This and every Juneteenth, we rise.
June 19, 1865, Galveston, Texas. The last of an enslaved people walk for the first time in steps that were free, uninhibited, and directed by their own agency and autonomy. The newly freed former enslaved people were experiencing something that generations before them had not. Freedom and its realization were but a mere stanza in a field song to provide spiritual and physical stamina to make it through the hot day’s toil and the dream deferred, beaten, whipped and snuffed out for the ancestors of these folks taking their first steps of freedom on this day in 1865.
Rarely has our American experiment tried to live out its highest ideals when it comes to African Americans. James Baldwin, in his searing critique of racial life in the United States of America “The Fire Next Time,” states that “The American Negro is a unique creation; he has (they have) no counterparts anywhere and no predecessors.” This uniqueness Baldwin references is directly linked to and strictly flows from our antecedents’ existence here in this country. “The American Negro” has been consistently denied life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, without pause and with extreme brutality. Never once being allowed to fully walk into light of a new morning or over the mountaintop to a promised land. America truly knows no circumstance or situation unconnected to the intentional exclusion of the American Negro.
Juneteenth – the combination of the words June and nineteenth – symbolizes the one time amongst a handful of times in more than 400 years that America has tried to do right by African Americans. Today, we might question whether America was doing right by us yet on June 19, 1865, but one would be hard pressed to tell those newly freed enslaved people that America was not attempting to reconcile its horrific creation of chattel slavery.
I often imagine the optimism felt by those taking those steps about the possibilities of what they could finally make and build with their own hands for their own benefit. I think about the gratitude they must have been overcome with when thinking about the resilience of their mothers and fathers to persist so they could feel free earth for the first time under their foot fall. I imagine trying to find the faces of my direct lineage of ancestors – smiles broad, shoulders squared, eyes squinting in the sun, tears of relief and joy softly running down their cheeks – amongst the masses of those striding to their own cadence in a newly free world. They were free. We now more fully understand the critical rejoinder of “Free to do what!?!”
Despite the uncertainty of what lay ahead, the prevailing forces of white supremacy and the constant threat of white rage, these newly freed enslaved people would make the most of their opportunity for freedom. They went on to build robust economies, communities and institutions to assist with black amelioration and liberation.
One of the most important lessons we can lift up from the celebration of Juneteenth is collective tenacity, resilience and persistence. What is often forgotten about Juneteenth is that our actual freedom was 900 days after the declaration of such freedom. Two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 were we all finally free.
It took time for our highest ideals to be fully acted upon. It took work to make real our convictions. It required collective tenacity, resilience and persistence to vigorously fight, stubbornly survive and doggedly persevere to see our liberation from physical bondage. It will take no less from us today to reach and realize the reality of our highest ideals and convictions for racial justice, racial reform and shared liberation.
The staying power of Black people, “the American Negro,” is unquestioned in the American context. Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” and Ibram X. Kendi’s “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” saliently and soberingly lay out the depth to which America has sought to exclude, dismantle, enslave, and eradicate the descendants of enslaved people brought to these shores from the continent of Africa. Yet we persist. WE RISE. It is with such spirit that I walk into Juneteenth every year and especially this year due to our continued reckoning for racial justice and the exacerbating racial effects of COVID-19 on Black and Brown folks. This Juneteenth and every Juneteenth, I celebrate the collective tenacity, resilience and persistence of African Americans and the Black community.
Juneteenth celebrates our unquestioned staying power. Juneteenth commemorates our ongoing struggle for racial justice. Juneteenth honors the vitality of promoting all things Black!
About the author: Bukata Hayes, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota’s first vice president of racial and health equity, reflects on Juneteenth as a celebration of collective tenacity, resilience and persistence for the Black community.