Annie Weatherby-Flowers and Madison’s 32nd Juneteenth Celebration: Rising from the Ashes
Annie Weatherby-Flowers has been chair or co-chair of Madison’s Juneteenth Day Celebration since it started 32 years ago in Penn Park.
By Jonathan Gramling
The space that is Black Resilience has been around for over 400 years. It was present during the Middle Passage when millions of Africans who were enslaved survived in the crowded and filthy cargo holds of slave ships as they were brought to America.
Black Resilience was present throughout slavery when African Americans were treated like chattel with no rights and the fruit of their hard labor taken from them for the benefit of the master and his family.
Black Resilience was present during the era of Jim Crow when sharecropping led to the economic slavery of the newly freed African Americans who could only buy from the company store and always seemed to owe more than they made after they sold their crops in the fall.
Black Resilience was present as African Americans made their way to the north in search of manufacturing jobs, working in inhuman, unsafe conditions, helping to fuel America’s industrial rise and place of prominence on the world stage.
Black Resilience was present after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the dissipation of the Civil Rights movement when Black men were once again villainized in America’s media and crack cocaine was introduced to America’s inner-cities and the gains of the Civil Rights movement were rolled back culminating in the passage of restrictive voting laws that were leading to the instituting of a minority-controlled government, much like that instituted in Mississippi in the late 1800s.
And Black Resilience has been present once again during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think because of COVID, there was so much loss, loss in terms of learning for our children, loss in terms of family members, even the loss of family members whose death wasn’t even caused by COVID,” said Annie Weatherby-Flowers, chair of Madison’s Juneteenth Day celebration. “We couldn’t even give them a proper Homegoing because we couldn’t gather. Homegoing ceremonies are historic in our community as a way to celebrate the transition to a better life.”
Weatherby-Flowers wasn’t speaking of news she had watched. She was speaking from her own personal experiences.
“People had COVID and didn’t have the same kind of care,” Weatherby-Flowers said. “We couldn’t visit. I couldn’t see my grandkids. We couldn’t visit folks in the hospital. I had a near-fatal fall. And no one could come to see me because of the restrictions of COVID. There has been lots of suffering and lots of suffering alone and in isolation. Also my sister died during COVID. My mother had nine kids. There could only be 10 in the funeral home at a time. So we had to stage ourselves outside and go in shifts to mourn our sister. And then financially, people lost their jobs and housing. It’s been devastating. It was almost like we are coming out of the ashes because we have been so restricted by COVID and experienced so much loss. Our middle schoolers and high schoolers were not being schooled. They were focusing on elementary school kids. Our young people have lost learning. They have not been connected with the schools. And if they don’t have motivated or middle class families who really can support them intellectually and have access to high-speed internet. So the digital divide became very apparent during COVID for our communities. All of the doctor visits were virtual. We are coming out of the ashes from so much loss and so much sadness and so much disconnect. We really are social folks. We couldn’t gather for worship or praise. All of that was virtual. And if you don’t have adequate access, we even missed out on the opportunity to have the collective worship. In essence, it feels like we are coming out of the fire and we have to rebuild and regrow. That’s the theme. Like the Phoenix, we will rise, but we are rising out of the ashes.”
What also impacted the African American community — indeed all of America and the world — was the murder and martyrdom of George Floyd.
“One of the things about George Floyd’s murder is he didn’t have a weapon,” Weatherby-Flowers said. “He was not aggressive. That’s the perception of aggressive Black slaves who will rape and kill your daughters. That’s what justified the brutality that they had against male slaves. And Jim Crow projected a Black man as these violent criminals. But when we saw George Floyd being held down and crying for his mother, people saw the humanity. And that is what shifted. The humanity, for the first time, they saw a Black man as a human and not as a vicious criminal that Jim Crow and slavery created and personified.”
And the non-violent protests that followed — people from other communities had more violent actions in mind — were led by the young people who did not know their place in American society and weren’t willing to accept the place of the generations who came before them.
“There were so many protests and they were burnings and things like that,” Weatherby-Flowers said. “But that wasn’t our community. And so we are arising out of the ashes this two-year long period of racial injustice, but racial injustice exposed and the conversation and the narrative is being driven by our young, unapologetic group of folks unlike us who have been taught to know your place to stay safe. They are rejecting that. And so, the movement today is kind of like Gil Scott Heron writing that ‘The revolution will not be televised.’ It’s going on Facebook and the phone. The revolution is on social media in the moment. It’s kind of prophetic that he was talking about the revolution will not be televised. And no knock on my sister’s door. No knock on Breonna Taylor’s door.”
Black Resilience has also meant creating something out of nothing to survive the harshness of the oppression that African Americans have faced.
“The way that we resist oppression is we become buoyant,” Weatherby-Flowers said. “We use our words. We use our music. We use our platforms. And our platforms influence 90 percent of American pop culture. But we also influence food. I was watching High on the Hog. And the term cowboy came out of slavery because you had Black men who took care of the horses and the cows. And the masters and the overseers called them cowboy. When the cowboys went west, they took that name. Just think about our food and how much our food influences American cuisine, like barbeque. The slaves were given a carcass, the cow and the pig carcass and the leftovers. The cowboy stew is the inners of the cows because that is what was given to the slaves or the Black folks who worked in those areas. When we think about resilience, the buoyancy and the ability to get back up.”
And Black Resilience is also about community and mutual support.
“Look at the things that sprang out to support us like the Black Greeks,” Weatherby-Flowers said. “When we sent our kids to the north to go to college, they formed these communities that were based in faith because the church was the only other gathering place for Black folks. We have lots of places that we connect and support ourselves in terms of community, in terms of connection, in terms of, ‘Girl, you can do it. Believe in yourself.’ In my day, you had the older women in the community that nurtured and guided the younger women so that the young women got married and had babies for the first time, you had a community that would come and help, help her with latching on and all of the things that we don’t do now. One of the things that social media and everyone having a cellphone does is we don’t necessarily connect with people anymore. Everything that we do is in our hands.”
There are signs that Black Resilience has once more allowed the African American community to weather the storms — biological and social — of that past year. And through more awareness within and without the community, African Americans are hopeful and committed to making Madison and America a more equitable and just place for African Americans and by doing so the entire community. Celebrate Juneteenth!