Lilli Ayers, owner of Queen Hippie Gypsy in Oakland, is a co-founder of An Unapologetic Juneteenth. Credit: Elvin Catley

For the last two years, Black communities around the Bay Area have converged on the east side of Oakland’s Lake Merritt for BBQ’n While Black, a celebration of Black food, music and culture that has drawn thousands of attendees. The joyful event arose from a racial profiling incident in 2018, when a white woman called the police about two Black men grilling at the lake.

The incident was picked up by media outlets nationwide, setting off a discussion about racism, white privilege and, more specifically, white people calling the police on Black people doing everyday activities. The BBQ’n While Black’s co-founders reacted by inviting Black families to set up grills on the perimeter of Lake Merritt, for a day of grilling and relaxation. It was part protest, part celebration, and it was so popular, they held a second event in 2019.

But BBQ’n While Black 2020 will not take place this year, said co-founder Jhamel Robinson. He and other BBQ’nWB event organizers hope to bring the event back in 2021, but it will be “based on how the world realigns itself,” he said.

BBQ'n While Black co-founder Jhamel Robinson.
An Unapologetic Juneteenth co-organizer Jhamel Robinson. Photos: Cirrus Wood

Robinson, of course, is referring to current events. The coronavirus pandemic rages on, affecting a disproportionate number of Black Americans and a series of racially charged events — including the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd — have given rise to a nationwide uprising calling for systemic reform in policing. While there won’t be a mass grill-out this summer at Lake Merritt, Robinson has been busy organizing another event for the Black community, happening much sooner. An Unapologetic Juneteenth takes place this Saturday at Oakland’s Mosswood Park.

Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery. On June 19, 1865, Union troops entered Galveston, Texas, and the last enslaved Americans were liberated.

“Juneteenth is a day to truly celebrate our Blackness, and for us to reconnect — even more importantly now — as the world is in shambles.” 

Jhamel Robinson

Most cities have canceled or moved their official Juneteenth celebrations online due to COVID-19, but Robinson and his co-organizer, Lilli Ayers, say physically coming together as a community to celebrate Black freedom is necessary, now more than ever.

“Juneteenth 2020 I feel like is really one of those important years. It feels like this is when we need each other even more,” said Jhamel Robinson. “Juneteenth is a day to truly celebrate our Blackness, and for us to reconnect — even more importantly now — as the world is in shambles.”

“We can’t wait for permission to celebrate and appreciate unity. The time is now,” said Ayers, who owns Queen Hippie Gypsy, a spiritual goods store in downtown Oakland that was vandalized during a protest in May.

It’s been a painful few months for Ayers, who said she has been struggling with the “double dose” of “being a Black woman in America trying to express how much my Black life matters, and how much my Black business matters too.”

“Black people are facing the brunt of trauma when it comes to what’s happening in America. We are taking the toll,” said Robinson. “We want to place emphasis on ‘by Black people, for Black people,’ and on releasing our anger through healing.”

Ayers and Robinson were purposeful in organizing their Juneteenth celebration. They scheduled the event on Saturday, so more people could attend. And they planned it for early in the day, so attendees could get home by dark. Admission, healing circles, entertainment and food are entirely free.

“We’re going to start in our traditional African way — drum call, but beyond that, there’s going to be a guided meditation, live musical performance by Berkeley’s own Netta Brielle, healer’s tent, folks from the community,” Ayers said.

And yes, there will be food. Black-owned catering company The Busy Wife — with the help of several volunteer chefs — will provide complimentary eats for the celebration. “I don’t believe that there is room for food insecurity in a loving and healing space,” said Busy Wife owner Michauxnee Kennan. But feeding a crowd costs money, so Kennan asked the community to help cover the cost, about $2,000. She created a Facebook fundraising page and within four days, had raised the entire amount.

The Busy Wife will provide free food at the Juneteenth event, including shrimp etouffee.
The Busy Wife will provide free food at the Juneteenth event, including shrimp étouffée. Photo: The Busy Wife

“My goal is to feed between 500 and a 1,000 people, whether they show up or not, whether they are there as attendees, or whether they are unsheltered,” Kennan said. Kennan wanted to create a satisfying menu — something besides hamburgers and hotdogs — that is also reflective of Black culture. She settled on shrimp étouffée, barbecue chicken, potato salad and grilled vegetables. She’ll also provide a vegan and gluten-free option of quinoa and arugula salad with roasted rainbow carrots, raisins and pepitas. She’ll serve all food in individually boxed to-go containers.

“When we’re nourished, our minds have a chance to heal and rest as well,” said Kennan. “Especially in the Black community.”

Michauxnee Kennan

“When we’re nourished, our minds have a chance to heal and rest as well. Especially in the Black community.”

Event organizers say they will be taking precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Event staff will be taking attendees’ temperatures with touchless thermometers before entry. All guests will be required to wear masks; free, reusable masks will be available to anyone without one. Organizers partnered with nonprofit Lava Mae to set up handwashing stations and provide hand sanitizer. And, they’ll be stenciling circles on the grass at Mosswood — as seen at Dolores Park and a few other San Francisco parks — to mark proper physical distancing.

Ayers said she wants to focus An Unapologetic Juneteenth on the work of healing.

“I understand that everyone will not agree and/or want to take the time to see, but that’s where the forgiveness and healing circles come in, where we release what other people don’t realize that we need to be able to forgive, and to then transmute this energy,” she said. “I have a lot of fire in me right now, but if you know anything about metaphysics, fire is the final stage of transformation. This is the final transformation before the new era. We all have to sit in it. Black people are not the only people having to realize our own shadows.”

An Unapologetic Juneteenth will take place Saturday, from 2 to 5 p.m. at Mosswood Park, 3612 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland