Gov. Ralph Northam, joined by singer Pharrell Williams, right, and other guests, announced Wednesday that he intends to mark Juneteenth as a permanent paid state holiday, starting by giving state employees a day off today. 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)

By Kai’eshia Cole

Growing up, I recall being struck by the great Frederick Douglass’ response to the Declaration of Independence and the 4th of July:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence.” 

His words still ring true today as we celebrate Juneteenth, a celebration of the day the remaining slaves in America were set free — some two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Juneteenth is unique on the American calendar, as people of the African Diaspora have been left out of so many defining moments of “freedom.” Juneteenth claims freedom on our terms. As the day regains urgency this year, we must reflect on its meaning — its power for the Black community and what we mean to the world, as well as the limitless strength our people have maintained through the worst periods of history.

I first learned about Juneteenth when I was 14 years old, and it accompanied my identity as a Black woman for the rest of my life. It bothered me that I, a lover of history, had known nothing about our celebratory day. I always desired to know how such strong people came into positions as leaders and equal beings, after being enslaved for so long. To learn about slavery but not learn about our real independence — independence that took place so long after the date suggested by conventional knowledge — struck something in my heart.

Inspired by Douglass’ words, I began to wonder what American freedom had to do with our own. In every conversation that I’d had about slavery, I could not find a clear or convincing response. 

Learning about Juneteenth helped me find my answer — or perhaps create my own. But there are many young Black students who haven’t. At this point, it is devastating that so many Black people do not know about Juneteenth. Yet we celebrate it exactly because of that knowledge gap.

Because America’s traditional celebrations of independence and society’s idea of freedom don’t consider the freedom of African people — those celebrations remain separate and apart from the history of our own liberation. 

Juneteenth still matters 155 years later because it reminds us how often we had to fight for our existence and adjust to injustice on our own. That same pride that our ancestors held during the very first Juneteenth, is the pride that gives us the power to speak out against the wrongdoings of this nation. Juneteenth is being unapologetically oneself — celebrating our freedom — whilst carrying the values of great leaders such as Shirley Chisholm, Strome DeLarverie, Marsha P. Johnson,  Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and Jesse Jackson. 

In the year 2020, Juneteenth has painfully regained its importance — and grown in prominence — as we face a system that is still not here for us, a pandemic that affects our community at the highest rate, and a trend of unconscionable violence against our community. With the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Toni McDade, Dion Johnson, Robert Fuller, Rayshard Brooks, and so many other unnamed Black people, we are reminded of the harsh events that our ancestors had to overcome. We are taught to understand what we mean to ourselves and the capability that we hold alone, but also unified. 

This year, Juneteenth will highlight the loss of the American core and the monumental force within our community, which we have rebuilt in such a short amount of time. If there is anything that we all need to recognize during these powerful protests and our celebration of Juneteenth, we need to acknowledge the successful reclaiming of our power as a whole. Blacks in the United States are telling the world that we are not fighting for any form of supremacy, but simply the opportunity to own our existence without disruption.

That is what Juneteenth should symbolize for us all. 

Kai’eshia Cole is an HBCU organizer with NextGen Virginia, where she works to register and engage young voters in the political process. She lives in Norfolk.