Last year Juneteenth came to Berlin, Germany.
On June 19, around 100 people gathered at Bethanien – a former hospital in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district which, since the 1970s, has served as a hub for artists and a platform for presenting contemporary art – to commemorate the emancipation of African-American slaves. Considering Bethanien’s long history as a hub of progressive politics, this was an appropriate place for people to celebrate the liberation of black Americans.
Hosted by an African-American woman living in Berlin, the one-day celebration consisted of singing hymns, reading poetry and even dragging. Although our bodies were shaking from the cold weather and the rains that fell intermittently throughout the day, our minds were warm from the outpouring of love.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but this was the first June 15th celebration I had ever attended. I had never attended such an event before moving from the United States to Berlin. Although this scruples are not only mine to bear.
Growing up in Florida, I didn’t hear about Juneteenth in school. I was also not taught as complete a history of slavery as I would have liked. Most of what I know about black American history I have learned outside of the school system. I was naturally curious and already felt the weight of being a black woman in America, so I trained in radical anti-racism with the help and guidance of black librarians in my neighborhood library and my elders. I learned as much as I could about slavery, racism and black resistance. I learned about the Haitian Revolution and how my ancestors fought against movable slavery and French tutelage. I have heard of Bayard Rustin, an African American gay man who worked to assert the presence of gay men in the civil rights movement and shaped the activism of Martin Luther King. But still, I knew relatively little about Juneteenth and its significance.
Juneteenth, a mix of June and 19th, commemorates the abolition of slavery by the United States under President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, belatedly announced by a Union Army general in Galveston, Texas, June 19, 1865.
Also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, and Liberation Day, June 10th has been celebrated annually for over a century. Many African Americans, especially Texans, have long celebrated the day by holding rallies, parades and picnics, reading, reciting poetry, and simply rejoicing at their release. African-American professor Brittney Cooper recently wrote about her first vacation experiences in an essay titled Is Juneteenth for Everyone? “Juneteen, for me, has always been just a fact of life, something that I remembered before I knew I was doing it,” she wrote. “I remember learning his name from a book when I was young, then realizing that the random parade my mom often took me to on our local HBCU campus each summer was always around the weekend of June 17. “
Texas officially made Juneteenth a public holiday in 1980, and 46 other states and the District of Columbia followed suit. But in many states, like my native Florida, Juneteenth has only recently gained attention.
The brutal police murder on May 25, 2020, of George Floyd, an unarmed African-American man, sparked widespread protests and a wave of racial judgment across the United States. This led to Juneteenth being in the national spotlight and led to increasing calls for it to become a federal holiday. Earlier this week, President Joe Biden responded to those calls and signed a law making June 19 a national holiday.
This past year of racial reckoning, of course, hasn’t just seen Juneteenth gain widespread attention and become a federal holiday. It has also led many academics and activists to start discussing how history is taught and viewed in the United States.
People began to vocally demand an end to the whitewashing of American history and the offhand celebration of racists in the country. Statues of slavers, segregationists and colonialists were taken down. Recently, the American Board of Geographical Names voted to remove the word “Negro” from about 20 geographic locations in Texas. Not only were these names highly inappropriate and offensive to black people, but they were also a testament to how racism is still etched in the Texas landscape, and more broadly in the United States.
Since Floyd’s murder and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, there have also been more and more calls for black American history to be seen, discussed and honored in its entirety. Activists not only demand that the nation as a whole recognize the legacy of slavery and the psychological, material and physical damage that systemic racism still inflicts on black Americans, but also want the country to take responsibility for the systemic dispossession. black Americans since 1619, the year the first enslaved African arrived in the colony of Virginia.
Indeed, if we look at Texas, we see that black history in the state is by no means limited to slavery. For example, Aleshia Anderson, a human resources worker born in Lockhart, Texas, can trace her paternal line to St John’s Colony, a community built by freed slaves in the early 1870s. “He didn’t win. wealth of wealth like Black Wall Street, but a lot of us are still proud of this area, ”she told me.
Blacks have always been an integral part of Texas history. Not only did enslaved black people literally build the state – clearing forests, harvesting crops, and building houses – but they remained a crucial part of social, political, economic, and artistic life after emancipation. Despite countless obstacles faced by blacks in America, they built, they created, they persevered, and that’s to be celebrated.
Today we are at a critical juncture in the United States. The demands for racial equality and justice are growing every day. The road to true racial justice, however, is still strewn with obstacles. And it is only by looking at and truly understanding the story that we can build a better future for everyone.
As Annette Gordon-Reed wrote in her book On Juneteenth, “History is about people and events in a particular setting and context, and how those things have changed over time in ways that make the past different. of our own time, with an understanding that these changes were not inevitable.
If we look at history soberly, leaving behind the prejudices engraved in us by systemic racism, we can clearly see the steps we need to take to achieve true equality and racial calculation in America – reparations, restitution for the oppressed. .
Juneteenth alone will not improve racial inequalities in the United States. Nonetheless, this holiday provides an opportunity for Americans to look at history from the perspective of the oppressed (rather than the oppressor), to celebrate the achievements of black Americans, and to recognize the suffering of black Americans.
Far too little has been done to undo the damage caused by slavery and the centuries of systemic racism inflicted on black Americans. Even less was done to exult at how black people have thrived against such a brutal system. This is why Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating emancipation, is not only important but highly necessary.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.