Juneteenth became a federal holiday in 2021 however it has not been fully adopted by all the states. For those of us who have been celebrating this holiday for years we understood these adoptions were part of the reckoning of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other African Americans who have lost their lives through racially motivated violence or mistreatment. However, just from the holiday's original inception there is still much to do in the work of freedom fighting.
Juneteenth originated in Galveston, Texas which was considered to be part of the far western region of Union control. The Emancipation Proclamation had given a temporary freedom to slaves in bondage in the South on January 1, 1863, as they were viewed as crucial to aiding in the Confederacy's success to campaign for war. Now, there is a long-standing debate by scholars on what Lincoln's motivations were for why he did not take up the cause against slavery sooner than he did with the Emancipation Proclamation. However, what is crucial to note is while this proclamation was shared in 1863 it was not until 1865 that slaves in Texas were informed that they were free and had been for two years. So in 1866, the very next year, those newly freed Bondsmen and women decided to celebrate Juneteenth and thus began for many Black communities the yearly celebration of Freedom Day or Emancipation Day (if you're in Texas).
Where We are Today
This year, Juneteenth will be right after the Father's Day celebration, which means countless Black Fathers who have been celebrating the holiday may have a little extra swagger, joy and the BBQ picnics will be on point. However, there is a pallor of sadness and frustration over this joy. The rights and freedoms of many Americans have been under attack and lost. In countless places around the country even teaching the history of racism in this country can result in dire consequences for school districts and teachers.
My daughter and I recently toured an exhibit on Black History. My daughter was struck by two things. The first was the number of contributions to science in technology by Black people - from the Super Soaker, the bane to many a child in countless summer water fights, including myself (I had 6 Super Soakers as a child), to the preservation of blood plasma, which for those of us who have needed blood transfusions, are thankful to the life-saving technology. The second thing that struck her was the long table lined with names and histories of Black people lost to racial violence at the hands of police or community members. She was quiet about it for a long time until we stopped for ice cream (in which a Black inventor really needs to work on something better for those of us with lactose intolerance). Before she got her ice cream she turned and looked at me and said the following:
"I don't know why some people hate us so much. We have made some great things but I guess we still need to fight for our (Black) freedom. I am going to do something cool too, but don't worry mommy I will also make sure I fight for everyone's rights."
Now of course I am sure many of you would think, "Well that's not surprising, after all she is YOUR child" - which I suppose is valid as I have since her birth entrenched my home in Black art, Black books, Black history and even go as far as being very selective of her toys. Nevertheless, to be clear what I teach on race in my home is the pride of the contributions and accomplishments of Black people, the realities of the struggle even when it has lead to death; including the brutality of that death if needed, we have had The Talk, and talked about colorism, because my daughter is biracial and will need to understand the privilege that gives her to navigate the world. What I did not teach or approach her with was the drive to activism. As I feel with religion, it is important that a child chooses their path once they are presented with the truth of the world.
Yet this revelation of my daughter who aspires to send people to space (thank you Katherine Johnson) is what I see when we teach the truth to our children. When we are honest about our history, show we care about the rights of others, when we take the time to admit mistakes have been made and continue to be made that is the conclusion many of them make. Our children are smarter than us and they are often driven by the desire for fairness. It is why these attacks on education are insidious. It drives me to remember why many of my own ancestors especially those in bondage valued education, education is the first stepping stone to freedom.
Call to Action: A Focus on the Future
So before you take a bite into that piece of rib or slide to right doing the Electric Slide Juneteenth weekend take a moment to reflect on the truth. That while we are celebrating there is still much to be done in the work of freedom. For many of us we may find ourselves having the same arguments on race we had before 2020 or may even be wondering if the protests for justice in 2020 even happened. I want you to remember:
"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
- Dr. Martin Luther King
Juneteenth is not a reminder of how far we have come but a reminder of how far yet we need to go.
I challenge you all dear reader to the the following:
- Tell the truth.
- Teach the truth.
- Live the truth.
Tell the truth:
When you hear misinformation even from people you care about correct them, especially if children are around. In these years of "fake news", "kind-of news" and "opinions as news" it is important we take time to clear up those confusing messages. I know this can be confusing for even adults but there are resources you can use to help you and we at the library are here to help. This however is important because if we repeat lies, half-truths and spread misinformation this can lead to suffering of others or even physical harm.
Teach the truth:
Teaching about race is NOT racism. If you belong to a majority group by not talking about race it can give the messaging that race doesn't matter. Also importantly it will help children learn to challenge the normalized messaging they receive about race and other marginalized groups, leading them to be more accepting of differences. So take the time to read culturally diverse books, watch films and listen to diverse music (you can even get your own copies of diverse titles during Summer Learning). The San Jose Public Library often offers programs to help children (debate, reading comprehension, summer camps with a focus on social justice topics - these happen in various school semesters) and adults understand topics related to race and discrimination.
Live the truth:
Attend Juneteenth events and other cultural events from marginalized groups. Celebrate but also take the time to learn the history of those events, art forms and celebrations. However, I challenge you to not stop at learning but move into action. Show your children, friends and family that you value diversity and inclusion by donating to social justice causes, attending rallies, writing/calling your elected officials to take action when an injustice happens.
Also join us at the San Jose Public Library as we celebrate Juneteenth this month and celebrate Black Voices throughout the year.