Juneteenth, the Humanity of Black People, and the Need for Firm Deadlines
*This post is excerpted from remarks of Enola Aird, Community Healing Network’s Founder and President, delivered at the Juneteenth Evening Prayer Service of Light and Liberation hosted by St. Luke’s Church and Trinity on the Green, in New Haven, Connecticut, Thursday, June 17, 2021.
Happy Juneteenth. All across the country, people are celebrating the passage of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act.
For me, Juneteenth represents an anniversary, but also a cautionary tale.
Now that it has been made a federal holiday, it is essential that we revisit the history that followed the first celebration of Juneteenth, and do everything in our power to make sure that it does not repeat itself.
Juneteenth came two years and six months and 18 days late. But in a fundamental sense, the celebration came much too early.
Imagine the excitement and jubilation that Black people in Galveston in 1865 must have felt upon hearing the news of the Emancipation Proclamation, and its message that they were free. After years of being treated like property that could be bought, sold, mortgaged, inherited, and taxed, they must have felt such joy, such expectancy, such hope. But alas, that hope would be dashed—again and again—from Juneteenth 1865 until this present moment.
The devil, as always, was in the details. The first Juneteenth would turn out to have been a celebration of freedom in name only; a celebration of freedom as defined by our oppressors; a celebration of a freedom that has never addressed the most powerful impediment to complete freedom for Black people: the lie that we are less than human.
The Emancipation Proclamation only applied to enslaved people in the states that were “then in rebellion against the United States.” It would take the 13th amendment, ratified eleven months after Juneteenth, on December 6, 1865, to formally abolish the institution of enslavement in the United States.
But “formally” did not mean “actually.”
During a short-lived period of Reconstruction, there were more words about freedom and equality with constitutional amendments, but Black people continued to be subject to control and terror and violence and trauma not unlike what they had experienced before Juneteenth. Jim Crow laws would follow—maintaining the level of fear and terror to which Black people were subject. And when they fled North during the Great Migration, they were met by continuing mistreatment. When they sought to integrate into schools, they were told that that would come with “all deliberate speed.” Which meant slowly, and at a time and place of white people’s choosing.
As W.E.B. DuBois put it “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” To understand why this happened, we need to consider another proclamation, one much less well-known, but in a sense just as important as Lincoln’s. This one was issued by Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America. It was called the Cornerstone Address and it was delivered on March 21st, 1861, a few weeks before the start of the Civil War.
In it, Stephens declared of the Confederacy that, “Our new government[‘s] foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
The Cornerstone Address was a statement of the lie of White superiority and Black inferiority told centuries ago to justify the enslavement of Africans. The lie marked the continent of Africa and its people as less than. The lie has shaped America’s treatment of Black people at all times—before, during, and after Juneteenth.
The Emancipation Proclamation and all the other amendments and laws aimed at promoting “racial equality” are the tip of the iceberg. But underneath the surface of all those initiatives, is the spirit of the Cornerstone Address. Although the South lost the war, the lie of White superiority and Black inferiority has continued to quietly drive American attitudes and actions toward Black people. The lie is always at work—insidiously delaying true freedom and justice for Black people
To paraphrase Nina Simone, the lie has never been abolished from America’s way of thinking. Until the lie is extinguished, Black people will continue to be treated as less than human—no matter what proclamations are made, what constitutional amendments or legislative initiatives are passed, or what holidays are celebrated.
Some people call Juneteenth the Black Fourth of July. But the Fourth of July celebrated freedom taken by the colonists and it focuses on their agency. Juneteenth celebrates freedom given by someone who had no right to take it in the first place or to give it back. As children of God, Black people were already free. The celebration of Juneteenth has not focused us enough on the many rebellions by Black people in the quest for their freedom—the countless acts of agency by Black people. Juneteenth also exemplifies freedom delayed, which has, for centuries, been a hallmark of America’s responses to the rightful claims of Black people for justice.
The lie of White superiority and Black inferiority cast Black people out of the circle of humanity. We Black people must see our struggle as about much more than racial justice. It is a struggle to reclaim our rightful place in the circle of humanity—which must include our righteous claims to be made whole for the crimes against our humanity—for full reparations.
All this week, people have been holding Juneteenth commemorations, and, at many of them, I have no doubt, people have said something like this: “we have come a long way and we have a long way to go.” That is a constant refrain when it comes to matters of justice for Black people—as though our lot in life is to suffer indefinitely. We, Black people, must do everything we can to ensure that making Juneteenth a national holiday does not further enshrine that attitude.
I do not mean to be the skunk at the garden party. I do understand why Thursday’s signing of the Juneteenth Act may be cause for celebration. But unless it is followed by aggressive, unprecedented action to attack the lie that Black people are less than human, it will, like so much government action that has come before it, be nothing more than smoke and mirrors.
The deep lesson of Juneteenth is that we, Black people, must not accept perpetual struggle as our lot in life. We and our children deserve to be completely free—and by a date certain.
The lie of White superiority and Black inferiority is the dehumanizing thread that runs throughout the whole fabric of our society. We, Black people, must focus on freeing ourselves from the lie; and making precise and plain demands for a concrete plan of action to abolish the lie–once and for all—with clear deadlines, solid commitments, benchmarks, and assignments of accountability.
At Community Healing Network, we reject the notion that the struggle continues. We say instead that the struggle is going to end, because we, Black people, are going to end it.
To Black people, we invite you to join us to reclaim our rightful place in the circle of humanity.
For others who would be true allies, we invite you to do your part to welcome Black people back into the circle—by moving decisively beyond words to concrete, sacrificial actions, and setting deadlines and benchmarks for yourself.
No matter what others may do, in the spirit of the late Dr. Maya Angelou, founding chair of CHN Board of Advisors, we, Black people, will rise. We will rise because we are the children of the amazing people who, in their time, made a way out of no way.
We will do the same in our time. And we will do it with a sense of urgency and against a deadline—for complete freedom for Black people—freedom in body, mind, and spirit.
Our children—and our ancestors—are waiting.
By Enola G. Aird, CHN Founder and President