My Independence Day Is Not The Fourth Of July — It’s Juneteenth

It took me years to fully understand the historical context and meaning of Juneteenth. Once I did, it changed my life.
The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”

June 19, 2017 marks 152 years since the last 250,000 slaves in Texas received a message of freedom. News of the Emancipation Proclamation arrived to Texas two years after its signing — and more than a century after the rest of the nation was “free.”

Today, we celebrate this day as Juneteenth.

My earliest memories of the holiday involve my grandfather wearing his “Happy Juneteenth!” T-shirt while flashing his signature toothy grin. I can still recall the traditions that surrounded the day: long tables of food, good music, great company. There was a contagious quality to the excitement shared by my grandfather and many other community elders, particularly those raised in Louisiana as he was. Juneteenth’s full significance was never explained to me — my family wanted me to think critically and have the freedom to choose what I would observe — but I was always reassured of one thing: Juneteenth was a cause for celebration.

Throughout my childhood, I stayed true to my love for the holiday, despite my lack of understanding, and even as the enthusiasm of those in my life began to wane — perhaps due to a growing belief in pending equality, though I can’t be sure. Then one day, while in my teens, during a random encounter with a stranger, I was informed that Juneteenth was mostly a holiday for descendants of Southern slaves. And suddenly, a day I had long celebrated made me feel uneasy.

At that time, the word “slave” made my ears burn and my heart race, followed by feelings of immense shame. Slavery recalled a time in the South that I wanted to forget, and served as a reminder that all men aren’t created equal. I don’t know exactly why I was ashamed, but I think it had to do with the image slavery conjured of powerlessness and a loss of hope. The word “slave” made me think of tattered clothes, unkempt hair, and weakness — and like many Black Americans, I didn’t want to be seen as weak anymore, burdened by the pain Black Americans have inherited through the generations. So I stepped away from Juneteenth, hoping to erase the connection between my Blackness and slavery.

Like many Black Americans, I didn’t want to be seen as weak anymore.

Black American youth are taught a history that begins with slavery, and though we’ve made great strides toward equality, we are constantly reminded that we will never be fully equal. So I overcompensated. I aimed to be all the things society said a Black girl wasn’t, to prove I was just as good.

I tried the colorblind approach.

“I’m just like a white person with brown skin,” I told myself — and I hoped this would be true. I saw all people as equal and believed during my adolescence that a tug at my bootstraps was all that was required of me to be successful. No significant events had proven otherwise — until college when I learned the realities of our multi-level oppressive system.

I falsely believed that having the “perfect complexion” (which included being a light enough caramel to pass the Brown paper bag test) and straight hair could protect me from a legacy of oppression. But a small class exercise my freshman year of college changed the way I saw the world, helping me to understand a stinging truth: I would always be seen as an “other.”

That exercise was “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh, an article that includes several specific examples of everyday privileges white people have that often go overlooked. One quote hit me especially hard: “I can choose blemish cover or bandages in ‘flesh’ color and have them more or less match my skin.” Until that point it never occurred to me that band-aids were meant to match your skin, or that nude was more than a color.

I would always be seen as an ‘other.’

It was then that I understood how often I was reminded of my “otherness” in the United States. Prior to that moment, I had chosen not to see the microaggressions, the difficulty I have finding hair products, or the lack of representation of Black people in media. I suddenly wondered how I could observe the Fourth of July when it celebrates freedom while I was still 3/5ths of a person; how I could honor American freedom when it wasn’t tied to my own.

What holidays, then, did exist for me? And then I remembered the warm hug and grin I would always receive on Juneteenth.

Once I understood why the elders in my life emphasized this holiday — because historically, others haven’t taken our centuries of oppression into consideration — my relationship with Juneteenth was profoundly changed. I celebrated my first “aware” Juneteenth five years ago, when I was 20 years old, and the significance of the day has only intensified since.

My family moved to Wyoming from Texas two years ago, and while my experiences have been fine overall, my otherness can feel particularly acute in my new home. In Texas, I could easily find remnants of my culture, and it was diverse enough that I always felt safe. Now I am in a state that is more that 92% white, in a town filled with Blue Lives Matter flags — because to many locals, police are only honorable, never corrupt. The most startling reminder of my otherness is a truck I see several times a week, adorned with two huge flags — one confederate and one American — and the occasional Blue Lives Matter flag.

Each time I see the confederate flag, I am reminded of the pain I used to feel when I heard the word “slave.” Seeing that big red “X” makes my palms sweat, and my breathing quicken. It often feels like a line in the sand — a reminder that I was never intended to live happily or safely in this territory. Each time I see the truck roll by, I question how anyone could argue that a flag rooted in the enslavement of my people is simply a matter of heritage.

But then I remember that my ancestors saw that flag during their quest for freedom, and that it must have triggered intense fear in them as well. And I remember that they still made it through.

The flag that haunts my neighborhood is connected to a painful past. But when I think back on my elders’ determination to acknowledge African Americans’ Independence Day, I am reminded that I have the option to choose a future filled with pride. More than that, I have the option to teach this pride to others — starting with my son.

Each time I see the confederate flag, I am reminded of the pain I used to feel when I heard the word ‘slave.’

As a Black male “pending,” many will try to define who my son is for him. I believe the best way to raise my son to be resilient and independent is to take an approach similar to what my parents and grandparents did with me — provide information on events like Juneteenth, but allow him to do his own research. This method will encourage him to explore his own identity and promote critical thinking, while educating him on all we have accomplished as a people within the last two centuries.

By taking him to national landmarks, providing him with historical facts, and celebrating diversity, I hope to prevent my son from feeling the shame I used to experience when I heard the word “slave.” I hope he’ll embrace his connection to a legacy of overcoming extreme adversity. I want him to know that we let nothing keep us down — not even the removal of our humanity.

Over the years, Juneteenth has allowed me to not only accept that my veins are filled with slave blood, but to celebrate this fact. As hate-based rhetoric and brutality become more common, I hold fast to the knowledge that Black Americans continue to carve a place for ourselves — even when we feel everything but wanted.

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