Past Is Prologue

How to Honor Black Liberation on Juneteenth

This holiday demands a deep engagement with American history and anti-Black oppression. Anything less is an insult.

Credit: champc/iStock/Getty Images Plus

I was born on June 19, 1982. My birthday falls on the Black liberation holiday known as “Juneteenth,” a fact that has always felt inspiring and meaningful to me.

Now, on the eve of my 38th Juneteenth, uprisings against racism are sweeping the globe, sparked by the video of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. We are witnessing an unprecedented reckoning as protestors take to the streets.

In response, people and organizations are scrambling to appear on the right side of history. Statements of solidarity are flying out like hotcakes, and some have identified Juneteenth as a day to perform their solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

The impulse of solidarity is great. But, a word of caution: While performative displays like “Soul Food Day” in the cafeteria may feel good, the Juneteenth holiday demands a much deeper engagement with the history and systems of anti-Black oppression. Anything less is an insult.

The real story of Juneteenth

Here are the historical details, compiled with help from Phoenix-based media pioneer Art Mobley:

  • June 19, 1865, marked the day that the last Black people held in bondage were finally released and set free from American slavery. The emancipation of the majority of other enslaved people had occurred over two years earlier with the Emancipation Proclamation, dated January 1, 1863.
  • Texas authorities had deliberately withheld compliance and information on emancipation until this day.
  • Juneteenth saw the last of the nation’s enslaved people walking free of the plantation concentration camps, no longer held against their will.
  • The spirit of Juneteenth is embodied in what happened next: African people immediately began to look for lost and separated family. They walked from plantation to plantation, gathering loved ones in reunification and somber celebration. Those celebrations became the holy day of Juneteenth.

The true themes of Juneteenth are Black family, unity, and liberation. My great-grandfather Richard Blakeney lived to be 99 years old, passing away when I was in elementary school in 1989. He often recalled the Juneteenth celebrations of his South Carolina youth, in which family would dress up in their Sunday best to celebrate around a holiday table each year.

Juneteenth can be a happy time for Black families. But for everyone else, it is no frivolous affair.

We cannot celebrate Black freedom without acknowledging the conditions of Black enslavement. We must ground our observance of Juneteenth in an explicitly anti-racist framework, which includes seeking understanding of enslavement, exploitation, family separation, and racial terror in the United States. These conditions did not end in 1865.

Slavery never ended

Above all, Juneteenth is our call to eradicate slavery and its descendant, mass incarceration, forever.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade was unique in employing “chattel” slavery, in which an enslaved person is owned forever, and their children and grandchildren are automatically enslaved. Chattel slaves are individuals treated as complete property, to be bought and sold.

It’s impossible for White people and institutions to ‘celebrate’ Juneteenth.

To kidnap African people, take away their land and wealth, and subjugate them as property, Europeans had to attempt to strip African people of all human dignity. That not only meant using physical violence to detain their bodies and force their labor, it meant banning African names, surnames, cultural practices, history, and identity, as well as criminalizing Black literacy.

Today, that oppression continues:

  • The Thirteenth Amendment forbade slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Today, incarcerated workers are underpaid (or not paid at all) in mining, agriculture, and making military weapons. They’ve sewn garments for Victoria’s Secret and even staffed call centers.
  • While Black people represent about 13% of the U.S. population, we represent upwards of “40% of those caged in jails, prisons, and juvenile detention” centers according to the Movement for Black Lives’ policy paper on prison conditions.
  • Schools continue to miseducate our children. According to The Atlantic, “In 2018, Teaching Tolerance conducted online surveys of 1,000 American high-school seniors and more than 1,700 social studies teachers across the country.” They found that “slavery is mistaught and often sentimentalized.”
  • Discriminatory pay disparities have locked Black families in a cycle of despair. According to a report by the Economic Policy Institute, median Black wages in the year 2000 were 79.2% of White wages; by 2018, this gap had widened to 73.3% of White wages. Further study by the same Institute showed that White and Hispanic wage growth “has been about four times faster than that of Black workers” over the last 18 years, except at the very lowest and very highest levels of earners.
  • As of 2018, more than 3.2 million Black children are living in poverty — a rate of 32% according to The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Columbia University researchers project that poverty will “rise twice as much among blacks as among whites.”
  • A 2004 study showed that job applicants with a “white-sounding” name were 50% more likely to receive callbacks than those with “Black-sounding” names like Lakisha or Jamal.

The data points go on and on. Black women are 243% more likely to die in childbirth compared to their White counterparts. Black communities are subject to runaway pollution and environmental injustices, such as the Flint Water Crisis.

Black dignity has remained under attack because slavery has never ended.

With this realization in mind, it’s obviously impossible for White people and institutions to “celebrate” Juneteenth. Instead, the moment demands moral clarity on how one might disrupt, defund, and dismantle White supremacy.

Demonstrators march down I-94 in St. Paul, Minnesota, on May 31 during a protest over the death in police custody of George Floyd. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

How to honor Black liberation

The most obvious starting point for observing Juneteenth is to make it an official paid holiday. Many organizations — and even cities, like Tempe, Arizona — have announced such holidays in recent days. In addition to designating Juneteenth a holiday, cities and states should provide educational resources on the topic of racial oppression.

Here are other suggestions for organizations seeking to honor Juneteenth in a real way:

  • Pass the mic. Turn over your platform, your position, and your power to Black folks. Get out of the way.
  • Create safe spaces. Give your Black colleagues ways to shed light on how safe (or unsafe) they feel in your organization. Believe their testimony, and do the work to instill an equitable culture. This must be consentful and voluntary.
  • Rigorously review the way your organization handles the hiring, firing, and mobility of Black workers. Do you have Black board members, leaders, and executives? If not, it’s time to move out the current hiring managers and institute a reparative strategy. Retroactive pay may be due.
  • Review your supplier and consultant demographics. If you find a lack of racial diversity, do the work to upend your procurement process and rigorously adopt inclusion of Black-owned small businesses as contractors.
  • Donate funds and material support to Black liberation organizations in your area.
  • Study the Black Lives Matter movement and its demands at the local and national levels.
  • Get creative. Engage your organization in activities that support Black communities: e.g., closing gaps in access to quality education, housing, healthcare, nutrition, financial resources, locally produced Black media, internet, technology, arts and culture, and economic opportunity. Use your resources to close the gap.

In the same way that we understand “liberty and justice for all” as a foundational value of American society, we must also understand that the movement for Black lives has nothing to do with a political party or stance; it is a moral imperative.

Juneteenth is an excellent time to underscore the seriousness of this fight.

June 19 is not just a day off

“A day of atonement is needed on Juneteenth.” —Tia Oso

No need to dress it up with superficialities — we must meet Juneteenth head on. Juneteenth should not be treated as an easy-out. It’s not a one-and-done, photo op, or public relations gimmick. Honorable celebrations of Juneteenth must be tied to acknowledging and righting real-world wrongs.

In a time of widespread uprising, many non-Black folks are awakening to new levels of consciousness. Some may feel reluctant to come face-to-face with the anti-Black harm they have done. But it’s important to realize that discomfort is where the growth happens, and true allyship requires never-ending growth.

Though racism is often characterized as a “Black” issue, the truth is that the work of undoing White supremacy is ultimately White people’s work to do. White folks have to hold each other accountable, dismantle discriminatory spaces, use their bodies and resources to defend Black lives, and teach anti-racism to their children and anyone else in their world.

While we celebrate the reunification of Black families on Juneteenth, it’s important to note that this holiday came about as a result of intentional deception designed to keep Black people from discovering that they were free in the two years post-emancipation. These insidious activities, and the entire history of oppression in this country, has effected generational harm that we must acknowledge, reconcile, and repair.

Juneteenth is the gateway to Black reparations

It is impossible to discuss slavery in 2020 without unpacking the real spiritual and material losses suffered by Black people throughout the slave trade and in generations since.

Previous generations have depicted slavery as an abomination that ended in 1863. These generations have gleefully asserted that “Lincoln freed the slaves!”

In reality, post-slavery Reconstruction came to a quick and brutal halt with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, Black Codes, lynchings, terror, and constant discrimination designed to keep Black people in a state of economic and psychological enslavement that continues to this day.

Juneteenth provides an opportunity to study the impacts of this history — and a perfect framework for beginning to develop possible solutions in partnership with Black experts willing to engage in this work.

Juneteenth demands moral clarity on how one might disrupt, defund, and dismantle White supremacy.

For organizations that were built by slave labor or profited from it, Juneteenth is a chance to research where the descendants of those impacted might be in the world today, and to extend economic recompense for the labor that was stolen. It’s also a chance to examine current-day labor and compensation practices, to ensure that Black people are being hired, promoted, and equitably paid.

For policymakers, Juneteenth is a call to re-examine policies that facilitate Black entrepreneurship, particularly diverse ownership in healthcare, media, technology, agriculture, and other sectors that shape individual and cultural realities. It’s also a time to get tough on police brutality, defund policing, and invest in Black communities.

For political parties, Juneteenth is a chance to either step aside or cultivate pro-liberation Black leadership and campaigns, and to reshape the way communities are governed.

For Black folks, it’s a chance to stay Black, heal, and enjoy one another.

As dual pandemics of coronavirus and police brutality reshape our nation, this Juneteenth is a time for Black communities to gather (virtually), break bread, and discuss our vision for the new world that these crises are creating. What do we need? What do we want?

What will we do with our power?

Diversity isn’t enough

Expressions of solidarity are rolling out across social media — and so are posts from brave Black truthtellers exposing the racist actions of individuals and institutions whose words ring hollow.

At great personal risk, Black whistleblowers are making it impossible for people and places to continue papering over their anti-Blackness with hollow nods to diversity and solidarity.

In response, it is incumbent upon organizations to dismiss racist people and departments that have been outed, and to create new environments in which all people can live and work equitably.

If your organization’s only Black executive is the one in charge of diversity and inclusion, you have a problem.

If your organization hired a Black head of diversity after a major controversy but failed to provide that person with resources and support to effect real organization-wide change — and they quit pretty soon after their hiring — you still have a serious problem.

Juneteenth 2020 is the time to dig deep into Black people’s feedback — and reckon with it.

It’s a time to commit resources to promoting healing. From counseling and therapy to meditation, mindfulness, and work-life balance, Black people need unique support in order to heal the deep scars of anti-Blackness.

And when you consider the “profound neurosis of racism” as described by the great Toni Morrison, it becomes apparent that non-Black folks need some healing, too.

Like our ancestors who walked from plantation to plantation on the first Juneteenth, Black people today are marching forward to reclaim our dignity, our joy, our healing, and our futures.

This is not a moment, this is a movement. This storm will not end, so there’s no need for anyone to think they can “ride it out.” The reality is that Black folks are standing in our truth, demanding authentic action, and seeking real power shifts.

This is the future, and this is the spirit of Juneteenth.

Visions of a different world. Emboldened by my mothers.

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