Local activist and artist to paint a Black Lives Matter mural for Juneteenth celebration

“I am an artist because it’s a tool for social change, not the other way around,” - Maya James

On July 4, 1776, the United States earned its freedom from Great Britain. Every year on this day, U.S citizens light off fireworks to celebrate their independence. However, not everyone in the U.S was “free” on July 4, 1776.

It wasn’t until nearly a century later, in 1865, that African Americans were emancipated from slavery. June 19, often called Juneteenth, commemorates the day when everyone in this country was able to celebrate their freedom.

This year, three social activists are giving Juneteenth the celebration it deserves. Maya James, Willie Riddle Jr., and TC Custard are co-hosting a Juneteenth block party at the Vine Neighborhood Association (VNA) from 3 to 9:30 p.m. This event; complete with a bounce house, food, music, and artwork for sale made by people of color; will also be the debut of a new mural on the VNA building by 22-year-old Artist and Activist Maya James.   

On this mural, more than 50 people who have lost their lives during the fight for civil rights will be immortalized. This mural is a portrait of why we still fight, said James.

Juneteenth Mural by Artist Maya James

Mock-up of Juneteenth mural design, by Maya James. 


“I thought this would be a perfect homage to our ancestors; to give them this art and this music and this celebration; to show them that we are still here,” James said. 

James has taken up many roles in the Black Lives Matter movement in just the past few weeks since George Floyd’s death; from organizer to medic, from volunteer to fundraiser, James has done it all. However, James was an activist long before Floyd’s death shook the nation. James has considered herself an activist for almost her whole life. 

Before moving to Kalamazoo one year ago, James lived in Traverse City, Michigan. James describes her hometown as a “racially aggressive place.” James vividly remembers the first time she was called the n-word at school; she was in kindergarten at the time. 

In a New York Times article titled, “First Encounters with Racism,” James wrote, “Before that moment, I had no idea what race was or what class meant. Now I had to grow up.”

Only 1.9 percent of the people living in Traverse City are Black, according to the most recent U.S census. The only other person of color that James knew in her hometown was her father. As a kid, James was isolated by her race and her weight. She could find no comfort or understanding in her peers, so she turned to civil rights leaders. Her passion for civil rights was the common thread throughout her entire education, and the reason she decided to become an artist.   

“I am an artist because it’s a tool for social change, not the other way around,” James said. 

Art is the backbone of any social movement, James said. Art can be found in the signs taken to rallies, and the passionate words spoken through megaphones. Controlling the narrative, James said, is the key to lasting change.

“People never get tired of looking at things,” James said. “If you can control the narrative behind what they see; and you make propaganda towards positive progressive change instead of propaganda towards negative abusive change; then you can change the whole world.”

Controlling the narrative is exactly what James tries to do in her art. That is why her work exclusively features Black women. With every brush stroke, she tells tales of the vibrancy, the power, and the diversity of Black women.

Steve Walsh, executive director of the Vine Neighborhood Association, said he is excited to work with a visionary artist such as Maya James, to commemorate Juneteenth. 

 “I've thought of the mural as a brilliant piece of vibrant art encapsulating a powerful moment within an even greater movement,” Walsh said. 

June 19, Freedom Day, is not the day that the emancipation proclamation was signed by President Lincoln; that happened two years prior to Juneteenth. June 19, commemorates the day when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, and ordered that all slaves be set free. Texas was the last Confederate State to receive these orders, so these were the last African Americans to be freed. 

Fireworks set off on July 4 represent the United State’s first taste of freedom, but only for the privileged few. On June 19, a giant mural of equal rights advocates will represent another sort of freedom; not for a few of us, but for everybody.  

Artist Maya James at work

Photo credit Monte Jones