Juneteenth “Emancipation Day”

By Guesnerth Josue Perea

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer” Zora Neale Hurston

Last year, as the pandemic was ravaging through vulnerable populations and justice was demanded, the many people who died and suffered at the hands of police violence started to question honoring and celebrating Blackness and people of African descent more holistically. The call of many people throughout the United States was to acknowledge Black History throughout the year, not to only highlight important tidbits of African American history during Black History Month but rather to make an effort to understand Blackness more completely. To acknowledge, appreciate and recognize the contributions of People of African Descent, whether from the United States or abroad, throughout the entire calendar year. Attention immediately went to Juneteenth, the commemoration of the emancipation of enslaved Africans, which occurred on June 19, 1865, in the state of Texas, two and a half years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Juneteenth just became a Federal holiday, ratified into law by the Senate and the President on June 17, 2021. For AfroLatin@s in the United States, honoring and observing Juneteenth is not new. AfroLatin@s in Texas and throughout the United States have always observed Juneteenth because it is an important reminder of the freedom of slavery. Interestingly, Juneteenth, called Dia de Los Negros in some Black Mexican communities, is recognized and celebrated annually in northern Mexico by a community of Mascogos, Black Seminoles.[1] 

For African Americans, and all people of African Descent, the commemoration of this date is essential. Not because it was the first of its kind (it was not, technically the U.S. was one of the last countries to “abolish”[2] slavery, Haiti was the first nation in the world to abolish Slavery in 1804)[3], nor is it important because it happened in June (there isn’t any specific intentionality of the June date, it was simply the time it took for the Union troops to arrive to Texas); it is important because it symbolizes what many people hope that the United States, and all other nations, can become. Juneteenth is important for all people of African descent because in a world that continues to deny Blackness and problematize and otherize Black bodies, it is a reminder that there are people who believe in freedom and equality for all. It symbolizes that even if it takes years for us to see a glimmer of hope in the struggle for equality, there will be a time when that hope will be realized. It is a reminder of the words of Zora Neale Hurston that there are years that ask questions, years that make us ask, ‘why has it taken this long?’ ‘why are we not where we should be yet?’ ‘Why did we lose another beautiful Black body?’. And yet some years will give us answers, years that will provide us with justice, years that will help us gain freedom even after years that did not. 

James Baldwin specifically highlighted this problem of having to hold the present nature of the U.S. while waiting for it to be better.  In The Fire Next Time, which begins with a letter he sent to his nephew 100 years after the emancipation of slavery in the U.S.:

“Those innocents who believe that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these [white Americans] are your [siblings], your lost, younger [siblings]. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our [siblings] to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great [people] have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free.”

And so, on this 156th commemoration of the emancipation, as we consider the meaning of Juneteenth and what it signifies, we should pause for a moment. We should think of how we can love ourselves and others in a way that starts to change reality, changing the narrative of hate, injustice, or othering into one of love and unity.  Together with others, we can make America, the United States and the entire continent, what America must become, a place where all people are free. We are not there yet, but maybe this is the year that can begin to answer that call.

[1]  For more information, read: https://www.texasmonthly.com/being-texan/mexican-village-juneteenth-celebration/

[2] We use the term abolish when discussing the Emancipation Proclamation with care. Involuntary servitude was not officially made illegal until 1865, when the 13th amendment was ratified. However, one can argue that the language of the 13th amendment allows for involuntary servitude if someone commits a crime. Hence why African Americans, and other people of African Descent are imprisoned at a higher rate than any other population.

[3] Haiti was the first nation in the world to abolish Slavery in 1804, Denmark-Norway was the first European nation to ban the African slave trade in 1807. In Latin America, Chile abolished slavery in 1823, Mexico in 1829, Slavery was abolished in Uruguay in 1842, Colombia abolished slavery in 1851, Argentina in 1853, Peru abolished slavery in 1854.

Guesnerth Josue Perea is a teaching Pastor at Metro Hope Covenant Church, and Director of the afrolatin@ forum, a non-profit that raises awareness of Latin@s of African descent in the United States.   

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