A year ago, on the day before summer arrived, I was invited to breathe.
It was Juneteenth, and I was working, sent out to report on celebrations, memorials, and protests. In the weeks before, daily news of deaths from COVID-19 had been temporarily eclipsed by another, much older plague: Black death at the hands of police. Spring ended in rallies, vigils, marches, uprisings — demands that Black lives must matter. On a day meant to commemorate freedom, it was as clear as ever that Black America had to continue to fight for it.
I thought my first stop, an event in Franklin Park advertised on Facebook as “Breaking the Chains,” was going to be a demonstration. Instead, I found a refuge for Black joy.
The hosts, Jedaya Barboza and Jośue Joseph of Revere, arrived at the park equipped with water, a charcoal grill, and yoga mats. As they set off in search of the perfect spot, I helped them carry bags and coolers. Barboza, then 25, reminisced about Juneteenth festivities she had attended in Franklin Park as a child. We walked past other groups celebrating: a cluster of older men sitting on foldout lawn chairs and a crowd of high school students and their mentors wearing lemonade-yellow T-shirts that read, “Melanin Made.” Barboza and Joseph chose a sun-drenched spot — close enough to the other groups that their music mingled with ours, close enough to the trees to retreat if necessary.
Around a dozen guests arrived soon after we set up. They were young adults who had come to revel in summertime. They welcomed me in as they discussed freedom — aspirational, historical, painfully far away, and proudly won. They talked, too, about the twin crises reshaping their lives and bringing death nearer.
But today was for celebrating, reminded Jerry Napoleon, who had driven from Brockton to join his friends. “We need joy, too,” he insisted. “We can’t lose ourselves.”
It is nearly Juneteenth again, and Black people are still dying at the hands of police. People in many parts of the country, Massachusetts included, are anticipating a summer of rediscovered freedoms as the remaining pandemic restrictions fall away. But how will this freedom extend fully to Black folks if the parks that are home to our cookouts, the beaches that are home to our kick backs, and the streets that are home to our block parties still threaten us with disproportionate violence of every kind? How will Black and Latino people breathe freely this summer when our neighborhoods still struggle to access vaccines?
As another summer of uncertainty approaches, I am thinking back to that day in Franklin Park. Death was all around us, but so was sunlight. So were Hula-Hoops. So were grills and laughter and multiple speakers going at once, coming together in a cacophony of freedom, which, after all, is what everyone had gathered to celebrate. In our corner of the park, there were immigrants and multigenerational Bostonians. There was an aspiring politician, a doula, a community organizer, a brand-new reporter — all in our 20s and 30s. What did everyone want to be when we grew up? Free. And in that moment, we were.
That is the essence of Black joy. It dares to exist exuberantly in a country that has so often wished it dead. It can be momentary, a temporary haven from all that lurks outside. In a world of anti-blackness, Black joy is fugitive — fleeting and also fleeing, undertaking incredible risks to find the place and time where it can be free. The questions before us this summer and every summer: Could this be the place? Could now be the time?
The first and most enduring song of the summer might be “Summertime,” originally composed by George Gershwin for the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess. “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy,” the aria begins, a Black mother singing sweetly to her restless infant. Since that first rendition, the song has become a classic, turned into a jazz hit by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and rerecorded by countless others. The song is dreamy and hopeful, fitting for the season it describes.
But the dream of summer easily descends into nightmares. Chance the Rapper’s “Paranoia” — the first song that came to mind when I asked a friend for art that spoke to Blackness in summertime — threads quintessential summer images (“riding around,” “sun in my eyes”) into a meditation on the season’s inescapable violence.
Many cities, including Boston and Chance the Rapper’s native Chicago, brace for an uptick in violent crime when the weather gets warmer. Policing and the harassment that comes with it tend to increase, too, and many young Black men in particular fear getting caught in the cross fire. In the song’s penultimate verse, Chance sings wearily, wishing summer and its risks away: “‘Cause everybody dies in the summer / Wanna say your goodbyes, tell them while it’s spring / I heard everybody’s dying in the summer / So pray to God for a little more spring.”
To illustrate the meaning of a Black summer in the United States, I could have begun somewhere other than Juneteenth and its abundant joy. I could have begun with a memory of Black joy interrupted. It was 2008, and my family was celebrating the Fourth of July in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park. There was music and food and the giddiness that seizes a crowd when the first firework bursts into the sky. A perfect summer night.
But after the show, when we and hundreds of others spilled into the streets in search of the cars and buses that would carry us home, bleary-eyed but laughing, the mood suddenly turned tense. The police officers who were directing traffic had begun to shout angrily for people in the largely Black crowd to move it along. But we were stuck shuffling slowly, everyone doing their best to move in lockstep with scores of strangers. One officer, a Black woman herself, sneered that she should let the cars waiting in traffic run over us. I was 12, and I felt herded and hated. My parents did not speak until we were safely on our way home.
Or I could have begun with Audre Lorde’s memory of summer 1947, when her family, like mine, made a special outing to celebrate the Fourth of July (a holiday that is a “travesty ... for Black people in this country,” Lorde later wrote). The family had traveled to the nation’s capital, where they went for ice cream at a lunch counter and were refused service. “The waitress was white, and the counter was white,” Lorde wrote in her memoir, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. “And the ice cream I never ate in Washington, D.C. that summer I left childhood was white.”
Summertime calls to mind Southern Black childhoods and the generations who grew up unable to go for a swim — first because public pools were segregated and later because white people in power preferred to pour concrete in their oases rather than let them be integrated.
Or we could look closer to home, to Boston’s Carson Beach in 1975. Black protesters gathered on a strip of sand where custom, not law, excluded them. But custom can be defended violently, too. White counter-protesters arrived with projectiles and makeshift weapons. Some 800 police officers arrived, many on horseback, to disperse the crowd and make arrests. Forty-five years later, on Juneteenth 2020, two Black women in their 30s ventured to the beach for a commemorative celebration and protest. As my colleague Deanna Pan reported, a white man driving by hurled the n-word at the women moments after they arrived. He told them to go back to Roxbury. Later, the women noticed State Police closely monitoring their group, watching to see if they would illegally drink alcohol.
This is the underbelly of summer, a season spent outdoors, in public spaces that not all Americans truly see as public. In ways both personal and structural, Black people in the United States are told to go back — to countries and neighborhoods we may or may not call home, to our houses and into hiding, to second-class citizenship, anywhere out of sight and out of earshot from white America.
Sociologists use the term hypervisibility to describe the extra scrutiny Black and other marginalized people face in public. Sometimes, that scrutiny takes the form of state-sanctioned policing. A stop. A frisk. An arrest, which too often turns fatal. Other times, self-appointed police, usually white, take surveillance into their own hands. Each year, warm weather brings with it a spate of videos showing white people accosting Black people who dare to be joyful in public spaces.
Oakland, California, 2018: A woman calls the police on a family barbecuing in a public park. She insists they be “dealt with immediately.” San Francisco, the same summer: An 8-year-old girl is selling bottles of water outside of the building where she lives, and her neighbor calls the police because she doesn’t have a permit. “It’s not your property,” the neighbor says. Starkville, Mississippi, 2020: A couple heads to a lake for a picnic, only for a campground manager to pull a gun on them. She accuses them of trespassing when they are not. The list goes on. The videos go viral.
Lucius Couloute is thinking about these videos as the weather warms again. “I’m actually a little bit nervous about this summer,” says Couloute, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Suffolk University. He primarily studies how formerly incarcerated people are criminalized. But Black people need not encounter the justice system to be deemed criminal — any public space can be turned into a courtroom, Couloute says. “There’s kind of almost nothing we as Black people can do to absolutely ensure that we won’t be policed and criminalized in public spaces.”
Couloute also knows that Black people, like everyone else, deserve to celebrate survival this year. “Outside is open!” many Black people have written on Twitter. Some say outside is opening too soon, or not soon enough, or just in time to realize their summer dreams. But in the context of hypervisibility and criminalization, returning outside becomes a complicated choice, fraught with anxieties that live outside our doors. Though the nation’s pools, beaches, parks, and campgrounds may be integrated now, summer is still segregated into those who are free to stand in the sun without a second thought, and those who are not.
Black joy, ever-persistent, always finds a place to call home. In Boston, one of those places is Franklin Park. Beautiful in every season, the 527-acre park reaches its full use in the warm months, when annual events draw crowds of hundreds and even thousands at a time.
Several events trace their origins to Elma Lewis, a Black woman who believed in the arts, her neighbors, and the park. In the 1960s, when Franklin Park was languishing from municipal neglect, Lewis and her performing arts students reclaimed the park as a community space. They built a playhouse where both local legends and international stars sang and acted in the open air. The park’s present-day board of caretakers and multicultural event-planners, the Franklin Park Coalition, credits Lewis as an inspiration.
Today, an ordinary day at Franklin Park reflects the diversity of the communities that surround it, African American and Caribbean and white and Latino. Black Bostonians who grew up around the park have described it as a rare public place where everyone can be free.
But even this oasis has its moments of tension. Already this spring, the park’s rules and boundaries have been contested. Young people riding dirt bikes and hosting parties late into the night have drawn ire from some of their neighbors, city officials, and even zoo executives. Their ways of celebrating have been described as a “plague.” But the young people, many of them Black and Latino, say they are simply enjoying the park, one of the few places they can gather, as they always have. As Globe columnist Marcela García asked in May, doesn’t their quality of life matter, too?
Many in Boston wonder who will write the new rules of engagement as the world reopens and the park and surrounding neighborhoods continue to change. Rickie Thompson, president of the Franklin Park Coalition, remembers his childhood in the 1970s, when Black residents were left to save the park on their own amid city neglect. Now, Thompson and his coalition are tasked with helping the city allocate $28 million dollars for the park’s continued development. Thompson says he hears concerns regularly that the windfall means the park will become whiter — as the neighborhoods around it already have — and less of a refuge for the Black Bostonians who love it. Thompson reassures his neighbors that he and the coalition are committed to preserving the park that Elma Lewis and others envisioned, one that is safe and welcoming for everyone.
This year, many historically Black cultural events are returning to the park, albeit in downsized forms after being put on hold during the pandemic: jazz and reggae shows at the Playhouse, the kite festival, celebrations for Juneteenth and Roxbury Homecoming Day. These events give Black people a place to “be themselves,” says Catherine Morris, founder of the Boston Arts & Music Soul Fest, where they can be met with grace and “their due flowers” rather than with scrutiny. In many ways, this summer will be a return to joy.
Of course, people gathered in the park on their own during the pandemic, both to celebrate and to protest. In June of last year, just after Massachusetts had emerged from its strictest lockdown period, tens of thousands of people rallied behind Monica Cannon-Grant, leader of the nonprofit Violence in Boston, to demand better for Black people here and across the country.
This is another meaning of summer: a time when ordinary people dare to dream that they can change everything. A time when Black people stand together with allies, no matter the risks, and demand to be seen. That is the story of the Freedom Summer of 1964, when optimistic young civil rights workers set out to register an unprecedented number of voters in Mississippi. It is the story of the long, hot summer of 1967, when young Black people in scores of cities took to the streets to insist that the civil rights movement would be incomplete so long as their neighborhoods remained impoverished and overpoliced.
It is the story of the summer of 2014, when Black children’s school vacation ended with Michael Brown’s body lying in the street in Ferguson, Missouri. When August erupted in fires and tears and solidarity and a rallying cry: Black lives matter. And it is the story of last summer, not yet named for the history books, when Black people were suffering disproportionately from a novel respiratory virus but still managed to show up for the memory of George Floyd, murdered while crying out that he couldn’t breathe. It was another long and hot season where so much and so little changed.
“Summertime, and the living is easy!” Ella Fitzgerald shouts.
It’s 1958 and she’s onstage at a Chicago club. Most versions of “Summertime” are earnest and wistful, but Fitzgerald transforms the dreamy lullaby into an inside joke. She rattles off a list of things that aren’t easy at all: Work under the hot sun, sweat, exhaustion, money thrown away at fashionable clubs in an effort to forget that sweat and exhaustion ...
What if an alternate summer exists, one where Black people truly do stay alive and live easy? Danez Smith’s poem “summer, somewhere” imagines this for Black boys whose lives have already been cut short: “someone prayed we’d rest in peace / & here we are / in peace whole all summer.” But Smith is also asking what it would take for such a resting place to exist without death preceding it. And I am wondering, this year as the world reopens, What will it take for peace to be available to Black people who, despite everything, are still alive?
The question of how to make the promise of summer real is a difficult one, but so many Black communities, activists, parents, scholars, and children have already offered answers. An outside worth going back to would look like paradise without the grave. It would look like that 2020 day in Franklin Park, except without death on our doorstep. There would be nothing but uncomplicated joy, permanent joy, Black joy that is neither fleeting nor fleeing, but simply shining under the sun.
“Summertime!” Fitzgerald shouts again. “That’s what the song says, living is easy.”
You can almost hear her wink at the audience, which goes wild with laughter and applause. She is not bitter about the song’s lie. Summer is a stage, she recognizes, just as Elma Lewis did when she brought the arts to Franklin Park. Ease and joy are things that can be acted out until they feel real — maybe even until they become real.