MFA Boston’s Juneteenth Panel Discussion Contemplates Meaning of Day in Current Landscape

As part of Museum of Fine Arts Boston’s eighth annual Juneteenth celebration, which was held virtually for the first time this year on Friday, June 19, a visual artist, a female entrepreneur and a Boston Globe columnist convened for a panel discussion to contemplate what the day means to them as black individuals, especially in light of recent events.

“Juneteenth is like a check-in because we wake up black every day,” said Rob “Problak” Gibbs, a Roxbury-reared painter, muralist and graffiti artist, as well as co-founder of Artists for Humanity, a Boston nonprofit that provides paid employment opportunities for inner-city youth in the arts. “How long and why did it take these issues so long to be addressed? I have to think about how I’m going to teach it to my daughter.”

Joining Gibbs for the discussion were Globe columnist Adrian Walker and Heather White, CFO and founder of Trillfit, a Mission Hill hip-hop fitness studio, while Makeeba McCreary, MFA Boston’s chief of learning and community engagement, served as moderator.

“The story of Juneteenth is a day of reflection to think about what freedom really means and the gap between the stories we tell ourselves and what happens every day,” Walker said.

MFA Boston came under fire itself, Walker reminded the panel, after a group of black seventh-graders were allegedly subjected to racism by staff and some patrons during a field trip to the museum in May of 2019. 

“We need to think about the ways we kick in the doors that make people feel exploited,” Walker said.

Growing up in a family of immigrants in the Bronx, N.Y., White said she was taught to “keep [head] head down” and “assimilate,” so Juneteenth was a completely foreign concept to her before she moved to Boston.

“I didn’t learn about it or identify with it until I got to Boston,” she recalled, “which is ironic [that I’d first learn of Juneteenth] in a city with such a history of racism.”

As White sees it, Juneteenth is now an opportunity to both reconsider history and help shape the future.

“Educate yourselves,” she said. “Yes, you’re now woken up and are a part of this revolution. Showing up matters. Get involved in local politics as well. Use your voice and your vote to change things.”

As one of MFA Boston’s artists-in-residence, Gibbs discussed how an outdoor mural he is creating on the exterior of Madison Park High School in Roxbury would “reflect the education through the arts from the eyes of a young black man growing up in this city.”

The mural, called “Breathe Life 2,” will show all of Boston from the perspective of Roxbury, Gibbs said, while depicting children of color and attempting to capture the neighborhood’s vibrant sense of community.

“All I want is for black and brown little boys and girls to simply see themselves in my murals,” he said. “I would want other kids and children of other ethnicities to just see how we’re celebrating and how we’re here to take care of each other.”

In launching Trillfit, White said she encountered many racial obstacles as she moved into an industry where black people are often made to feel excluded.

“I want to decolonize wellness to make pricing accessible so that black people feel comfortable walking in the door,” she said. “Part of my job in the existing industry is to decolonize and desegregate wellness, and we do that simply by existing and offering our current program.”

Besides making Trillfit more accessible to black people by offering affordable prices and an inclusive environment, White said she also hopes to “decolonize” wellness as an industry that has traditionally discouraged black ownership, even though yoga, dance and other methods commonly used in practicing wellness originate in black culture.

“Trillfit started as a boutique studio in an industry that co-opts practices used by blacks and pushes them out,” White said. “We need to hold every other studio partner in Boston and globally accountable to actually do the work…and provide access and equity to improve quality to life for black people.”

As a journalist, Walker said during these extraordinary times, he feels a heightened obligation to ensure that voices too often ignored now get heard.

“There’s an awareness that we’re living in a historical moment…that will bring about historical change,” Walker said. “My industry has a huge responsibility in amplifying [people’s voices] and making sure this moment doesn’t get lost.

“The most heartbreaking thing about the George Floyd incident, besides the murder itself, is we know this isn’t an isolated incident,” he added.  “My industry needs to lead that.”

In response to McCreary’s query as to whether whites should consider stepping aside to allow new opportunities for blacks, Gibbs said, “Give us the ball and let us run. There are a lot of people who have the talent and people who have the abilities, but you’d never know because we need allies or ways to get in to be seen and heard.”

Gibbs added, “I’m not going to step aside after the noise dies down, there’s some longevity to this. Give us time and space to make sure we do something that counts.”

Meanwhile, despite the currents sense of uncertainty and discontent evident in Boston and throughout the U.S., Walker remains optimistic about the future.

“I’m very hopeful at the moment; there’s more momentum for change that I ever remember seeing – it’s real, and it’s substantive,” Walker said. “It’s a moment of incredible unrest and inequity, but we have an opportunity to build something out of this. I hope that we don’t squander it, and I know we won’t.”

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