Over the last few weeks, I have seen countless activities for Juneteenth celebrations. In the Winston-Salem area alone there is the 1 Love Festival, open mic poetry, Juneteenth Gospel Superfest and much more. President Biden officially designated Juneteenth a federal holiday last year, which offers employees a paid day off to commemorate this historic milestone. Juneteenth has been celebrated in the Black community in some form since its inception on June 19, 1866, yet many Americans have not fully embraced the habit of the holiday, especially the day off. My family and I are hosting a Juneteenth cookout on Monday for family and friends as a small way to increase adoption of the newly recognized federal holiday.
What does it mean for this country now that Juneteenth is celebrated alongside national holidays like Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Fourth of July? There is a longstanding tradition of celebration and joy in Black culture, but all too often this celebration comes in stolen and intimate moments of respite within our community. Now that Juneteenth is a federally recognized national celebration of freedom, what message and tone should we set for our community and our country? How can we fully claim and own Juneteenth as a way to honor the work that has brought us to this point?
As the holiday approaches, I have reflected on the unbridled joy my ancestors must have felt over a century and a half ago when the last group of enslaved Americans in Texas learned the news for the first time- We. Are. FREE! I’ve shared in earlier posts other moments of joy and pride, whether in Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation or in ensuring the stories of enslaved Americans are shared at the White House. These moments, like that first Juneteenth, are freeze frame moments of joy. We know that struggle preceded these milestones, and struggle will continue, but in these moments we can pause and celebrate. Celebrating Juneteenth as a holiday means sitting and reflecting on that moment of joy in Galveston, Texas as it was felt at the time, and giving ourselves a brief reprieve for the long journey we continue to trod on the road towards freedom.
Many people say that Black joy is a form of protest. I would also argue that joy provides the fuel needed to pursue justice.
Nina Simone captured the need for the ongoing pursuit of justice in her song, “I Wish the I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free”, which is on steady rotation in my “fight the power” playlist. She sings about a yearning for freedom which would lead to deeper connection and humanity for all of us:
I wish I could share all the love that’s in my heart
Remove all the bars that keep us apart
I wish you could know what it means to be me
Then you’d see and agree
That every man should be free
Juneteenth represents not only the joy and jubilation that comes from freedom, but the on-going struggle to achieve freedom and justice. Because no matter how far we’ve come, these words sung by Nina Simone still ring true. Celebrating Juneteenth means holding the tension between exultation and challenge, hope and tenacity, joy and justice. We celebrate to both remind us of how far we have come, and recommit to what we can still achieve together.
Juneteenth is foundationally about restoration through celebration. We need to recommit ourselves to change, but we also must give ourselves the restoration we need to thrive through this change. One way I do this is by focusing on the bright spots that give me hope. We have so much despair in our society now, and those dark clouds can frequently blot out the light that brings joy if we don’t look hard enough. Juneteenth is a reminder to look for those bright spots and recommit to finding them to rejuvenate ourselves, our families and our communities.
One of those bright spots I’m lifting up this year is an organization I’ve recently connected with, Reparations Generation. They live the spirit of Juneteenth each day–they are both celebrating the joy of freedom while also continuously pushing to expand on the freedom we’ve gained. They are enacting a vision of reparations right now, giving Black Americans descended from slavery $25,000 to support purchasing a home in Detroit. These payments are funded in part from those who are descendants of families who enslaved people, helping to repair the harm done generations ago.
This work is a bright spot to me not just because of the active good Reparations Generation is doing for families, but because what they are proving is possible if we continue to strive for freedom and “remove all the bars that keep us apart.” They are showing that reparations are possible and a scalable solution to close the wealth gap that began when enslaved Africans first arrived in this country. Once they have a successful model in Detroit, they will expand it to other cities in the country. The purchasing of homes not only helps the families, but also invests in a virtuous cycle that improves the communities in which these families are investing.
We have seen the potential of reparations in the past, because we as a country have already completed successful reparations initiatives. My grandmother was interned in a concentration camp in California during World War II, and she later received reparations that she invested in our family. This drastically changed the trajectory of her life, and my own. The GI Bill gave reparations to soldiers who sacrificed some of the prime working years of their life in the form of home loans that helped create a broad middle class in this country. Reparations Generation is showing this is possible for descendants of enslaved Africans as well.
On this Juneteenth, take time to celebrate, but also take time to reflect. What are some other bright spots you are seeing, and how can we lift them up and replicate the joy they bring to us and to others? How can we use these bright spots to better invest in our community this Juneteenth, in pursuit of justice?
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