A Bittersweet Juneteenth

Americans may or may not know there’s more than one Independence Day in the United States. In addition to the Fourth of July holiday all Americans recognize, black Americans commemorate our ancestors’ freedom from slavery on Juneteenth.

Two years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, General Gordon Grander formally issued an order carrying out the end of slavery on June 19, 1865. Today, Black Americans celebrate our joy, culture, and resilience on Juneteenth, and reflect on our collective journey through togetherness, song, laughter, and good food.

But this year, in the wake of a slew of state-sanctioned acts of violence against black people, our legacy of trauma is front of mind. That trauma, broken open again in recent weeks, serves as a stark reminder that even as we recognize our monumental freedom from bondage, black Americans have never known true liberation.

And it’s long past time — for white and black Americans, and indeed all of us — to work together toward realizing true justice and freedom in this country.

Over the past two weeks of national protests, I have heard some people decry our criminal justice system as broken. They’re right that the system is unjust, but it’s important to understand what black folks learn the hard way: The system wasn’t built to protect us, because anti-black racism is at the core of our country’s foundation.

Even during its ugliest and most violent expressions, in other words — even when our brethren are killed — our justice system has functioned exactly as it was intended.

For more than 400 years, black Americans have been targeted and murdered in cold blood simply for being black. In the 17th century, slaves and free black Americans alike were under constant surveillance to “detect, prevent, investigate, and prosecute black alleged misconduct,” according to a brief published by the American Constitution Society.

Following our ancestors’ freedom from bondage, anti-black surveillance was codified for nearly a century through a dizzying array of Jim Crow laws that criminalized our blackness, caused widespread poverty, and generally kept us “in our place.”

The first federal housing policies in the U.S. segregated black communities away from prosperous neighborhoods and toward public housing. Later in the 20th century, our country’s leaders created a war on drugs to further target us and perpetuate our criminalization. And so on.

These profound injustices have come to the fore during this moment of acute crisis.

COVID-19 is killing twice as many black Americans as white ones and is disproportionately pushing black Americans further into poverty. Our anguish and frustration over the stagnation in our fight for justice cannot be divorced from our mourning of the brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, friends, and community members we have lost to police brutality, vigilante racism, and other modern-day acts of lynching.

These weeks have been among the most challenging in my lifetime. We as a community are filled with tremendous grief, anger, and pain, not only because of these individual losses, but because we have been through this time and time and time again with no sustained change or progress.

We risk being targeted by state-sanctioned violence or contracting a deadly virus because we have no choice. We protest because we are fighting for our lives.

Our enslaved ancestors were emancipated on Juneteenth — but the promise of true freedom in this country has not been fully realized.

So on this Juneteenth, let us all contemplate our country’s legacy of slavery. Let us all consider how our systems and institutions still reflect the racist and colonialist values that this country was founded upon.  And most importantly, let us commit to solidarity over complicity.

Now is the time for us to do the hard work of reimagining what justice looks like. Let’s build a system that truly protects and values black lives and dismantles systemic oppression as we work toward true freedom and liberation.