What Is Juneteenth?

Today marks the 157th anniversary of Juneteenth. As part of Bethel’s commitment to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts across the institution, we’re exploring the meaning behind the holiday commemorating the effective end of slavery in the United States. Even though the Fourth of July celebrates the United States’ independence from Great Britain, not everyone in the country experienced freedom in 1776. Even after Abraham Lincoln pronounced the legal end of slavery when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the message didn’t reach Texas until two and a half years later, on June 19, 1865. We honor the anniversary of that legal freedom today.

Offering her expertise in the field of reconciliation studies, Dr. Claudia May leads us in an exploration of the meaning behind Juneteenth. May is not only a professor and program director of reconciliation studies at Bethel, but a scholar, poet, and award-winning children’s book author as well. 

Why is Juneteenth a holiday?

Juneteenth helps us acknowledge the injustices and abuses 18th- and 19th-century enslaved Black people confronted and lived through. Juneteenth teaches us to learn about the history of slavery, be inspired by the courage of the enslaved, value their ingenuity, ponder their human frailties, lament their sufferings, and savor their contributions to the socioeconomic and cultural developments of our world.

This holiday invites us to consider how God can enable us to redress systems fostering discrimination. Freedom is rarely given freely or sustained without labor. As part of the reconciliation healing process, the sacred stories of our enslaved Black forebearers and their descendants need to be heard, felt, cherished, and built upon.

As a poor Palestinian Jew, Jesus observed holidays that were central to the Jewish tradition—holidays that documented injustices and violations against the people of Israel. These gatherings of remembrance also appreciate the role God plays in liberating oppressed peoples. This practice of remembering, in itself, presents us with opportunities to take time to stop and pause and appreciate the sacred lives of our predecessors.

What does Juneteenth teach us?

Juneteenth teaches us that many defy landmark legislative decisions in order to protect their privileges at the expense of demeaning others. Before Juneteenth, several slave owners moved to Texas so they could continue to profit from the free labor of enslaved Black people. Still, across the nation, enslaved Black people found ways to affirm one another’s human dignity.

Under the cover of night, many observed practices called hush or sacred harbors in wooded clearings. In these settings, enslaved people worshipped, testified, danced, sang, created spirituals, laughed, wept, and consoled one another. Through these expressions of emotional freedom, they found psychological, physiological, and spiritual release. They refused to numb themselves to the traumas they endured. Information shared during these gatherings enabled many to escape slavery. Within the context of community, observing these therapeutic rites allowed the enslaved to affirm each other in their beautiful, complex humanity while confronting adversity.

And yet, we must be mindful not to accept the notion that Black people are always resilient, forever strong, and can innately brave all forms of pain and exploitation. The violations enslaved Black people and their descendants lived through are real. We treasure the human dignity of our enslaved ancestors by resisting labeling them as “slaves” or “chattel”—debasing legal and social categories imposed upon them in order to justify their inhumane mistreatment. 

We follow the example of formerly enslaved Black freedom practitioners, Reverend Jack Yates, Reverend Ellias Dibble, Richard Brock, and Richard Allen, who raised funds within the Black community to purchase 10 acres of land in Houston, Texas in 1872 so Black people could commemorate Juneteenth in a public space. These wisdom-bearers called this place of recreation Emancipation Park. Long before the end of slavery, these forerunners possessed an emancipated mindset steeped in self-regard.

Up to the 1950s, Black people could use no other public swimming pools or parks in Houston, Texas. The creation of Emancipation Park teaches us not to allow prejudice to deter us from valuing our human agency or undermine our ability to foster neighborhood-focused, community-minded initiatives.

What is Juneteenth not about?

 Juneteenth does not celebrate slavery. Instead, we respectfully appreciate the sacred lives of those who lived through slavery, confronted injustice throughout history, and pursued freedom as an ongoing endeavor for all generations to enjoy. As Langston Hughes notes in his poem, “Freedom”:

I tire so of hearing people say,

Let things take their course.

Tomorrow is another day.

I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.

I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.

         Freedom

         Is a strong seed

         Planted

         In a great need.

         I live here, too.

         I want my freedom

         Just as you. 

The recent massacre of the 10 beloved Black elders in Buffalo, New York, on May 14, 2022, reminds us that while we must lament the atrocious killing of these dearly loved individuals, their lives can inspire us to love in the midst of hate and redress systemic disparities.

And so, I think of one of the beloved 10 elders, Mrs. Pearl Young. She was a devout Christian. She loved helping people. She led Sunday school. Such was her tenacity to learn, she returned to school in her mid-30s while a mother of three children. She earned a social science degree specializing in gerontology.

Mrs. Pearl Young served elders in her community and taught in Buffalo public schools as a substitute teacher in her 70s. During the pandemic, she stayed connected with young people by tutoring them through online instruction platforms. Mrs. Pearl Young so beautifully lived out the African American ethos of passing forward wisdom to the present and next generation.

What can we do to acknowledge Juneteenth?

Esteemed photographers such as Florestine Perrault Collins, Gordon Parks, John W. Mosley, and Roy DeCarava used their camera to capture the human dignity of Black people. Yes, we must document the images of Black people being racially abused. We must resist sugar-coating history so that, with God’s help, we can do all we can to stop violations of the human presence.

And so I think of Pastor Dwayne Jones, of Buffalo, New York, who journeyed to Uvalde, Texas, to help comfort those reeling from the massacre of 21 beloved children and two teachers. Weeks earlier, he buried one of his parishioners, Geraldine Talley, who was killed on May 14, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. Pastor Jones serves knowing that God’s love permeates all races, languages, cultures, classes, denominations, and backgrounds.

We can also ponder images such as Gordon Park’s 1963 photo, “Boy with June Bug.” The Black boy lies on the ground cushioned by grass. He holds one end of a string with his fingers and ties the other around the body of a June bug. The insect walks along his forehead. The boy closes his eyes. He is relaxed. He is not afraid. He is at one with nature. This child’s willingness to pay attention to his surroundings and interact playfully with nature reminds us that all children should experience the gift of play and engage their creative imagination without fear.

We can show our gratitude for members of Black communities by incorporating their insights and practices into our daily interactions with others. We can be teachable and learn from visionaries such as Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells, Langston Hughes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ruby Bridges, Thurgood Marshall, and W.E.B. Du Bois.

We can revere Black church mothers and fathers, family members, teachers, mentors, and so many others whose expertise, love, generosity, sacrifices, and bravery encourage present and future generations to realize dreams of equity and flourish.

What does Juneteenth celebrate?

Churches, community centers, nonprofits, social groups, and local government agencies will hold Juneteenth celebrations in their region. During many Juneteenth gatherings, some will read poetry or sing songs. Food will be served. Attendees will play music. People will testify. Time will be devoted to remembering, celebrating, embracing the lives, cultures, languages, and histories of Black people. Juneteenth reflects diverse voices and perspectives making up the Black community. These gatherings uplift, affirm, and can even restore the wellbeing of participants. All are welcome to join the festivities.

Juneteenth does not condone racial terror, belittle abuse, or overlook the violation of the human holistic self. We acknowledge the existence of historical terrors. We recognize that injustices continue. We also take time to rejoice in the ways Black people continue to enrich our societies and our world at large. We celebrate their human, precious, sacred presence. We can ask God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit to teach us how to listen to others with empathy. We can ask the Holy Trinity to help us use our privileges for the greater good. And we will pass the lessons, gifts, and lives of the enslaved forward by following a justice-minded God whose love liberates us all.

  

Dr. Claudia May is a professor and program director of Reconciliation Studies at Bethel University.

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