Why It Remains Important To Honour Juneteenth More Than 150 Years Later
Juneteenth marks June 19. This day is primarily celebrated by Americans and is a holiday to commemorate the emancipation of African Americans from slavery in the US.
The holiday is 156 years old as it began June 19, 1865. However, despite Juneteenth starting in the US, it is still relevant today internationally.
The Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863 by President Lincoln and the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, was formally passed in the Senate on April 8, 1864, and the House on January 31, 1865.
The reason behind Juneteenth being two years later in 1865 is that although slavery was outlawed in 1863, a group of African Americans in Galveston, Texas, did not receive the news that they were free until 1865. This led them to create Juneteenth and celebrate this news.
Juneteenth is important beyond the US because Black people were enslaved under white rulership beyond the US.
For example, many Black people who reside in the UK are descendants of those from the Windrush generation. The Windrush generation migrated to the UK between 1948 and 1971 to help rebuild the country after World War II. The majority of these Black people were Caribbean.
These Caribbeans were descendants of slaves who were brought from Africa to islands, like Jamaica, by British slave masters to work as slaves under British colonial rule.
In the US, slaves were brought directly from Africa to work in the US as slaves, also under British colonial rule. Black people were also enslaved in several other countries across the globe. This is why it’s important to not view Juneteenth as simply an American holiday.
Celebrating Juneteenth in its early years was treated with high regard. As African Americans moved around in their new freedom, Juneteenth moved from being an originally Texas-based celebration to a national one.
People would dress up in military gear, there would be speeches from enslaved people and powerful Black politicians, and hymns were sung. It would be a full-on official event. There would be discussions of registering to vote, too. Something which many of us today may take for granted.
These previously enslaved Black people celebrating Juneteenth publicly was seen as an act of resistance. Even though the law was passed, the environment towards emancipation was still very hostile.
It hasn’t been a smooth sailing ride for Black people from there onwards. The emancipation actually created a major humanitarian crisis where approximately four million former slaves were left without support to transition into living in their newfound freedom.
Despite the Civil War being a step to allow freedom, many in the South and American society were still fighting to keep slavery legal. Many in the South and American society generally hadn’t given up the fight on freeing slaves, even though it was now illegal.
Therefore, the US military at first played a significant part in helping Black people with this by providing food, shelter and basic necessities to these former slaves. They helped protect the former enslaved Black people who were vulnerable at this critical stage.
However, when the federal government left the South, this was a signal they were not going to use their strength to ensure the civil rights of African-Americans were to be upheld. And we know that it wasn’t, as there were cases of Black people even 20, 30 years later being lynched publicly.
At this point, Black people had no anti-lynching law to protect them against this or other racist acts. These events eventually led to the creation of the Civil Rights movement. Another long, hard fight was endured in this era to eventually lead to the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Although the Emancipation of Slavery and the Civil Rights Act permitted more freedom and acceptance for African-Americans in society, unfortunately there still remains a thread throughout these years.
This thread is racism. There are still cases of overt racism happening today – from police brutality against Black people, to discriminatory rules in workplaces, to micro-aggressions.
And this all stems from the idea of ‘othering’ Black people, seeing us as inferior, with a desire to dominate and rule over us in some way. This notion was notoriously birthed from slavery. It inevitably poses the question that if this sentiment still exists, how free are Black people?
In places such as the US and the UK, where white people make up the majority and Black people are a minority, we must challenge and reflect how more racial equality can be achieved.
There are still several discriminatory practices Black people endure in society, making us feel inferior.
For example, wearing natural hair has effectively become a political statement, despite it naturally growing from Black people’s heads.
Laws have even had to be implemented to prevent such discrimination in work practices. For example, California was the first US state to pass The Crown Act. Following this, several other states including New York, Virginia and Washington also implemented this law.
A similar initiative has also been set up here in the UK too, with the Halo Collective, which is a campaign and code to help tackle hair discrimination in schools, workplaces and the street.
Examples of policing natural hair textures can also be seen as far back before the Emancipation Proclamation was even passed. The Tignon laws were passed in 1786 in the US state of Louisiana, which was under Spanish colonial rule at the time. These laws enforced Black women to cover up their hair with a cloth, known as a tignon.
So, examples of racism today, like this, are not actually random. They are symptoms of what has been going on for centuries before.
This all gives context as to why Juneteenth is still important today to celebrate. It’s because in white-majority spaces, the mindset and desire to control Black people in some way is still present. It has just evolved in different ways and sometimes it may be subtler than others. But it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Days like Juneteenth are opportunities to reflect further on how far Black people have come, as well as consider what more needs changing and where we want to be going in the future to completely dismantle racism. This means everyone and not just Black people. It took white people to support the emancipation and the Civil Rights Act in order for them to be successful, as they have the power to pass it.
So now we know that Juneteenth is important, how do we celebrate it in 2021? Well, there are a range of ways to do this.
In the UK, Juneteenth isn’t talked about as much, so if you are UK-based, you could help spread awareness about this event and why it’s important.
Beyond this, you could share resources and support charities or organisations who are committed to supporting the Black community and tackling racism. Organisations like Urban Synergy, for example, help provide young Black people in particular with resources to help them achieve their career goals through mentorship. I myself have benefitted from being on their mentorship programme.
Another way you can celebrate Juneteenth is by wearing red or hosting a small gathering – COVID restrictions permitting – serving red drinks. The colour red is prominent for Juneteenth as it symbolises the shed blood of enslaved people.
There are also several virtual events you could attend where you can learn more about the holiday as well as collectively celebrate it. For example, The Amistad Center for Art & Culture, Step Afrika! and James Madison’s Montpelier Museum are all holding virtual Juneteenth events.
So, with all this said, how will you be celebrating Juneteenth this year?
Words by Maxine Harrison
Maxine is a freelance writer with a niche in Black hair and also has a blog where she helps freelance creatives build their business and lifestyle: www.remireports.com
If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article and wish to speak to someone in confidence, contact Stop Hate UK by visiting their website www.stophateuk.org/talk
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