By GLORIA STRAVELLI
METUCHEN — Readings from children’s books, music, high-energy step dancing, a fine art photography exhibit, a panel discussion and more will take place throughout Downtown Metuchen on Saturday, June 19, to celebrate and raise awareness of Juneteenth, a new holiday and a landmark day in American history.
Activities on Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, will take place in the downtown from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and are being coordinated by the Metuchen Downtown Alliance and the Metuchen Human Relations Commission along with Papillon & Co.
The theme of the celebration, “Recognition, Restoration and Celebration,” according to members of the organizing group, conveys the message that Juneteenth should be recognized as part of American history and as an occasion for joyful celebration.
“The idea is that we wanted to have this day about what Juneteenth is, but also talk about this as a day of joy and a day of celebration and we wanted to make sure that was very much understood,” said Arunthathi Theivakumaran, a member of the alliance. “What we really want people to go away with is that this is an important day in American history. It has always been an important day in Black history in America, but it needs to become more than that. This is a part of American history and so we want people to understand the story of Juneteenth.”
A familiar feature of downtown events, a deejay will provide a background of Music on Main Street throughout the day on June 19.
As the celebration opens at 11 a.m., guest readers will be reading excerpts aloud from children’s books focused on Black characters in literature, including “Saturday” and “Ada Twist, Scientist.”
Readers will include civic leaders and community members including Dr. Enobong (Anna) Branch, senior vice president of equity at Rutgers University.
Readings will take place for short sessions at locations throughout the downtown and organizers hope will also encourage people to walk around the downtown to see what is happening at local businesses.
From 1-2 p.m. Papillon & Company, 418 Main St., will host a panel discussion, “From Harlem to Metuchen: Lens on Black Life,” an exhibit of works by members of the Kamoinge Workshop, a collective of Black photographers founded in New York in 1963. Some of the images in the exhibit currently at Papillon through June 30 previously were at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Two of the photographers will be present at the event, which will feature a panel moderated by Dr. Joel Branch, who consulted with event organizers, with a discussion by photographers as well as community members.
Edna Epelu, proprietor of Papillon, said the images present a view of Black life that is not always depicted.
“The images and the ethos behind the Kamoinge is to produce pictures that show a beautiful lived life of people of African descent and that is not often an image you will see in the news,” she said. “I’m sure it’s there, but it’s just not the most common.
“These are people living their life so the images are for me what is important … and almost every good story in our life has a root that is beautiful. So the images are beautiful, they are kids playing, they are grandparents … they’re just life. The simplicity is what makes them relatable.”
From 2 to 4 p.m. the downtown will reverberate with the joyful sounds of Step Dance troupe S.W.A (Steppaz with Attitude). Based in Rahway and coached by Simone Smith, the troupe will perform throughout the downtown.
Members of the borough Human Relations Commission will staff a table outside Papillon during the Juneteenth events, according to Hazel-Anne M. Johnson-Marcus, chair of the commission.
“We’ll set up a table outside and people can stop by to learn a little more about Black history,” she said, “and not just the ‘greatest hits’ that people always hear about, but doing more to talk about the fullness and richness of Black life in America, sharing information about folks who may have been lesser known. I always cite the movie ‘Hidden Figures.’
“From the founding of Metuchen, since 1900, we have had Black folks living in Metuchen. There’s families that are several generations deep within Metuchen. Have you heard of Thomas Mundy Peterson? He was born in Metuchen and he was the first African American to vote.
“Our hope is that we are educating everyone to have a better sense of who we all are, because then we can be better neighbors to each other.”
Dr. Joel Branch agreed recognition of Juneteenth as a state, and potential national, holiday is a positive, while emphasizing the journey it began remains ongoing.
“When we think about recognition there are a lot of dates, hallmarks of Black history, that Black people largely know about but outside of a certain demographic, people aren’t as aware of and Juneteenth is one of those,” he said.
“Juneteenth doesn’t just mark the end of slavery, it marks the start of a journey that we are still on. It marks the start of a journey for equity, it marks the start of a journey to having a sense of respect, not just as an American, but as a person. Especially here in America, right? That Blacks shouldn’t be seen as ‘other.’ We are a part of the foundation of what this country is. So that’s part, also, of what we’re celebrating this Saturday.”