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No Graves, Only Gardens: On Juneteenth in Oakland

The wide spectrum of experiences that encompass being Black in America were centerstage this past Saturday, and I was there with my camera.

The god-like gorgeousness. The impressive use of innovation. The disgust of danger actualizing in the form of death. The different skin tones and distinct accents. The variation of clothing styles, representative of religious affiliations or neighborhood and individual claims.

I saw so much Black life through my camera during the day, I’m lightweight embarrassed to say that I was oblivious to what I observed until later that night. That’s when a few choice words made it all click.

That evening, the Blk Girls Green House in West Oakland hosted their first Grooves From the Green House event, with performances by Jane Handcock, Vadia, Rexx Life Raj and Masego. The plant nursery had been converted into an intimate venue where potted pothos plants hung over the heads of 60 to 70 attendees vibing to the music in their seats.

Masego plays the saxophone in front of a live audience at Blk Girls Green House in West Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

For many, the show was the first live performance “since the pandemic ended”—or rather,  since Governor Newsom lifted the requirement for people to wear masks in public places. It was also just a few days after President Biden signed a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Recognized by the government or not, Juneteenth was being celebrated all over: inside of that greenhouse, in cities around the country, and on the eastern side of Lake Merritt—where I had been earlier in the day.

Zakiya smiles as she adorns a tree with sunflowers and a red, black and green cloth, as a part of a photo booth installation. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

I got to the lake just before noon, dropping my stuff with some friends at the grassy area across from the Cleveland Cascade staircase. From there I walked south, down Lakeshore Avenue, stopping at the event at Pine Knoll Park on Hanover Avenue, before continuing to the amphitheater on the far southern end of the lake. And then I walked back.

I did that loop three times, and the whole time I was taking photos and giving hugs.

I saw a newborn child in the arms of its parent, the hands of young a man holding a blunt and gigging, a woman with fingernail polish on her cuticles that perfectly coordinated with her outfit.

Tire smoke was being sent from dirt bikes to the clouds, and hands were holding red cups toward the heavens as if trying to cheers with angels.

And those are just the photo opportunities that I passed up.

A person in a mask hits a wheelie on an ATV near Lake Merritt over the weekend. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

At one point, inside my head, I played a little game where I tried to see how many seconds I could go without seeing something beautiful. I never made it to double digits.

A friend and I tried to estimate how many people were at the lake. We concluded that the official count was somewhere between 5,000 heads and “hella mutha-f…” (reports say 10,000 people were there).

It’s common to say it was a “sea of folks,” but to me it was more like a pasture full of people who were planted on this planet and all happened to be in one place. It was a Black garden.

People were getting their sun and water, feet planted in healthy soil and exchanging loving communication. That’s how plants grow, right?

But despite the nurturing environment, spots of tension arose as the afternoon went on. A round of firecrackers made the crowd jump at one point. At another location, a little later, a fistfight was filmed. At a third spot, a phone call for someone to “air this shit out” was overheard.

As I walked back to the car, I heard the gunshots that left a reported six people injured and one person dead.

Leila Williams, Calvin Williams and their son Malik stop for a photo. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

An hour or so later, I sat in the Blk Girls Green House, waiting for the R&B show to start, scrolling through my phone, reading social media posts and reports from news organizations about what happened by the lake.

I sent a text asking for updates from a close friend whose cousin was shot, but in stable condition. During a phone call a few minutes prior, when my friend told me the news, I told him to let me know if there was anything I could do—knowing damn well that there was nothing I could do.

Jane Handcock vibes to her music while performing at Blk Girls Green House in West Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

As I wiggled in my greenhouse seat to tuck my phone into my pocket, I grabbed my camera and focused on the first act, Jane Handcock. She performed a couple of songs, moving the crowd with her original songs, plus her covers of Alicia Keys’ “You Don’t Know My Name” and the Main Ingredient’s “Let Me Prove My Love to You.” Her cold vocals, fly hair and “don’t be shy, we came here to have a good time” attitude laid the foundation for the night of performances.

I turned back to my phone. No text back yet. Damn.

This is what I’ve come to understand as the full spectrum of the Black experience in America. I’m used to going from celebrating to mourning, and back again. I know that high-powered love and high-powered weapons are both present in my community, and it’s almost a regular occurrence for life and death to simultaneously occupy the same space.

A barbecue grill is engulfed in flames near Lake Merritt as people celebrate Juneteenth in Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

How’d our community grow to be so rife with extreme examples of love and violence? There’s a lot of layers, but the seed was planted by the same heinous American institution that we abolished 150 years ago, and that we just made a holiday about, honoring the delayed message that it had ended.

To think: that institution left my great-great aunties and great-great uncles to feed on unwanted scraps. Scraps that they then turned into soul food, a cuisine that’s loved and served at celebrations, despite being tied to heart disease, the leading cause of death amongst Black folks. Violence and love, death and life, all in one meal.

DJ Mujie on the ones and twos. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

At stage right in the greenhouse, DJ Mujie stood behind a laptop and some digital turntables as she spun hits that got people up and dancing. I mingled a bit, cracked some jokes, and checked my phone again—no response.

The event continued.

Headliner Masego ended the show by singing, playing the keys, and blowing the saxophone; in addition to exercising his sense of humor. He roasted a member of his crew for wearing a durag, something the guy evidently never does. “A black one at that?” Masego asked. “Because it’s Juneteenth, huh?”

Prior to Masego’s music and comedy, Rexx Life Raj performed songs like “Handheld GPS” and “Tesla in a Pandemic,” and also shared some jokes with folks. An artist who was raised in Berkeley and has performed at huge venues around the world, Raj said that he almost “boo-boo’ed” on himself backstage when he realized how intimate the greenhouse venue was.

But of all of the words spoken that evening, nothing moved me like the lyrics to Vadia’s hymn-like song “No Graves.”

“Death does not become me / it don’t rest easy on me / it was never meant for me / it’s not my destiny / always overcoming / there will be no graves,” she sang as she donned black, brown and gold beaded braids as long as the roots of a South African wild fig tree. “No graves, only gardens,” said Vadia to the crowd.

Vadia sings in front of a live audience at Blk Girls Green House in West Oakland. (Pendarvis)

The juxtaposition of death and life, or love and violence, isn’t a new concept. But I’d never heard it referred to as graves and gardens. And to imagine a day where there are only gardens—places where people can grow, like plants in a greenhouse—that’s a fascinating idea.

I took my phone out and put those words in a digital note, and then checked my messages again for an update on the situation.

The next morning my friend posted in an Instagram story that her cousin survived and was at home. The bullet was still in her body.

They were given another opportunity for growing in the garden, but it comes with a constant reminder of the grave.

Copyright 2021 KQED