June 19th is Juneteenth.
On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all enslaved people in the United States. Two and a half years later, on June 19, 1865, Gordon Granger, a Union general, arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved African Americans of their freedom and that the Civil War had ended.
Juneteenth is a day to honor the African-American journey toward equality, to bring awareness to the historical significance of this day, and a time to recognize the African-American achievements and contributions that have shaped the society we know today.
In this article, three Cohesians, Shannon Glasper, Paris Williams, and Barry Johnson, describe the significance of Juneteenth, what it means to them, and why it’s important to discuss—not just today but every day.
Growing up, I knew about Juneteenth and celebrated by going to festivals with my family but in school, Juneteenth wasn’t really being discussed. It was sort of touched on in my fifth-grade class, but the topic of Juneteenth was swept under the rug—it felt almost too taboo to talk about. It wasn’t until I took a class during my freshman year of college on African-American studies, taught by a professor who is still one of my mentors to this day, that I began to actually learn about the significance of Juneteenth—outside the commercialization of the holiday—and why awareness and education are so important when it comes to understanding and celebrating Juneteenth.
When I think about the first Juneteenth in 1865, yes all slaves were freed and that is something to celebrate, but what really sticks out to me is that this also opened up a huge opportunity gap for all of our citizens who were once enslaved. Now supposedly equal and free, no one taught this entire population of people how to be a part of society—an opportunity that the rest of the population gained through the life experience of being accepted. Newly freed African Americans were not taught how to get a job, how to become educated to actually get a job, or how to really live as an equal in this society. An entire population started their journey to equality with limited access to opportunities which you can still see reflected today. This is essential in the understanding of Juneteenth.
To me personally, Juneteenth is about awareness and bridging the gap between African Americans and our allies. Today, there’s no excuse for people not to understand what Juneteenth symbolizes. Juneteenth is about acknowledging our history—which was a really ugly time—not erasing it, or brushing it under the rug. It’s about having the African-American community and our history be authentically seen, heard, understood, and validated.
When it comes to being an ally, if you see something, say something. If it doesn’t sit right with you, act on it. Acknowledgment is everything. Being an ally can be something as simple as saying, “I heard what was said, and I’m sorry you had to hear that too.” The core of being an ally is validation and not minimizing our feelings or presence.
I grew up in San Francisco, California, and I have family in other parts of the Bay Area like East Palo Alto and Oakland, which are primarily Black inner-city neighborhoods. My classmates and teachers were primarily Black—that would be very significant to the way I viewed and navigated through life. In these settings, we learned and celebrated Black history, both the struggles and the accomplishments. I was able to learn about Black history not only in the context of American history but also in the context of what this meant to me personally, being a Black male growing up in America. I’m so grateful for that—I never felt alone because I was surrounded by people like me, who could relate to not only the struggles but also the strengths of the Black experience. This gave me a different sense of pride and understanding of who I was and who we are as a people.
Today, I live in the South Bay where my son and daughter have never had a Black teacher. At most times they are one of the only, if not the only, Black students in their classrooms. I was hurt and felt like I failed as a father last year when they asked what Juneteenth was and why it was an official holiday. At that moment, I realized that they didn’t have the same learning opportunities I had growing up, to be around and learn from people who looked like them, about our culture and history in schools. Now, I’m taking it upon myself to really teach my kids about our history in this country and globally, giving them a much broader view that doesn’t just focus on slavery. We come from so much more.
Juneteenth is not meant to be a commercialized celebration. How do you celebrate centuries of trauma? I lived in a multigenerational household, I heard the stories from my Grandma and her family that lived in Little Rock, Arkansas about the Little Rock Nine, a group of nine Black high school students who had to be personally escorted by the National Guard soldiers and the Army’s 101st Airborne in order to integrate schools. I grew up around our struggles and triumphs, side by side with people who shared and lived these experiences firsthand.
To me, Juneteenth is something for us, the Black community, and those who want to step up and learn about our culture and our roots. It’s our space to listen to black poetry, and Black singers/songwriters (Nina Simone is one of my favorites). It’s a time to read novels by Black authors and learn about Black activists like Sam Cooke—Black contributors outside of the mainstream curriculum in school. During Juneteenth, you might go to a park event with your family and friends, see cultural dancing, eat some good Soul food, and find out about and support Black businesses and artists, but at its core, it’s a space for Black people to participate. We see each other, love each other, come together, and understand that we’re in the same fight. We can reflect on the past and recognize not only how far we’ve come but also how far we still need to go.
I grew up in a military family which allowed me to experience a lot of different people and cultures with each move. I began learning about the background and history of Juneteenth when I started middle school and we touched on it again in high school. I’m glad that Juneteenth was present in the school curriculum. Still, it was really only talked about through an academic lens, looking at the facts and less on education about the cultural significance to Black people in the United States. I remember learning the facts in school and being pretty angry and sad for the slaves in Texas that were informed over two years later that they should be free and equal. So when it comes to actually celebrating Juneteenth, it feels odd to celebrate so much hurt and oppression. So personally, I never physically celebrate Juneteenth by going to a cookout or a festival.
To me, Juneteenth is an opportunity to acknowledge the Black community and bring awareness to our history and culture. The past few generations have made some amazing progress toward equality for the Black people in this country, but there’s still a lot left to be done. This is why I think it’s so important to bring awareness to holidays like Juneteenth or Black History Month. It’s so important to use these moments in time to highlight our culture and our history, while also showcasing Black music, artists, and authors to make our presence and culture well known and appreciated. It’s a chance to spread awareness and spark conversation. They educate others on what has led us to where we are today and allow people to understand each other better. Different celebrations occur, from barbecues to speeches; no matter the event, they provide a connection for people today with the trauma that brought us to where we are today.
To grow, we must continue these conversations beyond designated days on a calendar and incorporate change into daily life. Change takes time and practice, so allies need to continue educating themselves. For allies, continuing to amplify the culture is one of the best ways to ensure that consistent and constant exposure is occurring. Additionally, I wish people would understand the vast spectrum of the black community. We are not a monolith, and understanding people’s different beliefs and experiences creates a greater community.