Struggle and celebration: Montclair author gives kids an insight into Juneteenth
Montclair resident and author Alliah L. Agostini’s new picture book, “The Juneteenth Story: Celebrating the End of Slavery in the United States,” has been released ahead of this year’s celebration of the holiday.
Juneteenth has seen heightened attention in mainstream circles over the past few years. It became a nationally recognized holiday in 2021, and was recognized by the state of New Jersey as a public holiday beginning the year before. Montclair also held its first townwide, weeklong celebration of Juneteenth in 2021, and another such celebration runs until June 18 (scroll down for details).
The holiday commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union Gen. Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved people of the Emancipation Proclamation and their freedom — two months after the Civil War ended, and more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Broadly, it serves as a celebration of the end of slavery in the U.S.
But Juneteenth has always been a part of Agostini’s life, even when she was a young child. When her publisher, Quarto Kids, approached her to write a children's book about Juneteenth, it gave her an opportunity to address a celebration that’s always been dear to her.
Agostini grew up in Buffalo, New York, in a community her grandfather helped introduce to Juneteenth, as a co-founder of the city’s festival in 1976. She remembers honoring the event before she could even walk. Her book now includes illustrations inspired by that time with her grandparents.
"There's pictures of me as a baby in a stroller on Juneteenth,” she said. “It was just what we did. It was a two-day festival. It was nice because it's like a family reunion in a sense, too, because everybody basically goes to Juneteenth at some level, especially in the Black community."
But writing a nonfiction children's book that addressed the injustices of Black people in America came with challenges.
"It required a lot more detail orientation because I had to do far more research for nonfiction, because this is telling people facts about what happened in history, and I want to make sure it's as accurate as possible," Agostini said. She listened to recordings of formerly enslaved people who were alive for the first Juneteenth.
"We did sensitivity reading [a review of a book to help evaluate issues around inclusion, representation and bias] to make sure that the book is factually sound, and also that it wouldn't read in some way offensive to any parties, because that's something I'm mindful of,” Agostini said. “Even though I'm a Black woman, I still understand that I might have blind spots that I'm not aware of, too.”
Agostini's book follows the plight of Black people in America from the 19th century through now, and addresses the relevance of Juneteenth throughout the years. With the help of illustrations, she touches on the Black Lives Matter protests throughout the world in the summer of 2020, how the movement brought more awareness to Juneteenth, and how it helped get Juneteenth recognized as a federal holiday.
As a Montclair resident, Agostini credits the town for helping inspire her.
"It was nice to be in a place like Montclair, where you know that people are similarly oriented,” she said. “It is a relatively liberal town. It is a diverse town. And I saw how people would stand up."
Agostini hopes her book will guide parents looking to continue conversations on race that, for many, started or were heightened in the summer of 2020, and encourage children today.
"They are part of the future. And freedom is something that we can always take for granted. Freedom is the thing that we're constantly fighting for, and they're part of it, and making sure we have a better-informed generation is something that's really important to me when I'm writing." Agostini said.
She wants “Juneteenth Story: Celebrating the End of Slavery in the United States" to be a book that parents of all races can enjoy with their children, to teach them about a pivotal moment in history.
"It's a book about American history,” Agostini said. “I think that's important for people to remember and to think about because everybody wants to just kind of put it in like 'the Black history box.' It is a Black-centered portion of history, but Black history is part of the greater American and world narrative, too."
Juneteenth in Montclair
The Montclair Juneteenth Committee is presenting a weeklong series of events that run through Saturday, June 18, in celebration of Juneteenth.
Juneteenth, a federal holiday, marks the emancipation of enslaved African Americans and recalls the June 19, 1865, order by a Union general proclaiming freedom for the slaves of Texas.
The events are co-sponsored by the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corp., the Montclair chapter of the NAACP, Montclair Moms of Color, Fleet Feet, AAPI Montclair, TURN! and Montclair Mutual Aid.
Monday, June 13: “”Fight for Freedom.” Dr. Stephanie James-Harris, executive director of the New Jersey Amistad Commission, will give a virtual talk, “History of Juneteenth,” at 7 p.m. Register in advance here.
Tuesday, June 14: “Liberation.” Celebrate at home with a movie night. Suggested films: “”BrainPop: What Is Juneteenth and Why Do We Celebrate?” “The Children’s March,” “Black-ish,” Juneteenth episode, S4E1, “Black Student Union,” “Glory.”
Wednesday, June 15: “13th Amendment.” Dr. Lillie Johnson Edwards, professor emerita of history and African American studies, Drew University, will give a virtual talk, “Slavery by Another Name,” at 7 p.m. Register in advance here.
Thursday, June 16: “Black Reconstruction.” Children’s Juneteenth celebration at Nishuane School, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
Friday, June 17: “Black Friday.” Support Black-owned businesses. Also, Montclair Community Pre-K – Juneteenth Community Picnic, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., bring a blanket or chair for a picnic, live performances, activities for the kids, vendors. The Pre-K is at 49 Orange Road.
Saturday, June 18: “All About the Family.” Rand Park, opening ceremony at noon and activities running until 5 p.m. Local performers, spoken word, double Dutch, book reading. Bring your drum. Also, at 8 a.m., Fleet Feet Montclair Black History Walk/Run. To sign up: fleetfeetmontclair.captyn.com, click on Explore, scroll to Juneteenth event.
The Montclair Public Library also has several Juneteenth events planned:
Friday, June 17: A film screening of “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” from 2 to 4:30 p.m. at the main library auditorium. Beginning during the racial turmoil of 1960s Louisiana, 110-year-old ex-slave Jane Pittman (Cicely Tyson) grants an interview to a persistent journalist and relates the remarkable story of her life.
Monday, June 20: “Juneteenth: Celebrating and Defining Freedom.” This lecture, presented by Dr. Lillie Edwards from 10:30 a.m. to noon, will be a virtual event as part of a free Adult School online class. “This presentation will explore how African Americans experienced and defined individual and communal life as free people with self-determination, agency, and creativity in strategically taking charge of their own lives in education, property ownership, reuniting families, voting and political participation, working for fair wages, migrating to establish their own towns and settlements, and forming new organizations for Black empowerment and independence,” the library says. Register at montclairlibrary.libnet.info.
Thursday, June 30: Social Justice rapper Fyütch has his first in-person performance at the library. He'll perform an interactive summer concert for kids and their grown-ups with original songs like "Juneteenth" and other socially conscious songs. The event is noon to 12:45 p.m. at the main library plaza and auditorium, but will be moved indoors in the event of inclement weather.
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