What does freedom really mean in a country that will do anything to ensure that some never experience it? What does freedom really mean in a country that does everything in its power to deny this most basic and fundamental right? It is these questions that African people have been asking since they first stepped foot on the shores of both the English and Spanish colonies of North America. They are questions that hold so much meaning in this place, because the United States has positioned itself as country dedicated to the ideal of freedom.
On June 19th, 1865, enslaved Africans in Texas were finally informed that they were free. It had been over two years since the Emancipation Proclamation. It was an additional two years that plantation owners sought to extract as much free labor as possible, so determined they were to maintain the flow of capital and excess profits at the expense of the lives of those who created that capital. Since that time, some European Americans have found insidious ways to continue to thwart African American attempts at experiencing freedom – from the dismantling of Reconstruction to the terror of Jim Crow, to the contemporary efforts to whittle away voting rights; in addition to mass incarceration, inadequate funding for public schools, and lack of access to health care. Furthermore, the social and political climate of today is one in which people are trying to strip away our collective memory – to have us believe that the horrors of slavery did not exist, and that we don’t have the right to teach our stories and learn from our past.
And so, what does freedom mean in a country that is still trying to take it away?
Perhaps our ancestors did not trouble themselves with such philosophical questions. For them, freedom meant tackling the present – a place to live, the ability to feed and clothe their children, a way to make a living. But perhaps most importantly, freedom meant the future, a vision of something they never had before. Juneteenth was a true commencement – the ending of the old order and the beginning of the new. They envisioned a world where they did more than live, they thrived. They believed they could be property owners and so they did – owning more land during Reconstruction than African Americans own now. They believed they could hold political office – and Black men were elected in record numbers to the U.S. House and Senate, as well as scores of local and state offices. (*) They believed they could be entrepreneurs – and set out to create Black-owned businesses including banks and insurance companies, some founded right here in North Carolina. They believed their children could be educated – and they created not only primary schools, but colleges, universities, law schools, medical schools, and pharmacy schools. They believed in love of family – and often traveled thousands of miles to reunite with long lost loves stolen away through slavery. Nothing could stop their vision of the future, and nothing did – not Jim Crow Terrorism, the end of Reconstruction, or laws stripping African American’s right to vote. They had a vision, a plan, and they persevered.
Perhaps the best way to commemorate this first anniversary of the Juneteenth National Holiday and to honor the sacrifices of our ancestors is not to engage in the wanton commercialization that has become the norm in America, but to engage in the same level of Afro-futuristic thinking that they engaged in. We face similar threats to our freedoms, but we cannot allow those threats to hamper our vision and planning for the future. We must pledge to our ancestors – and to ourselves – that we will continue to fight for the future we deserve; the very future our ancestors lived and died for.
And so, this Juneteenth, while we are out enjoying the various celebrations with friends and family, let’s make a pledge to ourselves that we will each do one thing to create a better world for ourselves, our families, and our communities for the next 365 days. We will commit ourselves to picking one area of Black life – from health care, to youth development, to voting rights, to environmental justice, to support for the elderly, to reducing gun violence, to economic empowerment, to housing reform, and supporting the Black family – and vow to spend the next year actively engaged in seeking solutions to the problems that continue to vex the African American community. We each can make a difference; we just have to believe it. We have to have faith in a better future. Our ancestors did, with the odds stacked against them. There is nothing that can stop our vision of the future from manifesting as well.
Next Juneteenth, let us report back on our results and activities. If we all get involved, we can make a true difference in the lives of African Americans throughout this country. Follow us on all CRSJ Social Media channels with the #JuneteenthPledge and let us know your vision! Juneteenth should be a celebration – and next year let us celebrate all the changes that we have made for the better! Let Juneteenth serve as a reminder of how far we’ve come and let it light the path to a better and more promising future.
(*) Black women did not get the right to vote until the 19th Amendment which was ratified in 1920.
– Shaw University’s Center for Racial and Social Justice – Dr. Erin H. Moore