And it’s long overdue! Juneteenth has been officially recognized and designated a national holiday! On June 15th, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved the measure and on June 16, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly did the same. This bill was signed into law by President Biden on June 17 and codified an event long observed among African Americans. OUR celebration has been expanded into the consciousness of the entire nation.
I am genuinely unable to fully grasp the emotions of those blessed with the news of freedom. Whatever their age, they had spent their entire lives in bondage — the legal property of “inhuman” beings.
I imagine that freedmen could finally see freedom of movement without a note from the “massa” (which most of the slave patrollers couldn’t read anyway). I imagine the thoughts of the men believing that they would no longer be subject to beatings or, for maximum humiliation, sexually abused at the whim and will of a “massa” who could react brutally with the slightest provocation.
I imagine thoughts of the women who were relieved of the nightly fear of being raped and sexually abused by “massa” or any other white man so inclined. I can imagine the mothers who believed they no longer had to live with the fear that, without notice or warning, “massa” or “missus” could contrive to sell their child to another slave holder — separating mother and child forever.
I can see men and women, so allowed to marry, no longer in fear of separation from their mates or loss of their children. They no longer had to admonish their children to be good little pick-a-ninnies so as not to anger “massa” or “missus” and risk being sold off. Little children could envision a time when, before they grew old enough to be sent to the field, they would no longer be treated as pets or playthings of “massa’s” children.
They could all imagine themselves in their natural state — FREE!
While impossible to replicate their emotions with the news of freedom, I can fully understand the frustration of the descendants of enslaved persons who are harassed in their movements by “Karens” who illegally and arbitrarily decide in which spaces they belong or being beaten/killed by police at the slightest provocation. Events related to Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor or Darnella Frazier, the teenage witness to George Floyd’s murder, inform Black women that they are equally threatened in and outside of their communities. After all these years, Black parents must still give their children “the lecture” about surviving police violence in the streets.
We have been given a holiday to celebrate, but it must not distract us from the fact that little has changed in how brutally we can be treated and the work remaining to end that violence. The 2020 general election has shown our evolving understanding that our present and future welfare depends upon the free exercise of our votes.
Few among us should question the contradiction in Republicans voting unanimously with the Democrats to approve the Juneteenth holiday while voting unanimously against the Democrats in opposition to expanding the right to vote. They have told us with their actions that it’s OK for us to party, but not to participate. I do, and we must, totally reject this idea.
Like all stakeholders in this commemoration, I celebrate, but we must not allow celebration to blind us to the work that remains. After 156 years, this new holiday provides us the opportunity to reset, refocus and eliminate the remaining obstacles to full citizenship. If we realistically assess where we’ve been and choose to be as a people, Juneteenth offers the opportunity for reconciliation, social healing and real movement toward equality and national unity.
Williams is president of the National Congress of Black Women.