Last year, Juneteenth came to Berlin, Germany.
On June 19, about 100 people gathered at the Bethanien – a former hospital in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg that has since the 1970s served as a hub for artists and a presentation platform for contemporary art – to commemorate the emancipation of African American slaves. Given Bethanien’s long history as a hub of progressive politics, it was a fitting place for people to celebrate Black American liberation.
Organised by an African American woman living in Berlin, the day-long celebration consisted of people singing hymns, reading poetry, and even performing drag. Although our bodies were shivering from the chilly weather and rains that poured intermittently throughout the day, our spirits were warm from the outpour of love.
I am ashamed to admit, but this was the first Juneteenth celebration I ever attended. I had never participated in such an event before moving to Berlin from the United States. Though that compunction is not solely mine to bear.
Growing up in Florida, I did not learn about Juneteenth in school. I also was not taught as comprehensive a history of slavery as I would have liked. Most of what I know about Black American history, I learned outside the school system. I was naturally curious and was already feeling the weight of being a Black woman in America, so I educated myself in radical anti-racism with help and guidance from Black librarians at my neighbourhood library and my elders. I learned as much as I could about slavery, racism and Black resistance. I learned about the Haitian Revolution and how my ancestors fought against chattel slavery and French tutelage. I learned about Bayard Rustin, a gay African American man who worked to affirm gay presence in the Civil Rights movement and shaped Martin Luther King’s activism. But still, I knew relatively little about Juneteenth and its significance.
Juneteenth, a blend of June and 19th, commemorates the US abolition of slavery under President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, belatedly announced by a Union army general in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865.
Also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, and Liberation Day, Juneteenth has been observed annually for more than a century. Many African Americans, especially Texans, have long been marking this day by organising rallies, parades and picnics, reading, reciting poetry, and simply rejoicing their liberation. African American professor Brittney Cooper recently wrote about her early experiences of the holiday in an essay titled Is Juneteenth for Everyone? “Juneteenth, for me, has always simply been a fact of life, something I commemorated before I knew I was doing it,” she wrote. “I remember learning the name for it in a book, as a young person, and then realizing that the random parade my mama often took me to on the campus of our local HBCU every summer, always happened right around Juneteenth weekend.”
Texas officially made Juneteenth a holiday in 1980 and 46 other states and the District of Columbia have followed suit. But in many states, such as my native Florida, Juneteenth did not garner widespread attention until recently.
The May 25, 2020 brutal police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed African American man, triggered widespread protests and a wave of racial reckoning across the US. This led Juneteenth to come under the national spotlight and led to growing calls for it to be made a federal holiday. Earlier this week, President Joe Biden heeded these calls and signed a law making June 19 a national holiday.
This past year of racial reckoning, of course, did not only result in Juneteenth gaining widespread attention and becoming a federal holiday. It also led many scholars and activists to start discussing how history is being taught and perceived in the US.
People started to vocally demand an end to the whitewashing of America’s history and casual celebration of racists in the country. Statues of enslavers, segregationists and colonialists have been taken down. Recently, the US Board of Geographic Names voted to remove the word “Negro” from about 20 geographic sites in Texas. Not only were these names highly inappropriate and offensive to Black people, but they were also testaments to how racism is still carved into the Texan, and wider US, landscape.
Since the killing of Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, there have also been growing calls for Black American history to be seen, discussed and honoured in its entirety. Activists not only demand the nation at large to acknowledge the legacy of slavery and the psychological, material and physical damage systemic racism still inflicts on Black Americans, but also want the country to take accountability for the systemic dispossession of Black Americans since 1619, the year the first enslaved African arrived at the Virginia colony.
Indeed, if we look at Texas, we see that Black history in the state is in no way limited to slavery. For example, Aleshia Anderson, a human resources worker who was born in Lockhart, Texas, can trace her paternal lineage back to St John’s Colony – a community built by freed slaves in the early 1870s. “It did not gain the richness of wealth like Black Wall Street, but many of us are still proud of that area,” she told me.
Black people have always been integral to the history of Texas. Not only did enslaved Blacks literally build the state – by clearing forests, harvesting crops and building houses – but they have remained a crucial part of social, political, economic and artistic life after emancipation. Despite countless obstacles faced by Black people in the US, they built, they created, they persevered, and this should be rejoiced
Today, we are at a crucial turning point in the United States. Demands for racial equality and justice are growing every day. The path to true racial justice, however, is still full of obstacles. And only by looking at and truly understanding history we can build a better future for everyone.
As Annette Gordon-Reed wrote in her book On Juneteenth, “History is about people and events in a particular setting and context, and how those things have changed over time in ways that make the past different from our own time, with an understanding that those changes were not inevitable.”
If we look at history with sobriety, leaving the prejudices engraved in us by systemic racism behind, we can clearly see the steps we need to take to achieve real equality and racial reckoning in America – reparations, restitution for the oppressed.
Juneteenth alone will not ameliorate the racial inequalities in the US. Nevertheless, this holiday provides Americans with an opportunity to look at history from the point of view of the oppressed (rather than the oppressor), celebrate Black American achievements and acknowledge Black American suffering.
Far too little has been done to redress the damage slavery and centuries of systemic racism inflicted on Black Americans. Even less has been done to exult how Black people thrived against such a brutal system. This is why Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating emancipation, is not only important but highly necessary.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.