Words of Emancipation didn’t arrive until the middle of June, so they called it Juneteenth. So that was it, the night of Juneteenth celebration, his mind went on. The celebration of a gaudy illusion.”
― Ralph Ellison, Juneteenth
Black communities around the country will be celebrating Juneteenth again this year, a holiday marking June 19, 1865, the day Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation that had abolished slavery more than two years before. Juneteenth is now recognized as a federal holiday.
As we mark the joy of what Black communities across America have called Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, Liberation Day, and Jubilee Day, two truths must be told, and a question must be asked.
The first is a historical truth.
Neither Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 nor General Gordon Granger’s reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, freed the enslaved Africans in America. It was enslaved Africans and so-called “free Negroes” who answered the call of Frederick Douglass and picked up arms to engage courageously and successfully in armed struggle against enslavers and the Confederate Army.
In his 1935 essay The Propaganda of History, W.E.B. DuBois reminds us that the Black community’s willingness to fight and die ensured our freedom. “The North was ashamed because it had to call in Black men to save the Union, abolish slavery, and establish democracy. The decisive action which ended the Civil War was the emancipation and arming of the Black slave.” He quotes Abraham Lincoln: “Without the military help of Black freedmen, the war against the South could not have been won.” It was a reality made possible by Gabriel Prosser’s plans for insurrection, Denmark Vessey’s plans for insurrection, Nat Turner’s insurrection, and Harriet Tubman’s radicalizing of the Underground Railroad.
The second is the truth of our reality.
Last year’s celebration, this year’s celebration, and future celebrations of Juneteenth will continue to exist in an enduring 300-year-old American paradox: Black America fights for full inclusion in the American democratic project, America wakes up to the fact that the full inclusion of Black America is incomplete, then promptly gets tired of this fact.
The end of slavery didn’t suddenly bring rapid social and economic fairness to Black communities. The Emancipation Proclamation stated that “no one should do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” Yet America’s systemic racism and discrimination were born out of the need for things like the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the 14th Amendment, the 15th Amendment, the Naturalization Act of 1870, the Civil Rights Act of 1871, the Civil Rights Act of 1960, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 among others have persisted. This has created barriers to employment, housing, and education that have cumulated into the massive disparities in America now being disproportionately carried by Black, Latinx, Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, and rural communities through a widening wealth gap, income inequality, and persistent poverty.
Many BIack children have been raised on this reality check, taught by parents from the rural South and the industrialized North and Midwest who learned not to expect much from America. Imparting a hard fact of life for Black Americans, captured by James Baldwin’s “wise desire not to be betrayed by too much hoping” rule from Notes of a Native Son—America has a deep capacity for change but a shallow desire for it.
All of this begs the question.
How long will America continue to gaslight the Black community?
Since 1865, Black people have been gaslighted. America has gripped the chains of oppression and then pretended its hands were empty. Since 1865, enduring national change has proven to be Ralph Ellison’s “gaudy illusion.” Juneteenth being more illustrative of the enduring hope of the Black community than an observance of Black emancipation.
Just two years ago, the nation watched a Black man, George Floyd, slowly die under the knee of an indifferent White Minneapolis police officer. Corporations, media conglomerates, foundations, and government institutions admitted their complicity in systemic racism. The country reconsidered policing, an institution born to protect the slave system rather than the American people. And America rained with chants of “Black Lives Matter.”
America seemed ready to trade its checkered past for an optimistic future.
Two years later, the day’s issues have overtaken the call for justice. Support for Black Lives Matter has diminished to levels not seen before 2020. Neither reform nor protection is high on the federal, state, or local legislative agenda. And the push for a return to “normalcy” has become the nation’s collective mantra.
As we get ready to celebrate another Juneteenth, instead of engaging in the American performance tradition of staging democracy, Urban Habitat has made a conscious choice not to contribute to the American habit of taking every opportunity to disappoint its Black and Brown citizens. We will continue to push ourselves not to accept that the promise of Juneteenth—transformative change—is just an illusion.