Special to The Milwaukee Times
By Jacquelyn D. Heath
It took 402 years, but Americans of African descent finally have received their formal, long-overdue invitation to participate in the sociopolitical experiment that is the United States and what it allegedly represents. Since 1619, when the first Africans were brought to North America as other people’s property, Black people at last have a day that pays tribute to all they have been, all that they are, and all that they can, will and should be to this country.
On the afternoon of Thursday, June 17, 2021, Joseph Biden, the 46th President of the United States of America, signed into law a bill to make June 19 the country’s 12th federal holiday, to be officially known as Juneteenth National Independence Day, or simply Juneteenth. The holiday marks the date in 1865 when Union troops under Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, TX to officially bring the news of the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of Black people from bondage. Never mind that this freedom had been on the books for more than two years, via the Emancipation Proclamation, and was well on its way to being ratified into the U.S. Constitution as the 13th Amendment, which passed and became official on December 31, 1865.
The road to last Thursday’s momentous triumph has been a perilous one paved with pain, pride and possibility.
The original pain of slavery is something that African Americans have carried with them through the generations. It’s the equivalent of being deemed guilty of a crime we as a people did not commit. For us, the so-called great foundational documents of our nation – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – heralded the promise of equality, liberty and justice for all people in theory. For Black people, that promise always came with an asterisk of exclusion that was legally and socially nurtured and preserved through legislated and de facto segregation, and discrimination with tools such as Jim Crow laws, the Ku Klux Klan and other institutionalized persecution and violence.
Despite the pain of slavery, Africans in America struggled to hang onto some vestiges of culture and pride. The fact is, no one can deny that we have continued to rise against the odds and the ordinances designed to hold us back and “keep us in our place.” In every aspect of human endeavor – be it science, education, music, sports, politics, the arts, or anything else of value – African American genius and Black excellence could not be denied. In fact, it was so jealously admired that it has been appropriated and adapted by other people, regardless of their failure to give due credit to “the source of the cool” they try to emulate. As a people, we as Blacks need to learn to feel comfortable with and confident in our own genius and cut ourselves some slack.
Building on a foundation of pain and pride, Juneteenth recognizes the possibility the future can hold – not just for African Americans but for all people. Imagine a society where every thought, word and deed is not liberally seasoned with racism, bigotry and inequality, and where all people can bask in the light of freedom, as the Creator envisioned. That is the basis of the American Dream, something that is now achievable for all people, if we just allow ourselves and others to do so.
Happy Juneteenth, everyone.