dance. As a Black and Korean queer person, being able to participate in cultural healing activities in our current political climate is so important.

On June 19, 1863, Major General Gordon Granger led a group of Union soldiers to Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved Africans that the institution of slavery was officially over, and that they had “absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves”. This day became Juneteenth or “Freedom Day”, commemorating the day and month in which Black Texans gained freedom.

There are two goals in honoring Juneteenth as a holiday and practice: (1) celebrating Black freedom and (2) preserving Black history. This means that the past, present, and future are always in conversation with each other, following the Black oral tradition of telling and retelling. To be in conversation with such is an act of both community and care. For instance, on Freedom Day it is common for Black people to engage in public community events like cookouts, parades, and local concerts while also participating in political conversation and education. This Juneteenth, many of these discussions will likely focus on the harmful legislation that is attempting to limit and abolish voting rights, reproductive rights, gender nonconformity, and affirmative action, as well as future candidates for president. 

Oakland, the city that is home to Lake Merritt, is one of the most diverse in the country. It has a rich history, and an even richer Black history. After WWII, Oakland’s Black population grew significantly as more Southern Black people migrated West for better employment and safer housing opportunities. From the Black Panther Party to Marcus Books to the Grand Lake Theatre to vegan soul food, for me and many others, Oakland is a Black city. Its historic Black economic and arts districts no longer exist, but the culture of the city is tied directly to its Black residents – and that is undeniable. 

Before Oakland was a city, there was Chinatown. During the California Gold Rush and Opium Wars in China, Chinese immigrants began settling in the United States. Many built their homes in Chinatown – Oakland’s being one of the oldest in North America. The neighborhood was forced to move multiple times due to yellow peril and exclusionary zoning practices in the 1870s and 1880s. Today, the Chinatown I know sprouts from 8th and Webster, putting the district and its residents a couple blocks away from Lake Merritt. 

The space between Chinatown and Lake Merritt is where I exist. And it is this space that I seek to find common ground between Black and Asian communities, especially during times of celebration and honoring culture. 

Asian protesters in solidarity
Asian protesters at a march in New York City, Image Credit: Marcela via Flickr

Black and Asian people have always lived in proximity to each other in the United States. And many socio-cultural tensions have existed between them. Historically, the communities have been pitted against each other due to “good” and “bad” minority myths. For example, the model minority myth as a tool of white supremacy creates a binary-conflict relationship between Asian Americans and other racially marginalized groups in the United States, primarily Black people. As stated by author Viet Thanh Nguyen in response to Hmong American police officer Tou Thao’s participation in the killing of George Floyd in 2020, “Asian Americans are caught between the perception that we are inevitably foreign and the temptation that we can be allied with white people in a country built on white supremacy.”

Black and Asian communities are often redlined into adjacent neighborhoods, with economic and cultural conflict often occurring. Additionally, discriminatory and anti-Black lending practices have spatially situated Asian business owners in Black neighborhoods, which has led to multiple violent disputes between Asian business owners and Black residents. The most unfortunate of these instances being the killing of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by liquor store owner Soon Ja Du in 1991. 

Current frictions between Black and Asian Americans have been attributed to the prevalence of anti-Blackness in mainstream Asian American media and pop culture. Asian celebrities like Awkwafina and Rich Brian (both of whom CAAM has platformed) have been called out multiple times by Black netizens for co-opting Ebonics and engaging in digital Blackface to capitalize on  the cultural currency of appropriating Blackness. Coined by Joshua Lumpkin Green in 2006, digital Blackface refers to the way in which technology allows non-Black people to appropriate and co-opt Black imagery, slang, and identities. 

Watch This Video About Blaccent From HISTORIAN’S TAKE, a CAAM Co-Production

In recent years, we have seen multiple acts of active allyship between Asian and Black communities. Asian American youth Ashlyn So has organized multiple Black-Asian unity rallies in the Bay Area, such as the Asian and Black Solidarity Rally at Madison Park in Oakland. The Black and Asian Solidarity protest in New York, organized by long-time friends Nikki Ogunnaike and Lisa Lu, gathered hundreds of people to protest both anti-Asian and anti-Black racism. These protests were organized with Asian and Black community leaders in order to dispel negative messages perpetuated by mainstream news media, many of whom were focusing on the small percentage of anti-Asian hate crimes that were committed by Black men. 

Last June, many at CAAM participated in the Vincent Chin 40th Remembrance and Rededication in Detroit with local activists and filmmakers to engage in community dialogue centering the impacts of Vincent Chin’s legacy on the current fight against anti-Asian hate. The weekend of the commemoration was also the weekend of Juneteenth: it is here, again, that we see the interactions of Black and Asian American history and trauma in fluid conversation with each other. 

As a storytelling organization, CAAM has a history of partnering with multicultural media organizations, such as Black Public Media, to amplify our collective understanding of the American experience through diverse Asian American stories. A growing number of these narratives interrogate anti-Blackness within Asian communities. Liquor Store Dreams, directed by So Yun Um, was the centerpiece documentary for CAAMFest 2023, and highlighted the racial tensions between Korean and Black Americans in South Central L.A. and the generational divide between Korean immigrant parents and their children. 

Exploring Hate, a public media initiative between PBS and the WNET Group, is a three-part series on community-building and bridging differences between Asian Americans and communities of color. In May, notable AAPI and Black community leaders – including CAAM Board Member Paula Madison, who is of Afro-Jamaican and Hakka Chinese descent – participated in the panel discussion “Our Voices Now: A Black and Asian Dialogue to Action” to highlight instances of historic action between Black and Asian communities. 

Homegrown: Future Visions is a documentary shorts series made by emerging BIPOC filmmakers from the American Midwest, produced in partnership with Firelight Media and PBS, with episodes currently streaming on the PBS website. 

Critical conversations addressing anti-Blackness in Asian spaces are also taking place online and in-person. The recent controversy surrounding David Choe and his rape jokes has Asian Americans acknowledging the harms of protecting sexual predators and being in solidarity with Black women. Many Asian Americans are not celebrating AAPI history being mandated in Florida schools because Gov. DeSantis has banned African American and LGBTQ+ history being taught in public schools and universities.

By engaging in these conversations, Asian Americans are aligning with the goals and practices of Juneteenth. 

Dismantling and disrupting white supremacy through collective storytelling, mutual aid, and multicultural healing is one of the main ways that Black and Asian solidarity can be sustained and flourish. We have to acknowledge generations of pain, conflict, and difference – and move forward with intentional action and care. We must divest from white supremacy and its institutions, as this is the root of the tensions between Black and Asian peoples, and instead come together to build a cross-cultural movement.

This Juneteenth, I invite you to participate in local and virtual events being held in your city in the spirit of Black-Asian solidarity. These are a few Bay Area celebrations:

History and storytelling, film and media, telling and retelling – these are some of the few ways you can discover the similarities and differences in Black and Asian American histories in the United States. But beyond learning through media, you can learn through knowing your Black community members, understanding their needs, and recognizing their humanity. 

This is where Black and Asian solidarity can grow.

Happy Juneteenth.

Celebrate Juneteenth in the Bay Area at Oakland’s 14th Annual Juneteenth Festival (Sat. June 17th from 12-8PM) and San Francisco’s annual Juneteenth Festival in the Fillmore District (Sat. June 17th from 11AM-6PM). Share your experiences with CAAM on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter and you may be featured!

anteeniya bell is a Development Associate at CAAM. They are an artist, writer, and future city planner who sees creative arts as tools of urban justice and racial equity — connecting art, design, community activism, and urban history in space.

CAAM First Person blog posts reflect the perspectives of our staff and community.