Juneteenth is a commemoration that extends far beyond the Emancipation Proclamation, and its development and history is rooted in the continuing struggle for liberation in our country. The history of this freedom celebration tracks along the Black experience in this country of having to fight for more rights and continues to remind us today to celebrate our progress–and continue the work toward liberation.
While emancipation events coalesced from multiple dates that marked when enslaved people received slavery in their states, there was a common theme in those celebrations to celebrate freedom, grieve the past and continued impacts of enslavement, and commit to the ongoing fight of making our country live into its values for all.
After Reconstruction, the commemoration of this date became a radical and risky act, as Jim Crow laws harshly punished the assembly of Black Americans–especially an assembly to assert freedom and power in the country. Many of the public celebrations were reconvened toward the end of the Civil Rights era to similarly recognize the hard-won progress, like the passage of national civil and voting rights laws, mourn the lives lost to secure those victories, and commit to the continued work.
The evolution of the commemoration of Juneteenth makes me remember the James Baldwin quote, “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”
As people gather in communities across the country this month, there will again be celebration, grief, and commitment to the work ahead. Celebration that after this year of so much loss, losses that disproportionately impacted Black communities, we have the ability to gather. There will be grieving for those not present and for the continued systemic racism we are still fighting in our country. And there will be the commitment to the work as it moves forward.
Even as we have a broader recognition of the history of Juneteenth in our country, its significance as a call to action for liberation remains pressing. As we debate the history being taught in schools, experience the ongoing violence and disproportionate harm in our justice system, see the right to vote threatened in states across the country, and wonder if our democratic systems will hold, this Juneteenth is an opportunity again to celebrate, grieve, and collectively commit to liberation for all.
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About the Author
Taylor Stewart (she/her) is the Vice President of Organizing Leadership at Leadership for Educational Equity, and is based in Baltimore, Maryland. She is responsible for building and supporting the pipeline of leaders advancing educational equity through collective action in their professional or civic capacity at the local, state, and national level.