May 1865: when the United States began to rebuild from the rubble of the Civil War. Two months later, African-American slaves started to create a new existence entirely from scratch, after 246 years of being told they weren’t humans, let alone citizens of the country they lived in.
That’s why some black Americans decide to mark Juneteenth as the beginning of their culture and identity. It’s the beginning of establishing the community and resources black people would use to navigate the newfound freedom not experienced in over 240 years.
But it wasn’t the beginning of their legacy, and definitely not where they should begin reclaiming the inheritance they’re owed.
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June 19, 1865, also known as Juneteenth, was the day African-American slaves in Galveston, Texas learned that the Union Army (under President Abraham Lincoln) declared them free from chattel slavery. That meant that black slaves, their children, and future generations to come, were no longer forced to work on plantations for white masters. Then, it was six months later (December 1865) that the U.S. Constitution officially recognized slavery as illegal. Then, it took another three years (July 9, 1868) for the U.S. government to recognize African-Americans who were former slaves as American citizens with full “equal protection of the laws.”
Laying out this timeline is very important, especially for my African brothers and sisters. This illustration is for you, those whose families lived and still live on the continent. It’s important to realize what this timeline, and everything that followed, symbolizes for us.
African-Americans were only “free-ish” on that date, June 19th. And even after the July 9th ratification of laws granting citizenship, there was a century of legalized abuse and death threats that still haunts black Americans today.
This is where the conversation (or celebration, if you want to call it that) should start. This isn’t just for black America— it’s for all of us whose skin is black because our roots go back to the African continent.
In 1860, a ship called the Clotilda illegally brought the last group of African slaves to the U.S. state of Alabama (ironically one year before the Civil War, which ended slavery in America, started). That means that, as early as five years before Juneteenth, there were people who only knew Africa as their home living on American soil.
They, along with the nearly 4 million other black slaves already there, had to find the courage to create new homes in a strange land. They had to possess the foresight to know that while there wasn’t a way out of America, they’d have to find a path to generational prosperity. It was the Hiram Revels (first African-American senator), The Freedmen’s Bureau, and the founders of African Town that laid the foundation for any future person with black skin living in America to build on.
It’s a foundation that both African Americans and African immigrants get to benefit from today, regardless of when they set foot on this so-called Promised Land. A wave of West Africans began to emigrate to the U.S. in the 1980s, 112 years after the Reconstruction, suffrage, and civil rights battles that provided the framework the newly arrived could profit from. It’s in the historically black districts of Harlem (New York) and Bronzeville (Chicago) that first welcomed African immigrants, and gave them space to open restaurants, hair salons, and grocery stores that would be their financial lifeline. It was the years of sit-ins, petitions, and even uprisings that also gave African immigrants access (however limited) to the social welfare services they desperately depend on to get by.
If we’re going to celebrate Juneteenth the right way, let’s do it by remembering not our “freedom” but our rebirth. We’ve always been free people; that freedom was interrupted. Juneteenth was the first time our oppressors had to surrender what they’d stolen, what was ours to begin with.
And to celebrate it the right way, we have to remember that Juneteenth represents the reckoning our shared oppressor would have to face for more years to come. We can’t forget, in the words of Ilyasah Shabazz, the “denial of the African holocaust” that happened on African and American soil. And we can’t forget that the liberation in the Americas inspired the fight for liberation that would come in the African colonies.
Today, some of the most vulnerable African countries— specifically the DRC, Angola, Mozambique, and Sudan— received more in remittances (money sent abroad) than they did in 1980. The U.S. remains the top country since 2000 sending those remittances. In other words, even today, all members of the African diaspora depend on each other for refuge (literally and figuratively).
The largest African communities are in the South, including states like Texas, Maryland, and Virginia— states where slavery was once legal. If it’s not clear yet, the African community owes the history of their black American cousins the reverence it deserves every Juneteenth. Similarly, if you’re a black descent of slaves, it’s to your benefit to start your Juneteenth celebration honoring who your ancestors really were: enslaved architects, mathematicians, landowners…free men and women with a country that was theirs from the beginning of time.
Let Juneteenth be a celebration of a renewed sense of family, and a reminder to do the work necessary to make that connection across the African diaspora real, strong and clear.
Audiobooks on the history of the African diaspora (sponsored by AudiobooksNow60 Day Free Tail (Promo Code: PJ2M)