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A Reflection on Juneteenth

Dear Members of the Emerson Community,

This Friday, Emerson will observe Juneteenth as an official holiday for the first time in the College’s history. Although Juneteenth may be new to some members of the Emerson community, observances in the form of gatherings, celebrations, musical events, and religious services have been taking place in African American communities for a very long time. Against the backdrop of what is now being described as a time of racial reckoning in the United States, Juneteenth has come more fully into the public’s awareness. States, cities, businesses, organizations, and a host of colleges and universities have added Juneteenth to their official holiday calendars. And, yes, that is a good thing.

Yet, I continue to think about all of the historical and present-day complexities surrounding the holiday, especially our understandings of what abolition might truly mean. Juneteenth recognizes the day that the Union Army freed the last group of people in the United States who remained enslaved for two years beyond Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Think about what it means that the U.S. government made slavery illegal in 1863 but it continued in Texas for two more years. What does that reveal about our reliance on government-granted rights to ascribe value to our humanity, especially if those rights can be given, ignored, or taken back? What does it mean to celebrate the abolition of slavery while many continue to fight for the fundamental promises of abolition? Further, how might we think about abolition beyond the release of iron shackles to the transformation of the consciousness that allowed slavery to happen and still permeates our society today?

These questions cause me to ponder what it means for Juneteenth to slowly become mainstream. This year, more companies than ever will observe Juneteenth—Best Buy, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Google, J.C. Penney, J.P. Morgan, Master Card, the NFL, Nike, Target, Twitter, Workday, and many more. Is this a sign of growing commitment to racial justice? Just yesterday, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday. Are these groups and organizations committed to growing their anti-racist practices, or is observance of Juneteenth a symbolic gesture driven by the politics of appearances and devoid of any effort to address the myriad of injustices that affect the lives and well-being of African American and Black communities? These are the questions that weigh on my heart as I also honor the ancestors who fought for freedom.

Today, I wonder how we, at Emerson, might meaningfully observe Juneteenth in light of the long arc of history in which “freedom is a constant struggle.” For me, Juneteenth cannot solely be a time for celebration. It must also serve as an act of resistance. It is my hope that we will all choose to reflect, to learn, and to act in ways that help us to realize true abolition and liberation for African American and Black communities, along with all other communities who are affected by oppression.

Juneteenth Resources: https://websites.emerson.edu/juneteenth-resources

Sylvia Spears
Vice President for Equity and Social Justice

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