Celebrating Juneteenth in Taiwan

"Juneteenth" is the approximate date when slavery ended in every state in the United States. Rumors of freedom spread throughout the country, but the announcement of emancipation did not come to Texas until more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Elissa Russell, co-founder of a group called the Descendants of African People, talks about the group's plans for their second annual Juneteeth event — in Taiwan.

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Juneteenth is going global. Juneteenth, Emancipation Day, Freedom Day or Jubilee, is a celebration of the second emancipation of the slaves. Legend holds that it was two years before slaves in Texas would know that Abraham Lincoln had freed slaves in 1863. Elissa Russell lives in Taiwan. She's co-founder of a group called Descendents of African People, or DAP, and she's planning the second annual Juneteenth event in that country. Once again, NPR's Farai Chideya.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

So why does Taiwan need a Juneteenth celebration?

Ms. ELISSA RUSSELL (Co-founder, Descendents of African People): I believe that the black community itself--we need it just to remember, because, first of all, we're so far away from home, and, secondly, the black community here is quite small. And as for the Taiwanese community, there's not a lot of exposure to black culture, and the Taiwanese seem to be very naive about black people in general. They really do believe we're all the same, and most of us play sports or dance. That's literally what they think. So I think it's very important to expose them to the history of black people in general.

CHIDEYA: So how did you end up in Taiwan, and why did you decide to make it part of your mission to really enlighten people about black culture and history?

Ms. RUSSELL: I came to Taiwan a year after graduating from university, and I thought I was coming here for one year, and--I'm a teacher here--I looked up and it's been three years. And after the first year and a half with the stares and the laughing--on my second day here a woman said, `I can't believe you're real. Could you please do a dance for me?' And it was at that moment I was like, `Oh, my goodness.' And that continued to happen. There were--there are all kinds of things people say, and if you don't know the Taiwanese, most of the things they say are quite racist. But once you realize they're really--they're totally innocent. It's like a child. They really just don't know. So it was at that time that I decided I want to do something. While I'm here, I would like to give something back to this community.

So DAP is completely non-profit. It's sponsored by myself and Jaleea Price. And we both have the same idea of doing something to bring together the black community here, which is quite diverse because there are Africans from Nigeria and Ghana and Guyana and Senegal, and then there's people from Guinea and Belize. Those people, they have no idea about Juneteenth.

CHIDEYA: Right.

Ms. RUSSELL: They don't know about America's Black History Month. So we learn stuff about each other's culture, as well.

CHIDEYA: DAP, which you mentioned, is your group--the Descendents of African People--and you're saying that really even the people of African descent in Taiwan come from all these different backgrounds.

Ms. RUSSELL: Right.

CHIDEYA: What's the most interesting reaction you've gotten to celebrating Juneteenth, whether it's from someone of African descent or someone who was Taiwanese?

Ms. RUSSELL: Other cultures, other ethnicities--especially blacks--are really looked down upon. You know, they're like, `Oh, oh, black person, black person!' You know, they really have negative stereotypes about black people. So at the Juneteenth event, we did everything bilingual, and it was all done by black people from every different country. Everything was done in English and in Mandarin. Some things are done in African languages and in Mandarin. So that was a really--it was a really positive response from the community.

CHIDEYA: So what's going to be the hallmark of this year's celebration?

Ms. RUSSELL: Well, last year--since we did a full-blown performance that included poetry, songs, short films, this year we just decided to go with nothing but film because right now Taiwan only gets the mainstream Hollywood. They only know about Will Smith. That's what they know as far as black people. So we're going to show films from various countries and several films like "Roots." We're going to do discussion sessions after the films because, of course, we can't get them with the Chinese translation at the bottom.

CHIDEYA: All right, well, have a wonderful celebration. Elissa Russell is the co-founder of a group called the Descendents of African People, or DAP. She's hosting the second annual Juneteenth celebration in Taiwan this year.

Enjoy it, and thank you.

Ms. RUSSELL: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Farai Chideya, NPR News.

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