The true history of America, as celebrated by Black folk.
“Are the great principles of political freedom and natural justice, embodied in the Declaration of Independence, extended to us? What to the American slave is your Fourth of July?”
—Frederick Douglass, 1855
What to the Black American is your Fourth of July, America? While on that day we may have become independent from one oppressor, America was certainly not free—not when 3.95 million people in America were still enslaved by 7.4 percent of all American families five years after Douglass made this statement. Those numbers could even be low, since it was common for a White Southerner to be a slave master but not technically a slave owner.
Today, Black Americans do not remember July 4th as their Independence Day, because we were not freed from slavery until June 19th, 1865.
Juneteenth (a combination of ‘June’ and ‘19th’) commemorates the day in which all Americans were declared free, which is also why the holiday is celebrated as ‘Juneteenth Independence Day,’ ‘Freedom Day,’ or ‘Emancipation Day.’ It came two years and some change after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee, leader of the pro-slavery force during the Civil War, surrendered at Appotamox, Virginia, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to inform enslaved African Americans that the bloodiest war in U.S. history had ended. It was on this day, June 19th, that every Black person in America was freed, at least in the officia, legal context of a White person owning a Black person on paper.
“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 personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor. The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
— Major General Gordon Granger, General Order Number 3 (June 19, 1865)
For years, the United States has recognized July 4th as Independence Day for the country. But that day has not been a marker of liberation for Black folk historically and it is not true to the authentic American narrative of independence today. As a national day of independence, it’s quite hypocritical for America to consider the Fourth of July the marker when a sizable population of the country, and a population that built the very economic structure of this country, was still enslaved. Black labor was foundational to the growth of this country and its economy. Our ancestors built this country, from its earliest infrastructure— including everything from the White House, the U.S. State Capitol, Wall Street, and railroads in the South, to the very music genre of Rock n’ Roll, Blues, Jazz, and Hip-Hop. Our potato chips, ironing boards, traffic lights, and caller ID were made by Black folks.
What’s more, 40 out of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves. That’s right—over 70 percent of our nation’s founders owned another human being and claimed their country were free from tyranny. Under our Constitution, Black people were considered three-fifths of a person. Ten of our first 12 presidents—the representatives of the people—actively claimed ownership of another human being. This is who we were as a nation. We are a country founded on White supremacy, a country conceived in liberty and born in shackles.
Any development made in this country often had Black people behind it, because we have always been exploited for cheap labor, taken advantage of by oppressive systems. This is not to say that the Indigineous people and immigrants of this country didn’t perform amazing advancements for America as well, because they often did, but it was the enslavement of Black people that catalyzed America’s economy and made us a world power. Black people are the blueprint.
We cannot begin to celebrate the Fourth of July until we as a nation recognize where the true roots of independence for all Americans planted themselves and when that freedom was given the chance to grow.
Forty-five states and the District of Columbia now recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, with Texas being the first to do so in 1980. Texas houses the very site where the last slaves were notified of their freedom. Texans, however, began celebrating Juneteenth “beginning in 1866, with community-centric events, such as parades, cookouts, prayer gatherings, historical and cultural readings, and musical performances,” according to Congressional Research Service’s “Juneteenth: Fact Sheet. “Over time, communities have developed their own traditions. Some communities purchased land for Juneteenth celebrations, such as Emancipation Park in Houston, TX. As families emigrated from Texas to other parts of the United States, they carried the Juneteenth celebrations with them.”
The celebration of this holiday by Black folk is ingrained into our culture. It is our history and the history of America. While the rest of the country rejoices on the Fourth of July, Black folk are turning up two weeks earlier, celebrating the breaking of literal shackles bound to us and the hope of a future where we can be truly free. The Declaration of Independence is a fine document, but it was not created with every American in mind, for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was stolen from, and built upon, Black people. Juneteenth is the extension of that promised independence.
No president of the United States has ever supported declaring Juneteenth a federal holiday. At this point, it is an obvious disservice to the authentic narrative of this country and its history. To change that, the US Senate passed a resolution last year recognizing “Juneteenth Independence Day” as a national holiday, but it has not yet been approved in the House. Federal regard for Juneteenth would allow for paid holiday time for a lot Americans and a legitimate recognition of a point in our history that true progress was really made. Large American corporations like the NFL have made Juneteenth as a company-wide paid holiday, according to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, but this move is rich with irony, coming from an entity that deals in the exploitation and regulation (think Capernick) of black bodies.
As the nation experiences the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, with global support and outcry for the injustices they see in other countries, it is crucial we understand the true history of each space we inhabit. That starts with recognizing the horrors of slavery, the lack of reparations still present today, and the importance of Juneteenth. The disrespect shown every day to Black folk is perpetuated by our president, who initially scheduled his rally for Juneteenth in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of one of the most severe White-on-Black attacks in American history: the Black Wall Street Massacre. That’s literally terrorism.
Unfortunately, it’s also important to recognize that not every Black American was truly freed on Juneteenth. While it is the date that many have come to recognize as the national abolition of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to border states in the Union at the time, so remaining slaves were shackled until the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 18th, 1985—almost six months later. Even then, Black Americans faced involuntary servitude and inhumane labor conditions. For decades after the ratification, former plantations still had a stronghold on Black Americans, making leaving the sites of their trauma as risky as escaping official slavery in prior years. Juneteenth is not only a day to celebrate the emancipation of Black people in America, but also a day of mourning for those to whom freedom was never granted.
Over a century-and-a-half since Juneteenth, Black Americans are still not yet free from the bondage of slavery in the sense that we are still terrorized by violence from our oppressors and systemic racism that continues to kill, maim, destroy, and imprison Black lives. We are not only in the middle of a global pandemic that disproportionately affects Black people, we are the country with the highest prison and jail population, as well as the highest incarceration rate in the world. In 23 days of protests for Black Lives Matter, at least six people have been killed and at least three Black bodies have been left hanging in public spaces, deemed as suicides by the police, despite their resemblance to lynchings. The 13th Amendment does not, in fact, end slavery, but protects it.
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
— The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution
The free labor of prisoners in the United States represents a minimum annual value of $2 billion of jail and prison industrial output. While we no longer practice chattel slavery in America, slavery is not at all dead. It lives on in the prison system that entraps Black Americans in systemic imprisonment, effectively prohibiting them from voting and getting jobs. It lives on in consistent police brutality against Black people, under the assumption that they are inherently criminals, rather than real human beings. There is no brutality against our White counterparts when they perform the same actions we do (i.e. holding a bag of skittles, wearing a hoodie, sleeping in our car, sitting in our own home, playing with a toy gun, etc.). This is why we chant ‘RememberTheirNames,’ and not just the names of Black men, but the Black and queer women who have been specifically ignored and had their narrative either erased or disregarded in the conversation on race in America today. Modern-day slavery is seen in the disproportionate charging and sentencing of Black folks committing the same crimes as Whites. It is seen in the imprisonment of brothers possessing dime bags of weed back in the 90s while White businesses profit off of marijuana sales and are declared essential businesses during a global pandemic. Black people are still enslaved—now, they’re just the property of the government, used for cheap and often free labor to turn a profit.
Juneteenth is an opportunity for us to celebrate the end of the slavery in some aspects, but Juneteenth is also a holiday of mourning, and it’s a time for us to reflect on the positionality of Black people in America. It’s an opportunity for us as Black people to take back our power by living in the truth of our narratives and continuing to demand the freedom and equal treatment of Black folk in every capacity.
This Juneteenth, let’s come together and remember our ancestors, the ones who live in the coding of our DNA and our shared experiences as a powerful and brilliant group of people. Find comfort in the food of our culture and allow it to feed your soul as we let ourselves rest, and allow us to participate in the radical practice of self care before continuing the fight.
As a friend of mine said, “You are your ancestor’s wildest dream.”
Sign the petition to make Juneteenth a national holiday here.
For more information on Juneteenth itself, visit Juneteenth.com