Party. Shindig. Celebration. Function. Get-together. There are so many words for a “joyful social gathering of invited guests” and even more ways, formats, and reasons to host one. Parties and celebrations hold a special place in every culture and community, serving as joyful occasions that bring people together, strengthen bonds, and express cultural identity. In Black and brown communities, joyful festivities carry a deep significance, and are part of a grand legacy that celebrates resilience, joy, and futurity. From traditional gatherings to contemporary events, parties and celebrations play a crucial role in fostering unity, preserving heritage, and promoting a sense of belonging.
Last year, Ujima staff member James Vamboi took the Boston Art Review behind the scenes of our signature summer event, Black Portals. This year, Black Portals is back and bigger than ever! In this #PartyEdition, we’re diving into the history and significance of parties in movement work, Black communities, and how Ujima members define a great party. Speaking of Black Portals II, have y’all purchased your ticket yet?
Celebrating the Movement
On a chilly day this spring, I arrived at a church in Dorchester, humming with activity. Four huge boiling pots rumbled to life as volunteers dashed around with place settings and handouts. What began as an informal fundraiser that Dave Jenkins, Executive Director of Resource Organizing Project (ROP), hosted in his home grew into what is now the Celebration of Grassroots Organizing.
The celebration is now in its tenth year. Despite the gloomy weather, the mood under the tent was cheerful as friends old and new greeted one another with warmth. This year was the biggest the event has ever been with 500 participants moving $255,000 to the frontlines of Boston’s movements for justice and liberation. But even more inspiring than the fundraising were the speeches from movement partners that morning, chronicling hardships and setbacks faced by organizers.
“Birthing a movement is hard work,” declared Jenkins, and it’s why celebrating wins is so important. But Kathy Asuncion, Associate Director of ROP, believes that the grassroots organizing community needs more moments of celebration.
“There aren’t many parties in our movement. Usual events are galas, award celebrations, and house parties. I’m excited that all of these events, and more unmentioned, are happening in movement spaces. Usually, parties happen in celebration of something that ended or passed, such as a campaign, program, or fiscal year. While I am in favor of celebrating after big campaigns, I am intrigued by parties that are excited for the future. Much like how we’re thrilled to visit a soon to be mother for her baby shower, I am excited for what will be born — what work and victories are coming.
I was reading the Art of Gathering last year, and learned that we make gatherings (parties) from a formula. In a gala for example, organizations will gather all of their constituents and donors to mingle, they will have several people speak to the impact of the organization, and will pivot to a fundraising pitch to support the work going forward. Parties like these are too common, so they tend to be predictable and only people that support said organization will attend. Let’s be real though, how many of us actually stay through the end?”
There is a real need for celebration at any and every point in a movement’s lifecycle, not just at the end or after a big achievement. Even informal parties unaffiliated with a campaign can progress a broader social movement. Take rent parties for instance, common among Harlem’s Black communities dating back to the 1920s. To meet their financial needs, Black households transformed their apartments into makeshift party venues, charging a small admission fee ($0.25 which is the equivalent of four dollars today) for guests to attend the party, which included live music, dancing, food, and drinks. The parties were often held on Saturdays (payday), and the money collected went towards paying the rent or utility bills. For visionary Black musicians, writers, and artists of this era, rent parties were an act of self-determination and an early model of collective fundraising.
How Boston Gets Down
Last year I hosted a close friend for a weekend, and panicked when she expressed interest in going out dancing during her visit. Any Bostonian knows that BIPOC-centered nightlife in the city can be hit or miss. But I was determined to show her a good time; we eventually ended up at Good Life, a downtown bar with two levels for dancing. We had an amazing time, but two weeks later Good Life announced they were closing.
“Good Life has been a disruptor in Boston, where cultural institutions often gatekeep and reflect the systemic segregation of the city itself,” a local DJ told WBUR last December. “Instead, Good Life provided a home where BIPOC folks, people of the global majority, LGBTQIA+ folks were actively centered, celebrated and received the top-notch hospitality that they deserve.” Good Life wasn’t the only neighborhood gathering spot to close down due to profits lost from the pandemic, but its impact is far-reaching. Queer communities especially are feeling the loss of safe community spaces amid rampant anti-trans legislation and attacks on LGTQ+ spaces nationally. But what’s to be done about this?
Corean Reynolds, Boston’s new Director of Nightlife Economy, might have some ideas. As the first in this role at the city level, Reynolds serves as a liaison for the nightlife industry, Boston’s community members, and the Mayor’s office, with particular interest in making Boston’s nightlife more inclusive. “If I could snap my fingers, I would make downtown Boston more reflective of the 23 neighborhoods that we have here in the city,” she says.
When tourists think of Boston parties, they’re more likely to think of the myriad of celebrations on St. Patrick’s Day than a night of dancing at Wally’s Cafe. This lack of Black and brown representation when it comes to public community gatherings is one of many reasons celebrations like Buy the Block Party, organized by Black Market Nubian in Roxbury, are so special. The third installment of this celebration of Roxbury’s global influence and contributions to hip-hop culture paid homage to Keith Edward Elam (known as “G.U.R.U.”) a prolific rap artist.
Ujima Community Engagement Manager Geo Costomiris recently attended Black Market’s legendary party, and said “Ujima staff and members had a joyful time! Although there was a healthy amount of rain throughout the day, families and individuals engaged with Ujima and other vendors, learned about community happenings, and how to participate in curated, meaningful community spaces that are the cornerstone of the Roxbury neighborhood. Truly a ‘for us, by us’ event.”
How to Party, According to the Ujima Community
In support of our work to center culture workers and artists in the economic vitality of Boston, Ujima cares a lot about celebration, community space, and a good party. The Ujima ecosystem knows a thing or two about parties; here’s what they had to say.
What makes a good party in your opinion, and what would you expect to see at an Ujima party?
Li: A great party has good music (by a local DJ that plays something other than the wedding playlist New Englanders are used to), good food (options for all dietary needs without losing the authenticity of the Caribbean/Afro/Latinx sazon), and good vibes (with community norms set).
Mobolaji: Beautiful people and great music, and that’s what I’d expect to see at any Ujima gathering.
Maia: Food, dancing, music and conversation! Both feeling comfortable and going outside of your comfort zone.
Sól: Good music, people from different areas of the community getting to connect, while being QTBIPOC-centered.
Kathy: Good parties break formulas. Good parties focus on how the experience is felt, not intellectualized. There are a couple of things that make a great party, and some of this comes from my background as a fundraiser AND a Latina woman, who has gone to many parties. A good party has a great reason, so people will be curious and/or excited to attend. A good party is decorated appropriately, with fun elements. If the party attracts people I love and respect, it will be a great party for me.
Kevin: A party should center on a theme that caters to the attendees who want to be there (i.e., support, curiosity, familiar faces). There shouldn’t be a space for unwanted individuals (in the eyes of the planners). If laughter, memories, and “at least a new face I was appreciative of meeting” can occur, then that is what makes a great Ujima party.
Tchad: A top-notch selecta (DJ), good music (could be live or a playlist but must have bass), good food, good drank, and beautiful people who are not afraid to dance lol (minimal wallflowers!).
Fran: Great DJ who knows how to read the crowd, has a great sound system, and plays different music genres. Also must have dancing, food, friends and no police!
What are some amazing parties you’ve attended or organized?
Tchad: Passa Passa in Jamaica…there’s no topping that really…outdoors in the heat, great music, everyone nonstop dancing until morning followed by fresh jerk chicken. What more do you want? Soooooo fun! As far as stateside — Zuave was pretty fun: great music and getting dirty with old and new friends is usually fun (i.e. foam, paint, mud).
Li: The best part I ever attended had freedom of movement for partygoers (outdoor space, open space, various searing space arrangements), good music, folks who felt safe in community and free to be themselves.
Kevin: It was actually a game night. It was just good energy spent with a few friends, food, drinks (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic), and a variety of activities.
Kathy: I want to highlight Liberation Games. This one is just so fun! Held in the winter when all we want to do is be cooped up warm, this event is a game night where you win money for organizations. There is a poker tournament for more direct donating, and a board game tournament where if you win, your donation could go to any organization at random.
Fran: My 60th birthday party, my 30 th birthday party, and the house parties I hosted and attended in the 80s and 90s. The annual Partee house parties where all the furniture is cleared out and you dance from 10:00 PM to 4AM. Everyone brings food and alcohol. Friends for Life (my brother in law is part of Black men’s group) throws parties where they rent a function hall, hire a DJ, provide food and charge $20.
Sól: The best party I attended had an intimate and connected vibe where people broke out of cliques to dance. There was a feeling of having a shared experience which helps break the social ice, food was available, non alcoholic drinks were available, as were things for those wanting more conversation or downtime activities.
What role do parties, gatherings, and celebrations play in your life and community?
Fran: I love to dance and talk with folks especially those you don’t see often at events. I enjoy positive human connection, no agenda, no deadline, no stress just plain ole school fun, dancing, and food.
Kathy: For me personally, dancing removes a layer of my protective shell. If I dance with you, I am offering a new side of me to you, and when people dance with me, I feel closer to them. If I meet someone professionally at a conference earlier than evening, but dance with them that night, the next morning, I feel closer and more friendly towards that person. When we dance, we let go of inhibitions, pain, and thoughts. Parties should be just as important as check-in meetings in movement. Parties and celebrations break the formula and the routine. It allows us to break down the walls or shells (emotionally or intellectually) that we build to keep us intact. When we party, we allow healing, we welcome others closer to us, we honor our culture and our ancestors, we de-stress from the day or the week, and if the party is really good, we allow ourselves to dream and re-energize towards the work we must do. Celebrating is how we heal and how we move forward together.
Name some legendary parties in Boston and what makes them so special.
Tchad: Silk RnB party, which is curated by young Black DJs with a focus on new and classic RnB music and hosted in a space that is normally predominantly white. Also the Boston While Black Family Reunion, which achieved legendary status. A predominantly Black block party in SOUTHIE that gets bigger every year?! With all the Black family reunion ingredients (music, food, double dutch/spades) ?! Unprecedented. Don’t forget Caribbean Carnival-j’ouvert: the trucks, the costumes, the music, the rags, the flags, the tradition. WE BEEN DOIN THIS FOR 50 YEARS! Also reggae/Soca in the Park. Well known artists in an outdoor accessible space like Franklin Park. It’s really a concert, but if the lineup is good then Caribbean concerts always morph into parties lol.
Kathy: In July, I will be attending a “Restival.” It is exactly what it sounds like: a festival of rest! The Movement Sustainability Commons is organizing this. The restival offers a series of participant-led events that hone in healing. You will find yoga, art, dance, writing, sleeping, walking in the agenda. This event will be difficult for folks to attend because we are socialized by capitalism that “time is money” and “we need to be producing at all times” and for women in particular, they are taking care of the family as well as their organizations. We hope in the future to provide stipends for people to feel comfortable taking more time away to rest.
Maia: I went to a great dance party in Cambridge on Juneteenth one year.
Sól: Pico Picante was in an intimate space (bottom floor of Good Life) and had a lot of queer BIPOC and the music was amazingggg. The Friendz parties also generate a group feeling, bring a lot of different groups of people together, decenter the DJ and center the audience’s experience with each other instead.
Paige Curtis the Culture & Communications Manager at the Boston Ujima Project.
Check out Ujima’s Spotify playlists for some party music inspiration.