Adaeze Okoli, Research Analyst, June 19, 2020
As a young Black woman, working amidst the current turmoil of a public health emergency and burgeoning racial justice uprising is exhausting. Although the threat of COVID-19 still looms, an equally pervasive and lethal killer continues to rear its head—racial injustice. I have found myself in the past few weeks oscillating between hyperawareness—of unjust killings of Black people, protests, legal actions—and turning it all off in the name of self-preservation. Simultaneously, many of my colleagues and others across the country are reckoning, yet again or perhaps for the first time, with the structural inequities baked into the very core of our country. Though I’m encouraged at the many organizations that have opted to observe Juneteenth, I can’t help but wonder where the recognition of this major historical event—the official end of slavery in the United States—was in years prior? It feels like a way to appease what so many of us have been calling out for decades, for a country-wide reckoning of one of our fundamental sins: enslaving millions of Black people and exploiting their labor.
Truthfully, my fear is that when the immediacy of the present moment begins to fade, the reasons for honoring Juneteenth will become lost or watered down. The responsibility of continuing the work toward racial justice rests on us as individuals and within our respective organizations. I think it’s also important to remember that these fights for justice are neither new nor quick. Black people in this country have celebrated Juneteenth since the late 1800s, but only as recently at 1980 did cities and states begin to recognize it as an annual holiday.
To me, Juneteenth represents many things: One, it represents an opportunity for us as a country to explicitly name and speak on the history that makes us uncomfortable and how the legacy of slavery and discrimination continue to negatively affect Black people. Two, it offers a moment for learning and reflection—activities that can lead to corrective action and social transformation. The history of Juneteenth and its significance is not one often taught in schools. This is a moment for all of us, Black people and especially our allies, to learn about this critical history and reflect on how we can build spaces that prioritize racial justice. Finally, it’s an opportunity to celebrate Black joy and humanity. In a country, rooted in antiblackness, choosing to lift up, honor, and respect Black people is a critical step in the right direction.