Juneteenth: A reason to celebrate or a reminder to repair?


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A guest post by Nora Gaines

Read Time 8 minutes
June 19, 2024

The meaning of Juneteenth, one of the United States's newest federal holidays, resonates differently for different people. Commemorating the day in 1865 that Union army troops brought news of emancipation to enslaved Black Americans in Galveston, Texas, the formal enshrinement of the day, long-celebrated by African Americans, highlights the imperfections of freedom nearly 160 years later. 

In this essay, educator and Odyssey Project instructor Nora Gaines reflects upon how the African American experience -- including enslavement and Jim Crow, but also joy and creativity – continues to be marginalized, denied, and outright attacked in public discourse. From recent bans on teaching Critical Race Theory (a misapplied phrase used to stand in for any honest analysis of African American history and systemic racism) to the ongoing refusal of Congress to discuss the possibility of reparations for the descendants of enslaved Black Americans, widespread, bone-deep reckoning with racism and the legacies of slavery in America continues to be elusive.

As Nora writes, Juneteenth is a day of celebration, but more than that, it's a day to propel us toward justice. On this Juneteenth, we invite you to think about the necessity of intertwining justice with freedom and what it might take to ensure that all inhabitants of the United States have equitable access to both. -Rebecca Amato, Director of Teaching and Learning

Read Nora's thoughts below.

As an American Descendant of Slavery, Juneteenth has felt intimate. I hold my ancestors and all that they endured with reverence and feel the love, sadness, and indignation nested inside me shaken from their resting places. It has been a bittersweet day to commemorate the fortitude of those that endured, to celebrate those that worked to secure their own freedom, and to honor them all with displays of Black joy.

Now, in Juneteenth’s fourth year as a national holiday, I contemplate its existence in the public discourse and radar. The Proclamation on Juneteenth Day of Observance, 2021 issued by President Biden states: 

“Juneteenth is …a day in which we remember the moral stain and terrible toll of slavery on our country. … A long legacy of systemic racism, inequality, and inhumanity. … On Juneteenth, we recommit ourselves to the work of equity, equality, and justice. Together, we will lay the roots of real and lasting justice...”

Sounds good, but the reality is, the same year the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act passed, over 900 districts nationwide, representing 35% of all students in K-12, endured intentional campaigns to restrict what was called “critical race theory,” but was, in reality, the complex history of race and racism in the United States.§1 271 measures against critical race theory instruction have been adopted in the United States.§2 Among those was the HB7 bill signed into law by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, which bans teachers at all levels from teaching critical race theory.

Many of these acts were passed in the name of protecting children. But wouldn’t it be better if we age-appropriately taught our children about our mistakes in the hope that they don’t repeat them? 

You can’t understand the issues of today without the complete history of yesterday. So, who benefits from avoiding this piece of the past? Who benefits from others not learning that there is something to repair?

Only those who do not want the atrocities committed exposed or want to avoid accountability.

Even without the bans, I believe that most Americans do not comprehend the inhuman and injurious impact of mass enslavement. Formal education generally offers limited information about slavery and its legacy. Florida’s new state history standards included the claim that African Americans benefited from slavery because they learned useful skills as a result.§3

Here is an incredibly succinct offering: 12.5 million Africans--children, women, and men—were taken against their will, shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to the “New World” in squalid conditions; chained and bound in the bowels of ships in the dark left to imagine what horrors the future held. Nearly two million never made it, dying along the Middle Passage. While most of the captives disembarked in South America and the Caribbean, roughly 388,000 were brought directly to North America.§4 These prisoners were sold into chattel slavery, denied their humanity, and had nothing to protect them.

For nearly 250 years our government allowed this to take place. In 1865, slavery within the U.S. and its territories was abolished (except as a punishment for those convicted of a crime). The enslaved who helped build this country both literally and with the wealth that their unpaid labor generated were freed.

Although the role that the enslaved played in their own liberation is often disregarded, they were not simply granted freedom. Enslaved people engaged in a range of resistance, from subtly organized work slow-downs to running away and violent armed revolts. Black abolitionists were central to the movement’s success and by the end of the Civil War, roughly 198,000 Black men served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and Navy. Nearly 40,000 Black soldiers died over the course of the war.§5 Many enslaved Blacks helped by nursing Union soldiers and directing them to provisions.

When this information is buried, it perpetuates the narrative of the enslaved as compliant, weak, and indebted to White saviors.

While the end of state-sanctioned chattel enslavement is celebration-worthy; the unfortunate truth is that the enslaved were released into more oppression and brutality with the Reconstruction, Nadir, and Jim Crow Eras. Today, Black people face shorter life expectancy rates, higher poverty, disease, and maternal mortality rates, huge wealth gaps, grossly disproportionate imprisonment rates, multigenerational epigenetic trauma, and cultural disparagement.

Historical injustices cast a long shadow. Their effects can linger long after the perpetrators and their victims are dead. They are the root cause of many existing inequalities, and there is a moral responsibility, a historical obligation, for repair. 

As Jenna Thompson states in Taking Responsibility for the Past: Reparation and Historical Justice, "…a moral responsibility [is] incurred by individuals as citizens, owners or executives of corporations, or members of some other transgenerational association or community, as the result of the commitments or actions of their predecessors. Past actions are connected to present responsibilities by means of a moral argument.”

Understandably, many would see the federal recognition of Juneteenth as a symbolic gesture to assuage the anguish expressed by the Black Lives Matter uprisings. This is particularly so when the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, which has been introduced at every congressional session since 1989, has only cleared committee once, in 2021.

Grassroots groups and the United Nations have been calling for reparations not only for the violence of enslavement but also for current racial discrimination. People get stuck on the logistics of it, but reparations are not a new form of truth and reconciliation, even in the United States.

The United States paid Japanese families who were interned during World War II and even paid reparations to slave owners for the emancipation of their slaves during the Civil War. The U.S. has given reparation for situations in which they did not inflict harm like for families who lost loved ones during the September 11th attacks, and to Americans held hostage in Iran. 

So, why is it that Black Americans haven’t been compensated for centuries of slavery followed by decades of segregation?

I think of Juneteenth as having left its original home as a day of remembrance and celebration amongst the formerly enslaved and their descendants. I want to call it back and pin a note to its collar asking all others who find it lost in a celebratory crowd to return it to a place of justice. Our collective freedom is dependent on creating a shared interpretation of the past and reparation of it; doing so also looks to the future. 

How else can we reconcile, heal, and demonstrate a resolve to act more justly in the future? 

The cookout can happen after that and, when it does, I’ll bring the potato salad.

Nora Gaines is an instructor in Illinois Humanities’ Odyssey Project. She designs and facilitates antiracism workshops and is an Adjunct Professor of Africana Studies in Chicago. She has also spent over a decade working in Organizing and Public Policy. She holds an M.A. in African American Studies specializing in social justice from Columbia University and a B.A. in Sociology specializing in stratification and inequality from the University of Maryland. 

A committed practitioner of work-life balance, Nora enjoys dinner parties and getting lost in fiction novels as well as on the streets of distant neighborhoods.

Nora Gaines
  • §1 Derecka Purnell, ‘America has a history of banning Black studies. We can learn from that past’, theguardian.com, February 14, 2023
  • §2 Alicia Hawkins, ‘Lawmakers introduced 563 measures against critical race theory in 2021 and 2022’, newsroom.ucla.edu, April 6, 2023
  • §3 Andrew Atterbury, ‘Florida sticks by social studies standard teaching ‘benefit’ of slavery’, politico.com, May 29, 2024)
  • §4 Henry Louis Gates, Jr. ‘100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: How Many Slaves Landed in the U.S.?’, pbs.org, (Originally posted on The Root
  • §5 Black Soldiers in the U.S. Military During the Civil War’, archives.gov