We talk about Blackness every day at Reckon, but as we celebrate Juneteenth we want to remind ourselves that a lot of folks are still trying to get free — or free others — through work or being Black on their own terms.
Reckon reporter Chris Harress compiled some of our favorite stories from the past year featuring African Americans putting in work for their communities.
They live across the South. In some cases, they’ve lived across the country and traveled the world.
For Black Americans, eating greens is becoming about a lot more than massive pots of collards, mustards, and turnips.
Brooke Brimm, the founder of the Vegan Soul Food Facebook Group, spoke to Reckon about the continued popularity of veganism among Black and brown communities.
“I think what has changed is younger people are more socially conscious,” she said. “When I first went vegetarian in college, I was socially conscious, I wanted to change myself and the world. I had all of this idealism that I have kept going for 30 years.”
Going to church can be particularly overwhelming when you are queer, houseless, or feel unwelcome, especially when you live in the South. But a revolution for a more equitable church is happening and people like the Rev. Brandon Wrencher are steering the way.
Wrencher’s ministry creates space for what he calls those beyond the margins, people historically excluded and displaced from the four walls of the sanctuary like houseless people, the LGBTQ+ community, and social justice warriors. “I believe to be a person of faith is to be a dissident disciple. To me, this means breaking ranks, norms, and the status quo,” said Wrencher.
When Boston-born Stephanie Mitchell moved to the tiny Alabama town of Gainesville with her husband in July 2020, she thought she’d find a job as a nurse-midwife in a birth center.
She was out of luck.
“I was flabbergasted to realize Alabama didn’t have any birth centers, period,” she said. “That took the wind out of my sails. I was like, do y’all not have women here? You deserve to have a birth center as an option.”
Rather than find a new career, Mitchell decided to build her own birth center. She’s currently renovating a 187-year-old antebellum home, which she plans to open as Alabama’s first freestanding birth center.
Dr. Yashica Robinson could be described as a women’s healthcare pioneer in Alabama. She runs one of the state’s three abortion-providing clinics and more recently opened The Alabama Birth Center in Huntsville, which currently only offers clinic visits and classes. She hopes the center will begin delivering babies by the end of the year.
She’s used what she’s learned advocating for abortion access to help her push for expanding birthing options, particularly for her low-income patients.
“These are my people,” said Robinson, who chose to go into medicine after her own birth experience as a teen. “If I don’t take care of my own people, if I don’t have enough compassion and desire to make sure their care is equitable and that they get quality care, who else is going to do it?”
Lex Gillette likes to say “no need for sight when you have a vision.” The 37-year-old blind long jumper and motivational speaker from North Carolina is one of the country’s most accomplished Olympians, having been to five Olympic games. While he’s never managed to win an Olympic gold medal, he does have five silvers, and three world championship golds. He still holds the world record for the blind long jump.
And he has no plans to retire anytime soon.
John Boyd is a fourth-generation farmer from Virginia who has devoted his life to protecting the rights of Black farmers. In December 1996, a decade after losing his first farm and while going through another foreclosure, Boyd found himself protesting the USDA’s racist lending practices on the streets of Washington D.C.
He brought two mules to the protest and gained a lot of media attention.
Ashley M. Jones is Alabama’s youngest and first Black poet laureate. Her work is deeply rooted in stories and images from the American South. Jones was featured on the Reckon Interview podcast back in October about her latest collection “Reparations Now!” the title of which comes from one of her poems written as a response to the infamous segregationist George Wallace. Throughout her collection, Ashley nimbly and beautifully moves through the South’s past, present and future, with pieces that look both inward and outward.
Each song on Adia Victoria’s latest album “A Southern Gothic” feels like a short story you’d find in the Southern Gothic canon. There’s the story of a preacher’s daughter and a great flood, and the feeling you get when you’re away from home.
But Adia imbues the old forms with fresh energy. She weaves in the perspective of a young Black woman growing up in overwhelmingly white spaces and the impact that has on her — as well as the way it affects the South as a whole.
Victoria came on the Reckon Interview in December to talk about her art and thoughts on the American South.
NASCAR has historically been a difficult sport for Black people to break into, either as a driver or a team owner. As a result, NASCAR has an overwhelmingly white fanbase.
But one HBCU grad hopes to change that.
John Cohen, a Grambling State alum and former football student-athlete, owns the NY Racing Team. He’s using eye-catching vehicle designs to promote a variety of HBCU schools. His hope is to broadcast NASCAR and other HBCU sports on the HBCU League Pass+ streaming app.
Earlier this year, Chef Adyre Mason was featured on the Food Network’s long-running Beat Bobby Flay show. But the show was a special one. It was the first in over 30 seasons that was fully focused on vegan food.
Chef Mason, originally from Sheffield, Alabama, runs The Veggie in Huntsville, the city’s only full-service vegan café.
In the same city where state lawmakers passed the strictest trans healthcare ban in the nation, members of a Black, trans and queer-led organization cracked jokes, blew bubbles, played cards, and found compassion and community at Shakespeare Park in Montgomery, Ala.
The festivities were a part of The Knights and Orchids Society’s Park Day event. Quentin Bell, a Black trans man raised in the civil rights hotbed of Selma, Ala., founded the grassroots nonprofit commonly known as TKO in 2012 to empower and support Black trans and nonbinary people who were lacking resources in rural Alabama.
Events like Park Day amplify Black trans joy at a time when politicians are pushing a tsunami of bills restricting the access trans youth have to healthcare, athletic teams, and bathrooms.