Celebration of freedom, 'Black joy' planned for Western community to commemorate Juneteenth

Contact: Erin Flynn
Students dance in a studio.

Black Graduate Student Association executive board members Devin Wills, center, and Dwight Bennett learn West African dances.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—With drums pounding a West African rhythm, dance instructor Heather Mitchell leads a group of Western Michigan University students in the traditional dances of their ancestors. Jasmine Warren mimics her movements as she crosses the floor, beaming with a smile from ear to ear and eager to learn more.

"I learned that I don’t have a lot of knowledge about West African culture. I have not been taught about my traditional roots, and I have to do more research," says Warren, social and well-being chair of Western's Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA).

Her organization is hosting a Juneteenth Gala to continue the celebration of Black culture, heritage and freedom. The event, planned for Saturday, June 18, will feature soul food and desserts from local Black businesses, music and spoken-word poetry, including a performance by Western sociology doctoral student Tasleem Firdausee, who is also the BGSA needs assessment chair.

Jasmine Warren dances with her arms outstretched.

BGSA executive board member Jasmine Warren smiles while dancing during the "Drum and Dance for Mental Wellness" event.

"Guests can expect good food, good music and more. Most importantly, guests can expect an environment full of Black joy!" says Devin Willis, BGSA president and counseling psychology doctoral student. "We welcome guests who are committed to efforts toward Black liberation."

Juneteenth is often referred to as Freedom Day, marking the emancipation of enslaved Black people in Texas on June 19, 1865—two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

In 2021, following the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement and civil unrest after the 2020 deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police, Congress passed legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

"Juneteenth is a celebration of everything involving Black American history and present within our cultures. We celebrate through our pain, death and love," adds Warren, who is pursuing a master's degree in higher education and student affairs. She notes Black Americans have been celebrating the holiday long before it was recognized by the government. "It serves as an opportunity to collectively remember our history as people of African descent and intentionally celebrate the survival of our cultural heritage."

"Official declarations of abolition didn’t put an end to racism and systematic discrimination. To this day, the fight for racial justice continues, including on our campus," adds WMU President Edward Montgomery.

Western launched the Racial Justice Advisory Committee (RJAC) in summer 2020. Montgomery charged the group with creating a more inclusive environment and equitable structures at the institution. RJAC is expected to present its recommendations to the WMU community in the fall.

An instructor teaches students how to use an African drum.

Nate Waller teaches Warren and Willis traditional drum beats.

"Each one of us can play a role in creating a more just world and culture of change here at the University and beyond," Montgomery says.

The Juneteenth Gala is free and open to the WMU and greater Kalamazoo communities. It is happening Saturday, June 18, from 7 to 11 p.m. at The Xperience, located at 143 Farmers Alley in downtown Kalamazoo. Several other Juneteenth events are planned in the community throughout the weekend to mark the holiday.

"This is a very important holiday for Black Americans, and (it's important) to have an event that is accessible for us to come celebrate who we are—to dance, laugh, talk and not forget our ancestors who were here before us that went through tremendous hardships for us to be here," Warren says. "If you are not a Black American and want to support us, you must support in every aspect we face in discriminating systems, racism and forced death. This is the truth about us and has been for centuries.”

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.