Today is June 19, 2020, and, more so than in any other year that I can remember, people all over the United States are celebrating the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Juneteenth or Freedom Day as it is sometimes called is a day that commemorates June 19, 1865, when slaves in Texas were finally told that they had been freed 2 and a half years earlier by the Emancipation Proclamation which Abraham Lincoln issued on January 1, 1863, and that their freedom had been cemented by the Union’s victory over the Confederacy when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered in April of 1865. It is a holiday that many outside of the southern African American community have known little about until recently as protests against racism and the corresponding resurgence of African American pride swept through the country (and around the world) in response to the deaths of several unarmed African Americans this year.
Juneteenth and July 4th are bittersweet holidays for me. As a person who loves America, whose family members have served, fought, and died or are currently serving in defense of the ideals that the US claims, either as members of the military or civil rights activists, it is difficult for me to feel great joy in either of these days. The emancipation of my ancestors would never have been necessary had America acted on the idea that it proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness“The United States Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
The final draft of the Declaration of Independence was approved on July 4, 1776. It was signed by most delegates on August 2nd the same year. Many of the men who signed this document, who proclaimed with their signatures that the words that were written within it were true, had either previously owned slaves or owned slaves at the time that they scribbled their names on the paper that gave birth to this nation. (Reference) The hypocrisy of that is infuriating to me.
After the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it took nearly 100 more years for this nation to free the slaves and even that may not have been done had the Union not needed the help of freed slaves in the Civil War.
The Emancipation Proclamation was a strategic move to try to keep the southern states from forcing slaves to fight for the confederacy not an act of genuine goodness. If the southern states had overcome their fear of handing loaded weapons over to slaves, had slaves been forced to fight for the Confederacy, the Union army would have been significantly outnumbered. My reason for believing this is because Lincoln was inaugurated in March of 1861. If he had wanted to free the slaves as a matter of conscience, if he wanted to do what was morally right simply for the sake of his beliefs, he could have done it the moment he took office. Instead, he waited until the Civil War had been going on for nearly a year and the outcome seemed uncertain. He waited until he had lost many soldiers and was looking for a source of new ones to fill his ranks. Who else would fight more ferociously against the Confederacy, show greater loyalty to the entity that delivered them from slavery than the freed slave?
I apologize for my rambling. Let me get back to my original point now.
As we celebrate Juneteenth this year, I hope that while we celebrate the day the slaves were finally set free from their physical chains, we do not forget that today 155 years after emancipation from slavery, people of color are still not yet truly free. Yes, it is now illegal to buy, sell, or own a human being or force one to work without compensation, but that is only one aspect of what it means to be free. We will not be free until the existence of systematic racism is publicly acknowledged and no longer debated by the powers that be so that movement towards rectification can begin in a meaningful way. We will not be free until we can walk any street, alley, or backroad in this country with as much confidence as a white man. We will not be free until equality is no longer an ideal to which we aspire but is a reality in our everyday lives. When our children no longer feel fear when they see the police, when we can walk around any store without drawing any more suspicion than the next person, when we no longer have to scream “Black Lives Matter” in the streets, when the validity of our humanity is no longer questioned by our judicial system, when there is no longer a need for a Black History month because the achievements of African Americans is written onto the pages of history books as firmly as it is ingrained into the fibers of the history of this country, when we no longer feel the need to record our interactions with law enforcement, when people go to as much trouble to find reasons why we should not have been abused/murdered by police officers as they do to find reasons why we deserved such treatment, when we can seek medical treatment without fear that medical professionals will put just as much effort into our treatment as they would any of their other patients, when we can have totally honest public discourse about the atrocities that this country has wrought on people of color and know that it is just a horrible episode that we turned the page on, when everyone can stand proudly and recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States flag knowing without question that the words “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” is a true statement, THEN and only then, will we truly be free.
2020 has indeed been a year of transitions, upheavals, changes, and challenges. I hope that we continue to move in the direction towards real and lasting racial justice and that we, as a country, refuse to go back to the way things were before simply because it is comfortably familiar for some.
I’d love to know your thoughts and opinions, so feel free to leave them below. Have a beautiful day!