The conundrum of celebrating Juneteenth
The idea of “rejoicing” the day Black people had our God-given freedom “returned” to us reinforces the slave master mentality
A pair of shackles worn by enslaved people are on display in the Slavery and Freedom Gallery in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images embed
My woke state of mind is having a hard time with “celebrating” Juneteenth
The sordid legacy of slavery makes the observance bittersweet. To me, the idea of “rejoicing” the day Black people had our God-given freedom “returned” to us reinforces the slave master mentality that is so deeply intertwined in the DNA of this country.
President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was not intended to be some great triumph of justice over hate and bigotry. The action was a military strategy, simply intended as “… a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing … rebellion…”. The proclamation only applied to the enslaved people in rebel states. Slave states bordering the Union and the Confederacy were exempt, as were three Confederate states under Union control.
Emancipating the enslaved people was a way of harming the economies of states that seceded from the union.
A legacy of oppression, a future of …?
I have such deep sorrow for the way three centuries of the Peculiar Institution harmed my ancestors, and the way its legacy will continue to be an obstacle my son and his children must surmount. In the country where “all men are created equal.”
As badly as we wish slavery never happened, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So, any discussion of Juneteenth must include an examination of how “manifest destiny” and ideals of White supremacy have been the catalyst for so many atrocities upon humankind.
We must reflect on how the wealth generated by the slave trade and its victims is at the foundation of many rich American families, and many of our mightiest companies. And, reflect on how some American cities perpetrated slavery.
We must reflect on how slave owners received reparations for the “injury” of replacing their enslaved laborers with wage-earning employees, yet talk of reparations for the victims of enslavement and their descendants is deemed a lightning rod issue.
Talk of Juneteenth must include a review of the fierce resistance some White people waged against the newly freed Black people — a resistance that was a progenitor to the Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, anti-miscegenation laws, redlining, and any number of codified counter-measures deployed to protect White privilege by regulating the advancement of Black people in American society. A resistance that continues to this day.
And, in this context, the term “Black people” means “anyone not White.”
Slavery is not just something we must “get over”
We must educate future generations about the worst we have been, in the hope of creating a more compassionate, inclusive future society. Only then might we create a “post-racial” society.
If Juneteenth becomes a national day of observance, we must spend that day reflecting upon America’s “what-ifs”:
- What if our country had been built upon principles of acceptance and inclusion?
- What if generations of non-Whites had been embraced for the contributions their culture made to the fabric of our society, instead of being forced to assimilate and conform while their culture is appropriated?
- What if “separate-but-equal” education never existed, and we had generations of non-White people who had spent their lives pursuing higher education to its fullest?
- What if millions of people had expended their life energy making contributions to society, instead of expending that energy on the fight to be treated as equals?
- What if early America was a nation built by people uplifted, instead of being built on the backs of people held down?
This commentary first appeared on Medium