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Juneteenth 2022

Norwalk Public Library Director Sherelle Harris. (Contributed)

Kudos to Jalin Sead and the younger generation for celebrating Juneteenth with initiative and organizational skills. Black history is American history. Let us not forget.

I have heard from some librarians that they received pushback for having Juneteenth programs. One librarian said she was asked, “Is Juneteenth really a thing?” Another was asked why she was pandering to one group of people. I won’t dignify the statements or give them any power by commenting on them.

When I moved to Connecticut and began my tenure with the library, I brought many cultural programs to the South Norwalk Library. The quality of those programs pulled together a pretty polarized community. 

I found and presented to Norwalk a master puppeteer, trained in Scotland, who brought fairy tales to life for children and their adults.

I noticed elderly Spanish-speaking people who would visit the library with their grandchildren.  These grandparents were proud of their culture, but could not yet speak English. I “hosted” programs in their language. I didn’t understand everything being said, but I understood the look of enjoyment and appreciation. It was also a Spanish-speaking resident who saw my writing talent and got me involved at the state level, where I won my first juried poetry contest under the pseudonym I use.

I had Haitian dance and storytelling programs thanks to my connection with attorney Marguerite Laurent, who goes by the name Ezili Danto. I hadn’t been in touch with her for while.  Imagine my surprise as I watched the documentary “1804: The Hidden History of Haiti” and saw her and Bayyinah Bello, who did a book signing and story telling program at the library just before the pandemic thanks to the Haitian Collaborative which is run, in part, by Norwalk Councilwoman Diana Révolus.

I brought in Shelly Yong to reach out to the Asian community. Her Chinese festivals were second to none. These programs packed the community room to the point we had to turn people away due to fire code.

I had Black American stage plays, lectures and programs, and Japanese language classes taught by Norwalk resident Joy DeJaeger.

I also found and purchased computers that are in the English, Italian, Mandarin and Spanish languages. These computers have all educational games and are not hooked up to internet as the result of listening to parents who don’t want to expose their children to too much internet.

Though there are few Native Americans in our immediate area, their history runs rampant through the state and I celebrated their heritage with programs during those early years.  That is how I met Norwalk residents Fran and Mike Paris. They let me know how much they enjoyed the rich cultural programs.

I remember bringing in Sara deBeer for a Jewish storytelling program. I was literally trying to reach everyone! Not many Jewish folk showed up, so I went a local synagogue to find out why. The answer I received gave me a lesson in Jewish history and an open invitation to visit their library any time I wanted. It reminds me that the late Midge and Bernie Unger were the first non-Black family in Connecticut to invite me to their home. Midge told me about her favorite places to shop and, in her direct way, some people I may want to stay away from.  I didn’t take it personally.  I study people carefully.  I knew she wanted me to succeed, and Bernie would always tell me he loved the type of people I hire. What Midge did not tell me was that when she was a teacher at the former Benjamin Franklin Middle School, she had her class interview Black leaders in Norwalk and she put those interviews in a booklet titled, “Blacks Making History in Norwalk.” I happened upon the book.  It gave me a deeper respect for Midge.  She didn’t pander to me with the “I have Black friends” line or by telling me about the remarkable work she, a Jewish woman, did to preserve Norwalk’s Black history.  The first year I honored the families of many people in the booklet, I also honored Midge for cross cultural connections.  It was organic and not contrived.

I brought in Memorial Day programs to honor veterans and a happy day was becoming acquainted with Mark Albertson.  He lectures at the library on White American history and its ties to international history.  I tell him all the time that if I’d had him as a history teacher, I would have actually paid attention in class. Oops, did I say that? History, taught in school, didn’t become fascinating to me until my undergraduate years. The lessons then began to enhance the history I learned in my parents’ and grandparents’ homes. I’m now in my Mark Albertson years and putting it all together along the countless African, Black American and Caribbean writers who too took the time to capture history from their vantage.

There are many more cultural programs like the book club “Read Around the World in 8 Months” and “The Multicultural Afternoon” hosted at Stepping Stones Museum for Children. Barbara Rees, a retired Library employee, gathers all of the publicity clippings and sends them to me.

Connecticut inherited someone who had been taught to genuinely appreciate and interface well and naturally with different cultures. The solid relationships I have built here and elsewhere are based on much more than overt or covert politics. I used to tolerate them, but as I enter my “not casting my pearls before swine” years, purposeful racial digs or one upmanship will get you banned from my space unless I have to tolerate you due to circumstance. I have learned many lessons over the past few years and since being granted the Director position. I will suffice to say that I sometimes have to I work hard to preserve the heart of my upbringing.

My ability to love myself and my culture enable me to love and genuinely appreciate others.  It is, however, when some people try to back certain cultures into ghetto corners, that the people pushed there are pushed to seeming one-sidedness. After all, someone has to genuinely care about the underserved and/or marginalized communities beyond photo ops and the ostensible.  It amazes me how people don’t see that or perhaps don’t want to see it. My love for myself and my culture will never be for sale (i.e. what is called coon and Steppin’ Fetchit types).  I will repeat.  Self-love love allows me to love others and look at things as a whole, though sometimes it is a struggle and Black history is American history. Love of Black does not translate to hatred of White.

In one of the best documentaries I have seen on Juneteenth titled “Juneteenth: Faith & Freedom” by Our Daily Bread, Ms. Opal Lee, known as the grandmother of Juneteenth, concludes, “People want to think of it as a Black thing or a Texas thing, but it’s not. It’s freedom for everybody, and I advocate celebrating freedom, from the 19th of June to the 4th of July.”  This documentary is not about anger or finger-pointing. The research is stellar and speaks for itself.

Let us also be thankful that the youth, our hope and our future, care about this history and are proving that they can stand on their own to carry on. Jalin Sead and his team did a fantastic job with the 2022 celebration of Juneteenth.  Special thanks to Senator Bob Duff who has reached across racial and culture lines to host the Juneteenth flag raising at his home for the second year in a row. As Councilwoman Darlene Young said during the flag raising, “Kudos to the municipalities that honor Juneteenth though it won’t legally be recognized as a state holiday until June 2023.”

Juneteenth 2022, I issued a challenge to library directors and their heads of states across the country, to do a Juneteenth emancipation timeline for their individual states and to even get as hyperlocal as their own cities/towns. See below, the Connecticut Black American emancipation timeline. I acknowledge Fairfield Museum and History Center and Matthew Warshauer, Central Connecticut State University Professor and author of “Connecticut in the American Civil War: Slavery, Sacrifice, and Survival” for the fantastic research that enabled us to put this together. I also thank Norwalk Public Library staff member Raeven McFadden who captured my vision in the attached graphic for the Library’s first Juneteenth celebration held at our South Norwalk Library last year.

(Contributed)

I challenged library directors to succinctly capture the historical timelines of all of the races/cultures in their cities/towns in leaflet format so that residents can see their own history and that of other residents. The individual histories make up American history in its victimizations and splendid victories. Let’s celebrate! In celebrating the good, we can hope to heal from the bad.

Shall we march on from June 19 to July 4 appreciating and learning from the different perspectives, if we can?

8 comments

James Cahn June 22, 2022 at 12:37 pm

I’ve previously reached out to Sherelle Harris personally to express my admiration and appreciation for her intellectual leadership.

This seems like a good opportunity to remind Norwalk just how fortunate we are to benefit from her and her work. She is a demonstrated devotee of the “classical liberal arts” and epistemic curiosity. Juneteenth really IS a uniquely important and American event. Like Memorial Day and the 4th of July, it gives us all the chance to celebrate EACH OTHER, puff out our chests a little bit and say, “We DID that! Greatest country in the world!!!”

Thanks, Sherelle. Keep doing you.

Admiral June 22, 2022 at 5:20 pm

The fact that Norwalk allowed a “privileged” soccer camp to run on city/school property in Rowayton on Juneteenth is despicable.
And yes, I live in that zip code and have a BLM flag.

Audrey Cozzarin June 22, 2022 at 7:05 pm

Sherelle, thank you for your years of service which have included such richness and respect for all cultures. In the end, we are all Americans and beyond that we are Human Beings. May we all see this simple reality in order to unify us.

Juneteenth was celebrated beautifully this past Sunday at my church St. Paul’s on the Green. Parishioners, human beings, of all backgrounds enjoyed it enormously.

In Norwalk, let’s keep finding ways to strengthen and enjoy our special CommUnity. I admire Sherelle Harris!

Alma Lyons June 23, 2022 at 7:16 am

Right on Sista! This was beautifully written and Needs to be seen by millions. You have done a fine job in this community and continue to do. While I don’t personally know you, I read about you over the years. Thanks for all you have done at the library and continue to do for the community and bringing light to this important day we know as Juneteenth.

Justataxpayer June 24, 2022 at 8:18 am

So many great programs and opportunities.

My one beef with the library is that many of the top selling books aren’t available or have so few copies. These books are written by mainly written by Conservatives.

Piberman June 24, 2022 at 2:10 pm

Might want to publish a list of CT volunteers in the Union army. Listing those who “did not return” and were injured. Without their sacrifice the Confederacy led by Dems could have continued slavery of millions for generations.

Why aren’t we celebrating those who contributions and sacrifices led to the abolishment of slavery ? Aren’t those who fought to end the Confederacy’s secession from the Union important ? Or is the end of slavery more important ?

Kevin McKeithen June 24, 2022 at 10:59 pm

Excellent article by a phenomenal woman! Sherelle continues to provide opportunities for educating and uplifting those who live within and those who live outside of the City of Norwalk! Juneteenth is another opportunity for America to celebrate freedom and truly live up to the phrase “land of the free”. For years I have participated in Juneteenth events. From programs established in the church I attended in Stamford. To the parade that Bridgeport has been organizing. I have always celebrated the dates of June 19th and July 4th as two separate occasions. However, reading this article has allowed for me to reconsider my stance on celebrating freedom on those days separately. But to now celebrate freedom from June 19th through July 4th, and even beyond that. This way I participate in celebrating the acts of freedom and opportunites for equality that were presented to all cultures represented within America.
As the article states, Juneteenth is American history! It provides an opportunity for inclusion to be more than just a buzzword, but a concept that is practiced daily! Thank you Sherelle for all that you do!!!

Kevin McKeithen June 25, 2022 at 3:53 pm

@Piberman, if I can respond to your post. I understand the content of what you wrote, however, what you are presenting is where we begin to stray apart. Your post leaves me with the impression that you think those who helped contribute to freedom cannot be celebrated at the same time as those who were actually granted freedom when in actuality it is one event. It also leads me down a lane in which it seems like this separation mainly occurs when Caucasian males are historically represented as contributing more to the freedom of others than any other race or gender. When we celebrate the 4th of July and the independence it granted, we also remember all of those who were involved in defeating the British, but we don’t have a separate Boston Tea Party Day, or a Minute Men holiday, or a Paul Revere ride along celebration. It’s simply called Independence Day. All of the occurrences are not spoken, but are included. Ironically Crispus Attucks is often overlooked in the celebration or he is historically represented by one or two sentences. If the accounts of his life are accurate, shouldn’t he be highlighted as a great assist to the cause based on his frontline service? Should all individuals be highlighted more than the end result? It goes without saying that all participants are automatically celebrated because without their efforts there would not have been a win. Last time I checked, the championship trophy was celebrated more than the participation ribbon. The MVP is acknowledged, but not celebrated more than the end goal. If indeed those are no longer the rules we play by, then America owes formerly enslaved people more than a Juneteenth celebration. Is everything about race or making sure one group stays on top with insult and injury. We should
not be making this about the concept of a collected work from a few various arenas securing the collective win for many. Do know that there is room to celebrate Juneteenth and the 4th of July, as many African Americans have already been doing just that. Also remember that many African Americans have celebrated the 4th of July though they weren’t “free” at the time.

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