Reflection on Juneteenth

by Sonya Bhatia

CW: Slavery and Racial Violence

Yesterday marked the celebration of Juneteenth, the symbolic mark of the emancipation of enslaved peoples. In fact, Juneteenth is the oldest holiday that celebrates the end of slavery.  

Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, the legal words of freedom had not reached its effect on those inhabiting deeply Confederate areas. Enslavers often delayed the news and those who were now legally free from enslavement faced dire conditions despite their freedom. Union soldiers, along with many Black folks, marched to plantations and cities across the south to read aloud the Emancipation Proclamation announcing freedom. 

On June 19 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, two thousand Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger came to Galveston, Texas and overcame the confederate stronghold’s resistance. General Granger read aloud General Order Number 3:

“This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”

This action was met with immediate jubilation. Yet there were a number of different responses from people who were newly freed from bondage. Jubilation yes, but what was next? Navigating the journey to build their lives with integration into a society that had been hostile to them was probably daunting. Nevertheless, newly “freed” Black Texans found a new date to rally around: Juneteenth. 

During Reconstruction, Black folks feeling empowered by liberation pushed for “radical legislation.” Alongside this momentum and power, in the 1870s, newly freed Black Americans fundraised $1000 to purchase ten acres of land, and thus created Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas to further celebrate Juneteenth. It was celebrated informally, but declared a federal holiday in Texas in 1980, with many other states following suit. 

There are many lessons, celebrations, and truths that compose the legacy of Juneteenth. One of these, especially critical for non-Black communities, is to recognize and acknowledge the trauma and reverberations of over 250 years of slavery in the United States. The trauma and the oppressive racism are reproduced in our society and intergenerationally. The trauma of slavery still persists in the bodies of Black Americans. We must hold this truth and acknowledge the pain as well as to be gentle and heal. 

Transgenerational trauma is real, and enslavement was a cultural trauma. White Americans must acknowledge the historical and current oppression of Black folks. They must acknowledge their structural wealth from racial advantage. Another is to celebrate, center, and uplift the strength of Black communities and voices. This must be a day to remind ourselves to continue to fight for liberation and to heal. 

Post-Emancipation, Black folks fought vigorously and powerfully to uphold their vision of liberation. However, White folks and those with power found new structures to uphold White supremacy under a capitalistic context; mass incarceration became a tool of oppression and a form of modern day slavery. The 13th amendment gave power to government entities to newly define freedom vs not, and thus the post-emancipation prison system greatly reflected the slave system structure. Convict labor, unpaid labor built post-Civil War infrastructure on a national level. From the inception of mass incarceration until today, African Americans are charged more often and are subject to tougher sentences than their White counterparts. Prisons are inhumane, and deeply traumatic — physically, mentally, and emotionally.

The prison industrial complex continues to flourish. From the war on drugs to damaged and neglected neighborhoods and communities to other strategies that grossly stereotype and oppress Black communities, are direct results of government legislations that feed directly into the prison industrial complex. Black folks are disproportionately imprisoned and in neighborhoods with poorer living conditions and anticipated outcomes; these are socioeconomic oppressors that have been established to ensure the legacy of slavery. Though this has been on a continuum since Reconstruction, it by no means encompasses all of the United States’ racist legacy since and stemming from slavery. As a call on Juneteenth to non-Black Americans, do the work, the self-reflection, and the readings to realize the living racism in the United States and its undeniable roots in slavery. 

Juneteenth also marks an important point in the journey towards liberation. This is a day to remind us to continually center the Black community in the work towards liberation in addition to uplifting and honoring the strength that Black folks hold and act on. We must also remember to keep our celebrations and centerings intersectional. Harriet Tubman (1820-1913) helped Black folks from slavery in the South to freedom in the North. As a young girl, she was hit in the head by a weight thrown at another slave which led to epilepsy and narcolepsy. In fact, many punishments inflicted on enslaved people by slave owners led to disabilities. Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) was a civil rights activist and had polio as a child, she was heavily involved in protesting and in the movement to get Black Americans to register to vote. She was beaten severely while in jail leading to chronic health issues for the rest of her life. Jazzie Collins (1958-2013) was a San Francisco black transgender activist fighting for the rights of seniors, peoples with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people, and POC. These Black people’s lives were catalysts for social change and movement toward liberation for all of us.

Keeping intersectionality at the core, we must also acknowledge the work that Black folks have done in advancing identities and movements. The Stonewall Riots and the movement for LGBTQ+ rights were not possible without Black trans women fighting back from police brutality and misconduct, one main figure and instigator being Marsha P Johnson.  

One June 13th of this year, 19-year-old Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau was found dead, a survivor and outspoken activist calling for intersectionality in the Black Lives Matter Movement. On June 14th, Brooklyn Liberatio held a rally and march for Black trans lives, which drew inspiration from the NAACP’s Silent Protest Parade, which 10,000 Black people in NYC demanded an end to racial violence. Organizer and drag queen West Dakota had demonstrators wear white and congregate in front of the Brooklyn Museum. 

We cannot speak of Juneteenth without speaking of reparations. After emancipation, not only were former enslaved folks not given reparations, but instead White slave owners were given compensation under President Andrew Johnson. Black Americans are the only group that has not received reparations for state-sanctioned racism and oppression; meanwhile, White families profited immensely from their free labor. 

There exists a huge White-Black wealth gap in the United States, and the government must act now for reparations. Reparations can come in the form of whatever Black people decide them to be. Non-Black individuals, especially White Americans, should consider how they want to show up to help make it possible. 

Juneteenth is not only a celebration, but a call for deep reflection and action to fight against the legacy of slavery in our pursuit of liberation.