Oak Park’s L!VE Cafe came alive with music, soul food, drinks and more on June 19 to set the stage for a celebration of Juneteenth.
It was the second year that the Suburban Unity Alliance presented the event, this year teaming up with L!VE Cafe to celebrate the holiday and commemorate its legacy.
“Our history is more expansive than what we hear,” L!ve Café owner Reesheda Graham-Washington said, adding that Juneteenth “belongs to all of us, and it gives us a chance to commemorate the true expansiveness of our history.”
Graham-Washington partnered with Anthony Clark, the executive director for Suburban Unity Alliance. The program got underway shortly after Clark asked the crowd, “Who knows the black national anthem?”
Those at the event were asked to stand and come together in reciting the song. While some people knew the lyrics by memory and sang, others stood silent in solidarity.
Clark told those at the event that while it’s important they socialize among one another, it’s key to know why they’re gathering.
He said even after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, there were still slaves and that the key to ending slavery did not come to fruition officially until the order was enforced two years later—on June 19, 1865.
The L!VE Cafe event included performances by spoken word artists Jamaica West and Jasmine Sims, who took turns reciting poetry and getting the crowd to join in on songs.
West hopes the message of her performance was able to resonate with the crowd.
“I believe in the Nina Simone quote—it is the job of the artist to reflect the times,” West said. “In a way, I feel, as a poet, I can impact the community by voicing my experience and promoting hope through art. During such a tense time in racial relations, I’ll feel I’ve done my job.”
Oak Park resident Megan Vernon said she was motivated to come out to celebrate and remember the importance of Juneteenth.
“I feel like I need to be here,” she said. “Everybody should be here.”
Vernon sat at a table for the evening enjoying the company of her daughter, Mariah. She described her experience growing up as an African American in Oak Park to being in a “bubble.”
“I didn’t feel much of [the racial tension] here,” Vernon said. “Outside of here, you feel the attitude and you knew it. You knew it for whatever reason.”
River Forest resident Deb Wolkstein said she “didn’t know what Juneteenth was and that encapsulated what’s wrong with our society.”
”It’s an important part of what should be everyone’s history,” Wolkstein said. “I’m trying to learn, step outside the bubble, and take off the blinders.”
Wolkstein admitted that she had never heard of the black national anthem.
“I know I need to do my part and teach my children,” she said.
It was the latest among several events hosted by L!ve Cafe during its one-and-half years in business.
“We do a lot of work in the community,” Graham-Washington said. “We like for intersectionality to occur. We thought Juneteenth would be the perfect event to have.”
Some of those at the event donned clothing, giving a nod to their African roots. Among those wearing attire of this type was this year’s master of ceremonies, Levo Pope.
“As a South African, I don’t know a lot about [the history,] but in speaking to Reesheda and asking a lot of African American teens what did they know about Juneteenth, they would say, ‘What is that?’” Pope said. “So, for me, it’s all about learning.”
“It’s important to know our history,” Pope said. “It informs our present, and it prevents us from repeating our past. [It’s time we] celebrate how far we’ve come. Considering the current climate, it’s even more important that we come together.”
“It’s extremely important to recognize that black history is U.S. history,” he said. “This country wouldn’t be what it is without us.”
Clark likened the struggles of people of color to those dealing with the national controversy surrounding the separation of immigrant families at the border and said the effort to promote greater inclusion must not end.
Graham-Washington said she hopes people feel encouraged by the show of solidarity during the event.
“You don’t have to be [Dr. Martin Luther] King or [Mohandas] Gandhi in order for your soul force to come through,” Graham-Washington told the crowd. “We all have it. I hope that some of us will activate it after Juneteenth.”
L!ve Café started planning for the event six weeks ago. Graham-Washington said that organizing the program was a team effort and that the hope is the event will continually grow.
“Our plan is to hold it every year,” Graham-Washington said. “We want to form a committee to organize the event. Our goal is to plan a larger experience for the community.”
Co-sponsors included Robinson’s Ribs, Oak Park Brewing Company and L!ve Café.