Juneteenth: Celebrate by committing to a more just society

June 17, 2020 12:01 am

Gov. Ralph Northam announced that he intends to mark Juneteenth as a permanent paid state holiday, starting by giving state employees a day off this Friday. Virginia has long marked Juneteenth by issuing a proclamation, but the date has not previously been considered a state holiday. (Gov. Ralph Northam’s office)

Official word of their freedom came late to enslaved African Americans in Texas who first heard it confirmed by Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865 — a full two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was made official on Jan. 1, 1863.

Juneteenth — a conflation of the words “June and 19th” — has become emblematic of the dismantling of the system of slavery in the United States.

It is acknowledged as such with varying degrees of success and fanfare by the 47 states who have recognized it as either a state or ceremonial holiday. On Wednesday, Gov. Ralph Northam announced his intention to make it a permanent paid state holiday.

Participation varies widely across the country, with the most vibrant events happening in pockets of usually local or regional festivities ranging from street fairs and soul food to lectures, plays and jamborees. Without a doubt, a great deal more can and should be done at the national level (attempts at national recognition have thus far been unsuccessful) and by states and localities alike to celebrate this important day — a day generally accepted to be the oldest celebrated commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States.

And yet, celebration is not enough. This has become patently clear to me, a White woman who is the parent of a young child who is a person of color, a brown-skinned girl growing up in the multi-ethnic town of Fredericksburg — a girl who strongly identifies with her Black friends. An eight-year-old who stood in our bathroom as I brushed out her hair and who asked me these three questions in rapid succession – questions I had not even realized were in her scope of awareness:

  • Why did the other police officers standing by George Floyd not help him – was it because he was Black?
  • Why did no other bystanders help George Floyd – was it because he was Black?
  • Will this happen to me, because I am seen as a person of color?

I can’t pretend to understand how she sees the world as a brown-skinned person. But I do know something about how she is seen and perceived by others and also through her own eyes. And it is clear to me that she does not feel entirely free; that she does not see herself as living freely; that she feels herself to be constrained by fear — specifically, by fear of prejudice and its implications for her safety.

It is, I think, very obvious — or at least it should be — that freedom is not merely about laws that are on the books.

The law is just a start. It may be necessary, but as our dismal state of inequality and inequity shows, sadly it’s not sufficient. We are kidding ourselves if we think that violent abuse of African Americans and other people of color is some sort of snapshot in time. It is not; it is a continuum of violence perpetuated by those who adhere to system of beliefs that holds essentially anyone who is not White a hostage to ingrained prejudice, structural racism and systemic inequities. Even the words “people of color” refer to anyone who is not White.

And so as we contemplate Juneteenth, perhaps we need to do more than uphold it as a celebration and think of it, equally, as a reason to be agitated — agitated that, despite the 157 years since the Emancipation Proclamation first provided the legal framework for liberation and the 155 years since the 13th amendment was ratified, we as a society are not free.

Some are confined by the chains of their own prejudice, while others are confined by the effect that prejudice has on them. And until we can move beyond this, we will remain rootbound in a state of injustice.

As part of the Juneteenth movement this year, we should agitate for systemic change.

  • A commitment to effective training in racial equity and racial justice for police forces across the United States, and embracing of a culture of diversity and inclusion to enable those forces to become effective as instruments of justice, not instruments of fear;
  • A commitment to effective training in racial equity and racial justice by anyone in any elected leadership position federally, and at the state, regional and local levels; and,
  • The ability to empower our kids towards a more just and equitable society. Effective training in racial equity and racial justice should be a required part of the curriculum for any school, anywhere, as early as possible beginning in K-2 and continuing throughout the life span of the individual’s public or private education.

These of course are not miracle cures – there are thousands of actions to be taken- but are critical, foundational step on a longer road to a more equitable and just society. Let’s make that commitment.

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Rebecca R. Rubin
Rebecca R. Rubin

Rebecca R. Rubin is an environmental consultant and a former member of the Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board.