This year is the first year Juneteenth will be celebrated as a federal holiday. Undoubtedly, this is a significant milestone in the history of Black folks in America.
Although Juneteenth is intended as a celebratory movement, it will be an empty celebration unless it is made concrete in the struggles African Americans continue to endure at this very moment and place in history.
It will be a holiday without meaning unless Juneteenth is understood as the beginning of the conversation and not the end.
Juneteenth is best understood as an ongoing national conversation about what it means to be free.
In his 1901 autobiography, Up From Slavery, civil rights pioneer, Booker T. Washington, tells of his childhood growing up on a tobacco plantation in Virginia. Washington was a young child when word of the Emancipation Proclamation reached his family at the end of the Civil War. One story is particularly compelling because it provides glimpse into the how the formerly enslaved understood the Emancipation Proclamation:
“As the great day drew nearer, there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night. Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom. True, they had sung those same verses before, but they had been careful to explain that the ‘freedom’ in these songs referred to the next world, and had no connection with life in this world. Now they gradually threw off the mask, and were not afraid to let it be known that the ‘freedom’ in their songs meant freedom of the body in this world.”
Unfortunately, the Emancipation Proclamation did not answer this fundamental question of what it means to be a free person in a democratic society. This is the question that has most vexed Black folks. At a very minimum, freedom means freedom over our own bodies “in this world.” Control over their own bodies was important to the formerly enslaved because up until then every aspect of their daily existence was controlled by their former enslavers. The logic was simple and compelling. If you do not have control over your body, then you are not free.
Juneteenth is a reminder of the struggle to be free and the compulsion, as Audre Lorde wrote, to “define myself for myself” or otherwise “be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
Black folks have a long history of fighting to protect our personhood as part and parcel of our struggle for self-determination. Control over your personhood and identity can be as simple as controlling something as simple as how people name you.
There is a tendency for a certain generation to want to use the diminutive of my name by calling me Terry. These folks typically don’t ask my permission but assume the prerogative of naming me in a manner which makes them comfortable. These same folks are often shocked when they receive a stern rebuke from me. For me, this is part of the process of defining myself for myself.
During the George Floyd protest of 2022, I couldn’t help but recognize the similarities between the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. One of the most jarring images from the Memphis strike were signs held by the workers, which read “I AM A MAN.” Although the strike was nominally over wages and working conditions, it was rooted in something much deeper. Those Black workers were demanding white society recognize their humanity. They understood that recognition necessarily meant their bodies were free and with that they were full participants in democracy.
The George Floyd as well as the protests for every Black person whose name has become a hashtag are rooted in the same demand. A demand for respect for our free Black bodies and by extension an acknowledgment of our inherent dignity as humans.
These same principles apply to the right of women to exercise self-determination over their bodies; the freedom of religion and freedom from religion; and the freedom from undue government influence over our lives.
The story of the significance of Juneteenth could easily be the story of African American songwriter Albert A. Goodson. Goodson wrote “We’ve Come this Far by Faith” after coming out of a period of great despair. This song has become one of the most popular in the Black church because it reminds us that even in our dark places God provides.
I vividly remember the church deacons standing in front of the congregation singing in their deep raspy voices “Don’t be discouraged when troubles come your way. He’ll bear all your burdens…” They continued singing the verses until they reached the deliverance promised by the chorus:
We have come this far by faith,
Leaning on the Lord,
Trusting in His holy Word,
He’s never failed us –yet.
Singin’ oh, oh, oh, can’t turn a-round,
We’ve come this far by faith.
Juneteenth is a celebration of the promise of deliverance made real by the Emancipation Proclamation. But, perhaps more importantly, Juneteenth represents our marching orders to never turn back from the fight for freedom. That we can’t turn back because we’ve come this far by faith.
Terrance Carroll is a former speaker of the Colorado House. The first and only African American to ever hold that position in Colorado. He is a Baptist preacher, attorney, and police officer. He is on Twitter @speakercarroll
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