Juneteenth, also known as “Jubilee Day,” celebrates the arrival of Union troops to Galveston Bay, Texas, on June 19, 1865, with news that more than a quarter million African Americans were free by executive decree.
It was two years late, as the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed on January 1,1863. Now it’s a federal holiday and, along with the celebrations, it seems like a good time to report on the progress that freedom has made.
To be sure, freedom is a work in progress. We need only look at America’s founding documents and amendments. The country still hasn’t made good on all its promises. I chant with my fellow activists, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free!”
I don’t want to be a party pooper or rain on your parade. But we still have a long way to go, especially when persons can so quickly point to the illusion of a so-called great yesteryear.
We need more than time and space between then and now. It will require not only a change of pace but also direction. It matters who is up front and campaigning to lead this country. Unfortunately, America cannot get out of its own way.
Because we are somehow right back where this country started with a “white” Christian nationalist message that amplifies hatred of those racialized as “people of color” and supports anti-immigration laws, voter suppression and the denial of women’s rights. Because in their minds, it’s their right as God’s chosen people to strip everyone else of theirs, right?
Only “white” male landowners get to vote. Yes, this land was made for you to work for me. This is the founding narrative for colonialism in America. One of deep and systemic contradictions, you can’t just walk this back.
I believe it is only when we live free of the American caste system of race, which supports “white” supremacy and patriarchy, that we can say we have made progress.
Unfortunately, due to the sociopolitical construct of race, we are not free of it or the unconscious need to self-identify by colors, that is beige, here being mixed race, black, brown, red, yellow and white.
Because Henry Louis Gates Jr. is right when he asks, “Who has seen a black or red person, a white, yellow, or brown? These terms are arbitrary constructs, not reports of reality.”
Even the U.S. Census Bureau concedes, “The racial categories included in the census questionnaire generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically.”
Scientists from a variety of fields have been saying this for years. How long will it take for us to get the message and to finally be free of race?
I tire of hearing people say, “We’ve come a long way.” Immediately, I wonder, a long way from what — slavery, Reconstruction, lynching, Jim and Jane Crow segregation, mass incarceration, police brutality? No, we’re going in circles, and someone needs to admit that America is lost and has not merely lost its way.
“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,” poet Langston Hughes said.
It’s now or never — always. Quiet this talk of “back in my day.” Even the Africans who were enslaved knew of freedom’s importance, which is why they sang, “And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave/ And go home to my Lord and be free.”
Freedom is not delayed but being intentionally, legally and systematically denied to all.
“America pays a steep price for a caste system that runs counter to the country’s stated ideals,” Isabel Wilkerson wrote in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. “Our era calls for a public accounting of what caste has cost us, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, so that every American can know the full history of our country, wrenching though it may be.”
So, while we mark this occasion with celebration, we keep moving our feet in protest of systemic injustice less we be led by those who shuffle theirs, willfully slowing down freedom’s progress.