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Why we need Juneteenth

Today is Juneteenth. | Pexels

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James McKissic is the President of ArtsBuild, an artist, and he wants to share why Juneteenth is an essential part of  American history + culture.

Lucy, Wilson, Sarah, Mary . . . Sometimes I think of my enslaved ancestors, the ones whose names I know, and wonder what it felt like for them to awaken one day and be free? Did they look at their brown hands and feet and feel in their souls that, now, their bodies, their minds were their own. Did they take a deep breath and let freedom fill their lungs? Did they fold up their quilts and blankets and go into the fields, kitchens, and trades shops wondering what the future held? Did they just walk away, leaving the places of their trauma, brutality, physical and sexual violence, and subjugation behind? Did they snuff out their candles that night and dream of a tomorrow with more agency and pride? Did their shoulders slump in sadness as they thought of the ancestors who did not live to see the day? Did they think about the generations to come and lift their hands to the sky in reverence for a future that was different from the past? What did they do? What do you think your ancestors did on that day?

Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. On June 19th 1865, Union soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the Civil War had ended and that the enslaved had been freed. Those who know history will recognize that this was two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation – which became official January 1, 1863. Let it sink in . . . for two and a half years, legally free people in Texas continued to toil in slavery, intentionally uninformed of their freedom. June 19th (Juneteenth) commemorates that day, the day when all Americans finally became freeon paper

I didn’t grow up celebrating Juneteenth; my first experiences of public celebrations of the holiday were in Connecticut in the early 2000s. Commemorations of Juneteenth continue to expand across our country, and that is a good thing. In fact, for years people have been advocating to make Juneteenth a national holiday.

I celebrate Juneteenth for myself, for my family and friends, and my ancestors. Eight generations of my family have called Tennessee home, and every beating heart in those eight generations has had to craft a life of resistance. Since enslaved Africans first stepped foot on our sandy shores – every inhale, exhale, joy, ache, dance, step, stumble, birth and death has been done in resistance. We need Juneteenth. I need Juneteenth. My ancestors live on in me and it is important to pass our history and traditions on to the next generations – that is why I celebrate Juneteenth. We need the repose and the reset.

We need the Juneteenth banners and yard signs, parades, pageants, cookouts, fellowship, the proud public displays and the private places and spaces of introspection. We need the blank stares of “what are they celebrating?” We need the questions, “What is Juneteenth?” We need the white, the blue, the red, the green, the black flags and bunting, the speeches, and essay contests. We need the little black girls in tiaras and black cowboys and cowgirls at the rodeos, the seed sharing, and the story telling. We need the poems, the paintings, the strutters, steppers, the electric slide, and the moments at the foot of an elder. We need the shea buttered skin glistening in the unforgivable June sun, the red velvet cake, the plaits, cornrows, bows, and sticky strawberry soda. The drumline. The laughter. The smiles. The tears. We need the respite that infuses us with the energy to continue on.

We need Juneteenth, and we invite everyone to join in! Just as we commemorate the day that we boldly declared our freedom from our English colonizers, we must also commemorate the day that our country finally loosened the chains of all the people we enslaved. I believe we continue to repeat history because we don’t know it. This creates a vacuum which we fill with boasts and mythology, leaving little room to grapple with our past. We must commemorate Juneteenth because it serves as a reminder of America’s promise, celebrates how we got over, and, each year, is a milepost indicating how far we still have to go.