Black August event celebrates being ‘unapologetically Black’

Naiyahmi Taylor scooped her colorful Italian ice into her mouth and looked around Freedom Plaza.

Girls were laughing and fixing each others’ hair. People stood in line for free fried fish and chicken. Others danced to music or ran across the plaza to hug a friend who just showed up.

“I see kids being kids. Kids that look like me, being kids. And I’m not worried nobody is going to come around and try to shoot us or fight me or anything of the sort,” said Naiyahmi, a rising eighth-grader at the Social Justice School in Northeast Washington. “I’m happy we can do something like this for the community.”

Naiyahmi was one of 15 girls who participated in an eight-week long paid summer fellowship with Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, a local Black-led mutual aid and community defense organization. The girls, ages 13 to 17 and mostly from the District, were paid $450 to meet every week in person to provide mutual aid in the community and learn about Black history, the criminal justice system, mental health and wellness, financial literacy and how to be proud of just being themselves, said Nee Nee Taylor, a co-conductor for Harriet’s Wildest Dreams.

“They learned to just be unapologetically Black,” Nee Nee Taylor said, “And protect all Black people.”

On this Saturday, the girls helped organize a joyful event to celebrate Black August — a commemorative month that originated in the 1970s to honor and remember the struggles, sacrifices, and achievements of Black people throughout history. There were tents with information from the ACLU of DC, details about court watching and mothers whose children were fatally shot by police. There was artwork by people who are incarcerated, go-go music, a performance by Fly Zyah, a 12-year-old rapper, and free yoga.

Black August events that center on joy — such as the one this Saturday — have deep roots in Black organizing and protest movements, said Marcus Board Jr., a political science associate professor at Howard University. And historically, youth have played a central role in Black resistance, marching for freedom, walking out of schools and advocating for their rights.

“Part of building a beloved community must include these wider aspects of our soul,” Board said. “Bringing back this type of celebration, opportunities for remembrance, for healing and intergenerational connections … is just a pathway towards a radical liberatory future where we end oppression.”

For communities in D.C., events like this come at a critical time, said Tia Bell, the founder of a gun-violence-prevention nonprofit group in D.C. called the Trigger Project and a partner in Saturday’s event. With violent crime up in the District, including the fatal shootings of kids, Bell said mothers are grieving and children are living in fear. It’s crucial, she said, to prioritize giving children resources and support to live full, joyful and healthy lives.

“We can’t stop the gun violence that’s happening right now because that’s coming from 400 years of neglect. But if we work with that baby right there, and that baby right there, and that baby right there,” Bell said, pointing to the girls dancing during the event, “in order to spread prevention, we can prevent future gun violence.”

Homicides in D.C. are up 25 percent so far this year compared with the same time in 2022, and violent crime is up 37 percent. Twelve of this year’s 162 homicide victims were younger than 18. As of Aug. 10, D.C. police said 80 juveniles had been shot, up 40 percent this year compared with the same time last year.

Makenzie Watson, 14 and a rising ninth-grader at SEED Public Charter School in Southeast Washington, welcomed everyone to the Black August event with a mandate from the Generation Z Harriet’s Wildest Dreams fellows. They demanded divestment from prisons, jails and courts and a future where all Black people can walk in communities without fear.

“The mandate for Black people in this time,” Watson said in a call and response with the other girls at Freedom Plaza. “Is to avenge the suffering of our ancestors. To earn the respect of future generations. And be willing to be transformed in the service of the work.”

Sam Seabron, 14, danced with their mom and friends to go-go music and learned just how fun it is to take a moment and celebrate the community around them. Through the fellowship and helping with activities like these, they learned how to lead events and panels, became armed with information about mental health and sex education and learned more about incarceration and the history of Black August.

“It’s a lot about ourselves and our identities and getting resources we need to thrive,” Sam said. “Black people have been resilient through all forms of struggle.”

As part of the fellowship program, Taylor said the girls also learned about their rights when approached by law enforcement and how to take care of themselves in difficult situations.

Anaya Mitchell, 17, stood onstage during the Black August event with four of her friends as they acted out a skit of what to do if a police officer stopped them on the street. As one girl pretended to be a police officer and told Mitchell and her friends to stop walking, they listened. Soon, they asked the “officer” if they were being detained.

When the girl playing a police officer said no, they walked away.

“I feel like I learned a lot more here than I learned in school,” said Anaya, who is a rising senior at Laurel High School in Maryland. “We need to protect each other, keep each other safe. This is a safe space where you’re allowed to be yourself.”

Denayla Martin, 17, stood in front of the stage watching her friends perform their police skit. Her brother Dalaneo Martin was 17 when he was fatally shot by a U.S. Park Police officer in March. After his death, she’s been afraid of police and lost confidence in herself.

As she continued to show up to the fellowship program, she learned about inspiring, revolutionary leaders like Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Ida B. Wells.

Denayla, a rising senior at Roosevelt High School in Northwest Washington used to wear long sleeve shirts and sweatpants to school — even on hot days — afraid of getting in trouble if she wore anything that showed her skin. On this Saturday, she proudly and comfortably wore a cropped T-shirt and jean shorts.

“As a Black girl, I’m free to walk in this community without feeling like nobody don’t want me here,” Denayla said. “Actually being in this fellowship has made me respect myself. … They made me feel proud of being a Black girl.”

Peter Hermann contributed to this report.

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