Juneteenth is an annual holiday celebrated by black Americans, with the date marking the emancipation of slavery in the United States back in the late 1800s.
To celebrate the occasion this year, Juneteenth Santa Barbara hosted a virtual celebration for the local black community to partake in.
The event, found at Juneteenthsb.com, was called “Digital Diaspora: A Santa Barbara Celebration of Black Histories and Futures” and gave voice to many black Santa Barbarans, allowing them to share their stories and partake in the sharing of their culture that has been passed down through the generations.
Many local community organizations and businesses were also involved in the celebration, including Black Rock Coalition, Coffee with a Black Guy, Comfort Food, Cresco Labs, Endowment for Youth Committee, El Centro, Flourish Psychology Co., Healing Justice: BLM SB and so many more.
Simone Ruskamp, the co-founder of Juneteenth SB, shared her story about what black joy means to her.
Ms. Ruskamp, who moved to Santa Barbara 10 years ago to attend UCSB, said she felt very lonely especially during her early years.
“I was at the point where it literally would bring me to tears to see another cultural group, like having a dance or a party or whatever, that is how isolated I felt,” Ms. Ruskamp shared through a video.
Three years ago, however, she had a cookout. It wasn’t a huge turnout, but Ms. Ruskamp said “it was people who matter.”
“We just ate and celebrated and danced and I was able to be there with my baby, with my sister and that was black joy. So, I guess what I’m saying is, black joy to me is being loved by your community. By knowing that you just have space and knowing that you’re not alone.”
Dominic King, a family support specialist at Kids and Families Together and UCSB alumni, used his video to talk about the importance of black mental health.
“For community building and resilience I find it beneficial to have healing spaces in dialogues with other black folks,” Mr. King said.
Currently finishing his doctorate, Mr. King’s PhD research focuses on the healing roots of African Dance and Step Culture and how people could use them as “resiliency strategies in ways of channeling our ancestors.”
Mr. King currently works as a therapist but also, alongside his wife, holds seminars, teaches about diversity and inclusivity as well as leadership development and so much more. He also shared what black joy meant to him.
“I see black joy as being authentic, being open and being able to enjoy life and not feeling judged or being threatened and ultimately, feeling that you’re valued,” Mr. King said.
Jonathan Walker-VanKuren currently resides in Fort Worth, Texas, but lived in Santa Barbara for a year during a residency at Opera Santa Barbara, his first professional opportunity.
Currently an Assistant Professor of Voice & Artist Teacher of Studio Voice and Music Theatre at Lebanon Valley College, Mr. Walker VanKuren’s passion focuses on singing Spirituals.
He is also consistently advocating for their inclusion in the classical musical scene, and created a recital entitled, “Songs my mother taught me…” to help celebrate such a special section of black History.
For Juneteenth, Mr. Walker-VanKuren shared his recital, which was sponsored by Opera Fort Worth.
Though slavery has ended on the surface, systemic racism still resides in the United States, and has continually hindered opportunities for black people, he said.
As a result, while Juneteenth is a celebration, it also is an opportunity for black Americans to continue advocating for change.
For The Rev. Dr. David Moore, a pastor at New Covenant Worship Center, recalled wanting to leave the United States years ago, but, focusing on the current day, he is inspired by the amount of people advocating for black people.
“I have gone years without seeing what I see today. So many times I have said to my wife Diane we should just move to Costa Rica, to Ghana, someplace that we really enjoy being,” he said.
“But after all of this weariness and fatigue seeing people rise up for a thirst for reality, which means a thirst for justice, and to see people from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, to Laramie, Wyoming, and Boise, Idaho, and in Madrid and the UK and Singapore and Seoul. This is amazing to me. And I don’t want it to stop. I want it to be a good party for all of us. Let the world party on. Get a taste of black joy.”
Leticia Forney, owner of Fresch Events, has long been an advocate for diversity within the local wedding industry. And, for Juneteenth, she shared her special connection to Santa Barbara, as she is a direct descendant of Jerry Forney, the first black resident of Santa Barbara.
“I’m so proud to say that that is our history. That is our legacy. He not only came to Santa Barbara and decided to stay, but he also brought 500 other slaves to Santa Barbara, a beginning of a community,” Ms. Forney said with a smile.
“And for me that is the epitome of what we’re trying to do right now is create a bigger community, a joyful community, one that we feel nurtured and valued lives living in Santa Barbara.”
Ms. Forney said that for a long time, she would often celebrate other parts of her heritage, but very rarely her black culture.
“We are all proud to be black, Mexican, Native American, but our black side was never celebrated,” Ms. Forney said.
“Joining Juneteenth is an opportunity for me to grow, to learn and to celebrate what is our history and what is our present.”