With a clear understanding that knowledge actually is power, a vocal minority of right-wing and racist policymakers clearly scared of ceding their own long-held power–are trying to remove teaching and discussion about Black history, racism, and the ongoing struggle for racial equity in our country from our classrooms, from preschool to college. On June 19, we commemorate the end of slavery with a celebration now known as Juneteenth, a reminder of not just freedom won, but how it is fought for and ultimately realized. We are acutely aware of these lessons at a time when there are active efforts by racist policymakers to erase the true history of our nation and its continuing impact on Black and brown people.
Juneteenth honors the day when President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which had been issued two years earlier, was announced in Galveston, Texas, recognizing the freedom of the remaining enslaved people there. Even with Lincoln’s Proclamation, which applied only to states in the Confederacy, slavery was not officially abolished in the United States until the 13th amendement was ratified. And the 13th amendment did not truly ensure freedom, as it included an exception for “punishment,” which allowed slavery to continue in other forms, such as convict leasing programs, and the new Jim Crow system of mass incarceration. Freedom is never granted, it always won, and even then, realizing and keeping it is never guaranteed.
It is important for us to take this moment to educate ourselves and the next generation about the meaning of Juneteenth and reflect as individuals and advocates about what comes next. Long celebrated by many Black Americans, Juneteenth has become more widely observed in the broader culture in recent years, and was made a federal holiday in 2021. This demarcation came in response to the public outcry and call for change that erupted after the murder of George Floyd by police in 2020. While the remembrance of the end of slavery and the acknolwedgement that many white slaveholders illegally prolonged people’s servitude is necessary and valuable to our understanding of history, memorializing Juneteenth offers more symbolism than structural transformation.
In its recommendation of books to read for Juneteenth, Source Booksellers in Detroit wrote about Clint Smith’s How the Word is Passed: “We delight in freedom from enslavement, but look deeply into its impact on the country and ourselves.” This sentiment doubles as an apt description of how we approach Juneteenth itself.
As Princeton University Historian Dr. Eddie S. Glaude explains in his documentary podcast, History Is US, “with a clearer sense of our tragic, hopeful, and undoubtedly flawed story, we can start the work to reinvent ourselves.”