FREEDOM WRITERS

Written By: Robert Cocuzzo

The Nantucket Book Festival commemorates Juneteenth with a powerful author panel.

In less than a decade, the Nantucket Book Festival (NBF) has become one of the most highly regarded literary events in the country, not only landing on the bucket lists of readers, writers and publishers alike, but also breaking into pop culture with recent references in such mainstream sitcoms as ABC’s Home Economics. The grassroots festival’s success is a combination of an impressive lineup of authors and visionary leadership that thoughtfully crafts its programming as a reflection of the times.

Last year, the festival was the first on the island to commit to virtual events amid the pandemic, enlisting the expertise of former CNN producer Michael Schulder to create the popular At Home With Authors digital series. This year, while continuing to remain virtual, the NBF has made the national discussion on race a programming centerpiece with its Juneteenth discussion to be held live on June 17th at 7:00 p.m.

“Our event seeks to amplify voices that speak to the systemic issues of race in America, the Black Lives Matter movement and how Juneteenth might magnify our concerns—and our hopes—for America,” said NBF co-founder Mary Haft. “We have gathered a powerhouse panel of writers—a dynamic group of voices that matter to be in conversation about this marking of emancipation from slavery and the beginnings of freedom.”

Mitchell Jackson

Celebrated on June 19th, Juneteenth marks the formal liberation of slaves in Galveston, Texas, where slavery had persisted for two and a half long years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. “Two hundred fifty thousand slaves either lived in Texas or were brought to the state as the last holdout for a system of inhumanity,” explained Haft. Their final liberation came when Major General Gordon Granger led two thousand Union troops into Galveston on June 19, 1865, and declared the freeing of those still in bondage, thus marking the final end of slavery in the United States. More than a century and a half later, the NBF’s panel will examine the significance of Juneteenth as well as the state of race in America through the eyes of some of the country’s leading historians, authors and activists.

“Writer Mitchell Jackson has been the guiding light for this Juneteenth Nantucket Book Festival event,” said Haft, who became acquainted with the author in her other role as the longtime vice president of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. “He has brought four stars into alignment for this panel, four singular voices that, along with Mitchell, feel like we are creating our own planetary system of intelligence.”

The award-winning author of Survival Math and The Residue Years, Jackson overcame staggering odds to become one of the country’s prominent thought leaders. Today he is a professor at the University of Chicago and a highly sought-after speaker around the country. “Without doubt, Juneteenth should be a federal holiday,” Jackson wrote last June in a devastating recounting of the final days of slavery for Harper’s Bazaar. “It’s hypocritical for this nation to acknowledge the Fourth of July and not Juneteenth. There were more than 500,000 enslaved Black people at the time Jefferson penned, ‘All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ If those words aren’t the utmost hypocrisy to people of African descent in this country, then please tell me what is?”

Dr. Keisha N. Blain

Joining Jackson on the book festival’s virtual dais will be Keisha N. Blain, Imani Perry, Deesha Philyaw and Clint Smith. Since receiving a Ph.D. from Princeton University five years ago, Blain has emerged as one of the most dynamic historians in the country, as evidenced in her award-winning 2018 book Set the World on Fire as well as her most recent No. 1 New York Times bestseller Four Hundred Souls, which she edited with Ibram X. Kendi.

Dr. Imani Perry

Imani Perry brings an equally impressive resume as a historian, having received a Ph.D. from Harvard in American Studies, a J.D. from Harvard Law School, an LL.M. from Georgetown University Law Center, and a B.A. from Yale College. She now serves as a the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University where she has penned five critically acclaimed books.

Deesha Philyaw

Meanwhile, Yale-educated writer Deesha Philyaw is the author of the celebrated short-story collection The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, which was released last year and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction and the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction last month.

Capping this remarkable panel is Clint Smith, a staff writer at The Atlantic whose poetry collection Counting Descent has earned a number of awards and recognitions and whose narrative nonfiction book How the Word is Passed is newly available this month. Together, these historians, authors and activists will give voice to a critical moment in American history.

Clint Smith

“This is a time of reckoning in America,” said Haft. “And Nantucket is no different than the rest of the world: This is a moment to listen, to learn.” Over the course of the hour-long discussion, Jackson, Blain, Perry, Philyaw and Smith will examine the broader historical significance of Juneteenth, how it fits in the context of contemporary America and to perhaps emphasize, as Blain has noted, Black history is American history.

“Our Juneteenth panel is a continuation of work begun ten years ago,” Haft concluded. “We have spent ten years bringing diverse voices to our annual book festival and, critically, bringing those voices into our island schools through our NBF Visiting Author Program.” She added, “The championing of all kinds of voices, through all kinds of works—fiction, nonfiction and poetry—is a way to enlarge our worlds. If this conversation moves the needle a little bit towards a greater sense of shared humanity, that would be our hope.”

The Nantucket Book Festival’s Juneteenth discussion will be held at 7:00 p.m. on June 17th. Register for the free event at NantucketBookFestival.org.

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