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Celebrating Juneteenth: Remembering the Past and Resisting With Joy

Source: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Juneteenth is a holiday that marks the anniversary of June 19th, 1895, the day the last enslaved people in Texas were freed. The irony of President Biden signing a bill recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday just two days after Texas banned critical race theory from being taught in schools is not lost on anyone. Educators in the very state where Juneteenth originated are now banned from teaching students about the history of the holiday. There is certainly reason to celebrate Juneteenth finally being recognized as a federal holiday — particularly for the Black activists, like Opal Lee, who have spent decades advocating for it — but it is necessary to acknowledge that this symbolic gesture is not enough to dismantle the systemic racism that prevents Black Americans from being truly liberated, even after 156 years.

Source: Bree Newsome Twitter

To mark the occasion of Juneteenth, Global Health Corps (GHC) held space for our community members to reflect on and learn about the significance of Juneteenth, led by Equity Strategist and Facilitator (and former GHC staff member!) Toyosi Olowoyeye. Toyosi began the session with a brief history of the holiday. After two years of resisting President Lincoln’s proclamation in which slavery was abolished, Texas was finally forced to free their remaining enslaved people on the authority of General Order №3. This order is particularly significant because it is one of the few legal documents that established “absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.”

It’s always startling to be reminded how recently in our nation’s history slavery was abolished. As an American society, we’ve been indoctrinated to distance the present time from 1865 when in actuality, there are so many residual effects of slavery felt today. Just 13 years prior to Juneteenth, Frederick Douglass gave his iconic speech in which he posed the question, “What to an American Slave, is your 4th of July?” To this day, these sentiments ring true, especially as we see legislation being recklessly passed across the U.S. to create even more barriers for Black voters, as we see an unrelenting amount of violence against Black people at the hands of police officers, and as we witnessed COVID-19 take the lives of approximately 200,000 Black people.

Over the years, Juneteenth has been the personification of “joy as an act of resistance.” Even with several failed attempts to have it recognized as a federal holiday, with an attempt made as recently as last year, Black Americans have found community with each other in the face of oppression to celebrate their ancestors. During a reflection activity called an Ancestral Blessing, Toyosi remembered the ancestors who didn’t make it to Juneteenth and shared the pain she feels knowing they never felt freedom. This is why she prioritizes rest, peace, and connection in their honor. Toyosi’s hope for Juneteenth is for the holiday to continue to serve the purpose of fostering safe spaces of celebration for the communities it is meant to center, while simultaneously sparking education and action for those who are unaware of the significance and history of the holiday.

Source: Preston Mitchum Twitter

As a white person, it feels odd to have off a day that was never meant for me. That is a sentiment that is shared by many Black activists who fear not only that Juneteenth will be commodified, similar to how MLK Day has been, but that low-wage workers who are Black will not reap the economic benefits that white people will. My hope is that my fellow white folks will join me in de-centering ourselves and instead listen to and uplift the many voices of Black Americans celebrating today, open up our pocketbooks, and fight alongside the many Black-led organizations who are leading the fight for absolute Black liberation. We’re already 156 years behind schedule.

Black-led organizations to donate to:

Resources to learn more about Juneteenth:

Bailey Borchardt is a graduate of City College of New York’s Colin Powell School of Civic and Global Leadership, Communications Associate at Global Health Corps, and a resident of New York City.

Global Health Corps (GHC) is a leadership development organization building the next generation of health equity leaders around the world. All GHC fellows, partners, and supporters are united in a common belief: health is a human right. There is a role for everyone in the movement for health equity. To learn more, visit our website and connect with us on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook.

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