While we are currently grieving the murders of George Floyd (Minneapolis), Amaud Arbery (Georgia), and Breonna Taylor (Kentucky) by police officers, it’s hard to imagine that Black Americans live in a country where they have freedom. Every year on Independence Day, thousands of Americans--domestic and abroad--celebrate freedom and what it means to be an American. It is strange, is it not? American citizens revel each year on the anniversary of the 13 colonies gaining their independence from England when 13% of the current U.S. population wouldn’t have freedom on that day in 1776. It wasn’t until 1865, more than 100 years later, that Black Americans got something they could call freedom.
How do you feel when you look at the American flag? What do you think of? I can’t speak for the Black community at large because I am only one person, but for me existing in a Black body (maybe it’s because our ancestors were forced to be on this land or maybe because we are targeted to be murdered by police officers), every year on Independence Day I feel disconnected, unseen, and ashamed to celebrate because I know that it’s not a celebration meant for me or other Black bodies. After all, Black Americans were not free after the American Revolution. It wasn’t until after another revolution, the Civil War, that Black Americans received something resembling freedom. That date is June 19th.
Juneteenth, aka Freedom Day, is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. It wasn’t until two and a half years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring, “that all persons held as slaves”, within the rebellious states, “are, and henceforward shall be free,” that release from slavery was enforced.
Whether Americans are aware of this day or not, June 19th 1865 was an important turning point for the country and the world. Unlike Independence Day, Juneteenth is a day to celebrate freedom for all Americans. Independence Day is inherently not targeted toward Black Americans because nothing changed for that group after the American Revolution; despite them fighting side-by-side with other races, they were still enslaved for a couple hundred more years.
In modern times, Juneteenth is recognized by many institutions like the Smithsonian and the Henry Ford Museum, all with the mission of cultivating the knowledge and appreciation of Black American culture and history. As this national holiday continues to become more widely claimed by all Americans, the sense of national pride and inclusivity of everyone, especially Black Americans who were not allowed to be included for hundreds of years, grows.
We are six months through 2020 and America is once again shaken by Black citizens being constant targets of police racism, excessive use of force, and murder. White Americans will never know the experience of what it’s like to stare at an American flag from a Black body. As someone who lives inside a Black body, I feel a disconnect of a place that doesn’t feel quite like mine. I felt that way until I witnessed the African American flag and for the first time, I felt a sense of understanding of perhaps what white Americans feel when they see the red, white, and blue flag. To me, celebrating Juneteenth feels like celebrating an America that was built for me.
So, I implore you to celebrate! Party! Be free! But how? Well, instead of having your annual summer festivities on July 4th, celebrate on June 19th instead. Bask in community, take time to learn Black history as it pertains to this day, and take time to mourn the murders of Amaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the countless other Americans we’ve lost unfairly due to racism. #SayTheirNames #BlackLivesMatter #FreedomDay