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Juneteenth in 2020: a Toast to the Afro Future; a Celebration Dripped in Blood

Note from the editor: This year is the first that Youth To The People will officially commemorate Juneteenth. Our offices will be closed in order to allow our team to learn more about Black American history and take action individually. With respect for a day that is complex, both celebratory and filled with reminders of injustices past and present, below is a history of Juneteenth and its modern-day significance.

By Kenya Denise

We are currently living through one of the most earth-shattering, eye-opening, revolutionary moments in American history. To live in America in 2020 is to exist in the middle of an economic depression, a global pandemic, the rise of Fascism, and brutal, relentless racist violence at the hands of both police departments and vigilantes. Due to systemic and institutional racism, Black people suffer disproportionately from all of the previously listed deadly viruses. In the last two weeks, in addition to the burden of Covid-19, we saw the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Robert Fuller, Malcolm Marsch, Tete Gulley, and countless others whose names we do not know, on replay. On Twitter. On TV. We are exhausted. I can’t sleep. I am sick. We are terrified. They’ve begun to hang Black bodies from trees, again. 

That is why this year’s Juneteenth feels bigger. Perhaps because we are living through some of the most damning, revealing moments of American history. “This time feels different,” my mother, a Black woman who grew up in the Jim Crow South, tells me. And I understand. The reckoning has come. America’s hard, ugly truth has been regurgitated and it forces you to pick a side. Are you a racist or are you an anti-racist? There are no more bystanders. There is no more in-between. 

Interested in learning more? Find anti-racist resources here.

To most, Juneteenth is known as an African-American day of celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. It occurs annually on June 19th. “Juneteenth” is a joyful portmanteau signifying that day.  It’s also known as “Freedom Day,” and some have called it the second Independence Day. But is it, really?  

On June 19th, 1865—155 years ago—in Galveston, Texas, Union General Gordon Granger read a federal decree to enslaved Black peoples notifying them that after 246 years in slavery, they were finally free. “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 hired laborer," he read.

This decree was from Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which had been issued on January 1st, 1863. At the time of the proclamation, there were 4 million enslaved Black peoples and America was still in the middle of the Civil War. The Confederate states purposely disobeyed the Emancipation Proclamation, and because Texas was particularly remote, expansive, and had a notably small amount of Union troops, during this time, enslaved people were smuggled from neighboring southern states into Texas in order to escape the watch of Union troops. The message of freedom was not delivered to Texas for over two-and-a-half years. And of course, no debt was paid. No debt has ever been paid. 

Though many wish to view this as a triumphant moment in American history, I want you to know that it is not. There is no happy ending to this story. The enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation sparked a violent backlash from White slave owners. Confederate soldiers, still in uniform, began to violently attack, rape, and lynch newly freed slaves. Slavecatchers formed the first police departments. Black people remained in slavery, not by law, but by consistent oppression and disenfranchisement.

Still, we celebrate this day because it signifies the generations of strength and unity of Black people while also reminding us of our history and our daily fight for freedom.

When it came time for the first annual Juneteenth, it was illegal for Black people to gather in public spaces due to segregation laws. So instead, Black folx went to the river to celebrate. It originally took the form of church; Black people dressed in their Sunday best, played music, sang, barbequed, and listened to sermons. They drank strawberry soda and red punch, they ate red velvet cake and strawberry pie to commemorate the bloodshed of our people. 

As Black people continued to struggle to find true freedom in America during the 1940s and 1950s, the celebration of Juneteenth died down. It resurfaced again during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and began to take on more of a secular, artistic, Afro-futuristic tone in the 1970s. That same tone still exists today amongst Black activists who have been pushing Congress to recognize it as a national holiday, paying reverence to African-American history, progress, and power. 

Today, slavery still very much exists. Chattel slavery turned to segregation laws turned to mass incarceration via the school-to-prison pipeline, which turned to prison labor and leaves us once again back at chattel slavery. As of writing this, Juneteenth is still not a federal holiday in the United States. If this is the first you’re hearing of Juneteenth, you’re not alone, but every single American should know this history. So, spread the word and think—have Black people in this country ever really been free? Are you free?

Written by Kenya Denise for Youth To The People