June 19, 2020
By john a. powell
Today we're observing the anniversary of Juneteenth—the day in 1865 when enslaved Africans in Texas learned that their enslavement was formally over. Yet they would exist in a world not quite enslaved, and not quite free. They then, as us now, would inhabit a space that is both deeply troublesome, but also hopeful. Troublesome because so many of the legacies of slavery remain embedded in our institutions whose foundations are rigid. But hopeful because institutions can change or be dismantled with the demands of the human spirit’s refusal to be only half free.
Juneteenth has always been a day of celebration, education, and remembrance in Black communities. It is one of the sacred symbols that Blacks, especially from the South and from Texas specifically, have held onto for over 150 years. One of the lessons of this historic day is that the struggle for freedom requires persistence. Despite President Lincoln issuing Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, African Americans’ bondage was extended for more than two years.
It was then, and is now, a strange time. At best, America has always been deeply ambivalent about the freedom and humanity of Black people. I recently went back and read some of the debates about the institution of slavery from that era. It is as illuminating as it is disturbing. Whites argued that Blacks were not persons, and could not speak or have ideas. Christians were split. Some argued for abolition while others insisted Blacks were meant to be enslaved and did not have souls. One of the great freedoms and important rights asserted by slaveholders was the right to enslave and dominate. These were not just attitudes, these were laws, institutions and norms. US Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote in an opinion in 1857 that Blacks, free or enslaved, could never be part of the American polity and were not persons. Talk about othering.
Some will argue that we should not judge what people did over 100 years ago by today's standards. And while that assertion carries legitimacy in some instances, in this case it misses the mark. The founders of the country and the settlers who came before them were very much aware of the tensions and contradictions of white men clamoring for freedom while demanding the protection of the institution of slavery. Think about it. There are several references to slavery in the Constitution without explicitly naming the word. There was concern that even including the word in the Constitution would taint the document. The drafters of the Constitution were ambivalent and split. Whites had the right to kill enslaved Blacks with impunity. In most cases it was not even a crime. Sound familiar?
But I want to return to and acknowledge the celebration of Juneteenth. Like much of American history dealing with Blacks, there are problems with the way the country, meaning whites and in particular the elites, approached Black freedom. There were too many conditions and caveats. There was too much concern for not making whites uncomfortable. "Reasonable" progress meant maintaining as much of white domination as possible. All of these tensions were reflected in Lincoln, and more often than not, found expression in law. And yes, Black freedom does require the end to white domination, meaning that those who are still gripping onto white domination and white supremacy will feel threatened.
But Black freedom is also tied to freedom for all, and the foundation of a real democracy as W.E.B. Du Bois asserted nearly a century ago. So Juneteenth represents a small step, but a giant symbol in the struggle for full freedom. And to my Black brothers and sisters, I know you get tired, and yet we must keep on pushing for our freedom and for the freedom of the entire country. We hold onto this memory on the journey from enslavement to half freedom, to fully belonging. We belong to a world not yet born, nor even fully imagined.
What we are witnessing today is encouraging for many reasons, among them the fact that we're seeing a new generation of Americans from all races and backgrounds standing with us to demand our freedom. Many institutions that actively or quietly benefited from our lack of freedom are finding the voice to speak out. Of course speaking out is not enough, but it shouldn't be dismissed either.
Now several weeks into these protests, we're seeing some victories in policy (although not enough), but it remains up to us to ensure those policies are enforced, and that we resist the inevitable backlashes to progress. Where does this backlash come from? It does not come from the fear of Black people as it is so often portrayed. It comes from the fear of equality and dignity for all people. That fear is derived, in part, from the notion that equality for Black people would come at a cost to those who are more privileged. But that perception appears to be changing.
The protests ignited by the murder of George Floyd have revealed an incredible consciousness not only to the persistence of anti-Black racism that underlies many of our institutions, but also to the realization that this racism doesn't only affect Black people. It harms all of us. These represent remarkable shifts in public opinion over a period of only a few weeks, and I see this as evidence that after more than 400 years since slavery took root in this country, a critical mass wants to build new structures and a new identity in which all of us belong.
Whether or not we will succeed is another question. I do know that what you and I and millions like us choose to do now may very well determine the fate of our country, our world and that of future generations. We must work ceaselessly to turn this historic moment, both a reckoning and an awakening, into a permanent shift towards justice.